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The F-20 Tigershark and Its Ancestors

The Concept

The Northrop F-20 Tigershark’s development began in 1975 as the next phase of the F-5’s development. The F-5 was a big commercial success for Northrop. Northrop hoped it could continue its success in foreign sales with the F-20. Under President Carter the Department of Defense (DoD) began project FX. The project called for private development, with DoD assistance, of a fighter to meet the security needs of friendly nations.[i] When the F-20 made its first flight in August 30, 1982 it represented the final development of an aircraft design that began in 1955.

[i] FAS Military Analysis Network,, last accessed2/20/2018.

The T-38 Talon

In 1955 Northrop began a project based on pilots’ demand for a simpler fighter to fly that was lightweight and had a supersonic in level flight capability. The pilots based their demands on their Korean War experience. Northrop refined the design, some of the refinements were to meet U.S. Navy needs. The U.S. Navy withdrew from the project in June 1956.[i] The U.S. Air Force (USAF) ordered a trainer version of the aircraft. The XT-38 made its first flight on April 10, 1959.

The trainer the USAF ordered was designated the T-38 Talon. The USAF purchased over 1,100 T-38s as supersonic jet trainers. The USAF Thunderbirds flew T-38 Talons from 1974 until 1982[ii]. On January 18, 1982 four Thunderbirds crashed while practicing for the 1982 season[iii]. The USAF canceled the 1982 season and the Thunderbirds converted to F-16s. In January 2014 the USAF had 546 Talons in its inventory. The USAF plans to keep the T-38s in service until 2020.[iv]

[i] Modern Fighters and Attack Aircraft, by Bill Gunston, © 1980 by Salamander Books, Ltd., Page 114.

[ii] USAF Thunderbird History, (, last accessed 2/25/2018.

[iii] All 4 pilots died in the crash; Major Norm Lowry, Captain Pete Peterson, Captain Willie Mays, and Captain Mark E. Melancon.

[iv] USAF Fact Sheet, T-38 Talon, (, current as of 2014, last accessed 2/25/2018.

Modern Fighters and Attack Aircraft by Bill Gunston (c) 1980 by Salamander Books, Ltd.
Federation of American Scientists, Military Analysis Network, (, last accessed 3/13/18.

 F-5 Freedom FighterF-5E Tiger IIF-20 Tigershark


Mach 1.4

Mach 1.6

Mach 2 class

Initial Climb

28,700 feet/minute

31,600 feet/minute

52,800 feet/minute

Combat Ceiling

50,500 feet

54,000 feet

54,700 feet

Ferry Range with external tank

1,387 miles

1,974 miles

1,715 miles

The F-5 Freedom Fighter – F-5E Tiger II

Northrop took a unique gamble of building the F-5 prototype without any orders. The gamble paid off in 1962 when the DoD purchased F-5s in large numbers. The DoD would in turn give or sell at bargain prices F-5s to friendly countries. The F-5A made its first flight on May 19, 1964.[i] Northrop, and other companies under license, built over 1,000 Freedom Fighters.[ii] Over 30 nations have or had F-5s in their military. Some countries resold their F-5s to other nations. Northrop added more powerful engines to the F-5E and made other enhancements. They named the F-5E the Tiger II. The F-5E made its first flight on August 11, 1972.[iii]

Copying the U.S. Navy’s success with Top Gun the USAF created Operation Red Flag. The concept is to use aircraft with similar capabilities to Soviet aircraft and have its pilot use Soviet style tactics to train USAF pilots in dealing with more maneuverable aircraft. The USAF formed an “Aggressor” squadron equipped with F-5s for this task.

The F-5s have seen much combat over the years and are still in combat today. It was probably used most extensively in combat in Vietnam. The USAF and South Vietnamese Air Force used over 100 F-5As and F-5Bs in South Vietnam. The USAF left their F-5s to the South Vietnamese Air Force when U.S. forces left South Vietnam. During the North Vietnamese rout of South Vietnamese forces in 1975 F-5 pilots abandoned their F-5s when their airfield was threatened. On April 8, 1975 South Vietnamese F-5C pilot Nguyen Thanh Trung bombed the South Vietnamese presidential palace then defected to the North Vietnamese. North Vietnam captured 114 F-5As & F-5Es. Vietnam gave an F-5 to the Soviet Union in November 1975. Vietnam used F-5s against Cambodian and Chinese forces.

On July 17, 1977 two Ethiopian F-5s flown by Israeli pilots shot down 4 Somali MiG-21MFs[iv]. When South Yemen attacked North Yemen, the U.S. shipped 12 F-5Es, along with other equipment, to North Yemen. Since no one in North Yemen was qualified to fly the F-5E about 80 Taiwanese pilots flew them for North Yemen.[v] Reportedly they scored some air-air victories.

Iran purchased 169 F-5s and 16 RF-5As. F-5s scored the most air-air victories during the Iran-Iraq war. Yadollah Sharifirad is the only F-5 ace. Iran credited him with 5 air-air victories. Three of these victories, 2 MiG-21s and an Su-22, were from air combat maneuvering. The other two victories, both MiG-21s, were by cannon fire. Iran credited Yadollah Javadpour with an air victory against an Su-20 and a MiG-25. The MiG-25 may have been a case of misidentification. Iran claimed 2 other F-5 victories, an Su-20 and a Mi-8 helicopter, both by cannon fire. The Iraqi Air Force claimed 14 F-5s shot down in air-air combat. Most of their victors were MiG-21s. Iraq credited 4 F-5 victories to MiG-23s.

In Operation Desert Storm coalition aircraft included 53 Saudi Arabian F-5s and 10 RF-5s, and 12 F-5s of the Bahrain Air Force. Iraqi ground fire shot down one Saudi Arabian F-5.[vi]

[i] Modern Fighters and Attack Aircraft, by Bill Gunston, © 1980 by Salamander Books, Ltd., Page 114.

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[ii] Modern Fighters and Attack Aircraft, by Bill Gunston, © 1980 by Salamander Books, Ltd., Page 114.

[iii] Modern Fighters and Attack Aircraft, by Bill Gunston, © 1980 by Salamander Books, Ltd., Page 114.

[iv] Two F-5 missiles shot down 2 MiGs and the other 2 MiGs crashed trying to evade other Air-Air missiles,

[v] Yemen, the United States, and Al-Qaida by Stephen Zunes, December 19, 2001, (, last accessed 3/6/2018.

[vi] Airpower in the Gulf, by James P. Coyne, © 1992 by the Air Force Association.

The F-20 Tigershark

Northrop hoped to continue its F-5 success by making an F-5G. Development began in 1975 with Northrop funding the project. The DoD later funded the project and called it “FX”. The concept was to develop an aircraft capable of countering current Soviet built aircraft. The aircraft wouldn’t have the technology used in U.S. aircraft. This meant a repeat of the South Vietnamese debacle wouldn’t compromise U.S. technology. The aircraft received the designation of the F-20 Tigershark. In the 1970s there was a popular opinion a simple, inexpensive, fighter was almost or just as good as a sophisticated, expensive fighter. The results of Red Flag training missions seemed to give this opinion credence. In test dogfights pitting the aggressor F-5Es against the F-14 Tomcats and F-15 Eagles the more sophisticated and expensive aircraft had a kill to loss ratio between 1.3:1 and 1.4:1.[i]

A problem with the sales concept was creating an obvious caste system of American allies. There were those the U.S. trusted with the same aircraft the U.S. uses and there were those who would get something else. There was a sale to Taiwan but the U.S. canceled the sale because of China’s objection.[ii] When President Ronald Reagan took office the U.S. policy changed so more countries could buy the F-16. Thanks to the Israelis the F-16 was a combat proven fighter-bomber. In the Israeli Operation Peace for Galilee in June 1982 F-16s had a 44-0 kill ratio against Syrian aircraft[iii].

Northrop hired World War II fighter ace and famed test pilot Retired Brigadier General Chuck Yeager as its spokesperson for the F-20 Tigershark. He flew the F-20 and declared it ‘magnificent”[iv]. The 1983 movie “The Right Stuff” popularized Brigadier General Yeager. Northrop built 4 prototype F-20s. The first F-20 prototype crashed on October 10, 1984 during a demonstration flight at Suwon Air Base, Korea. The crash killed Northrop chief test pilot Darrell Cornell. The cause of the crash was pilot incapacitation during a high-g maneuver. In 1985 the DoD didn’t permit the Tigershark to give a flight demonstration at the Andrews AFB Open House. The DoD claim was the Open House was to show current capabilities. The F-20 was only permitted as a static display. This aircraft was to perform at the Paris Air Show. During a practice flight at Goose Bay, Canada on May 14, 1985 this Tigershark crashed. A high-g maneuver incapacitated Northrop test pilot Dave Barnes who died in the crash. Northrop ended the program in 1986 having spent $1 Billion without selling a single F-20.

[i] Arsenal of Democracy by Tom Gervasi and Bob Adelman © 1977.

[ii] F-20 – The Tigershark by John A, Weeks III, (, last accessed 3/10/2018.

[iii] Fighters Over Israel by Lon Nordeen, © 1990.

[iv] Brigadier General Chuck Yeager scored 11.5 air-air victories in World War II. He was shot down and captured on his 8th mission but escaped and resumed flying combat missions. He was the first person to break the sound barrier.

© 2018 Robert Sacchi


Robert Sacchi (author) on April 29, 2018:

Thank you for reading and commenting.

Brad on April 29, 2018:


I believe that.


Robert Sacchi (author) on April 29, 2018:

The B-1B parts database seems a fun job.

At the time the countries whose military budgets could afford it went with the F-15s otherwise they went with the F-16s. The F-16s beat out the F/A-18s on most sales.

Brad on April 29, 2018:


I actually worked at Northrop in the 80s as a computer consultant. I believe it was the last year before they shut it down. As I remember, it was a Northrop funded project, and when Northrop was prevented from selling it to China, no other countries wanted it. They wanted the F15 or the like.

I had a great time while I was there in Hawthorne CA.

I also worked as a consultant for Rockwell on the B1B in three locations in southern California, as well as once a month in the Palmdale facility.

I actually saw the first B1B take off from Palmdale. The Palmdale facility was a Test Facility where 4 B1B could be tested at the same time.

I worked at different facilities of Rockwell with a total of four years.

I even worked on creating the parts database for the B1B.

Another fun job.

Robert Sacchi (author) on April 13, 2018:

The F-5 was a big success from the foreign sales standpoint. Iran under the Shah seemed to buy almost anything we were willing to sell.

Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on April 12, 2018:

This was very interesting. I knew the Iranians had F4s but not the F5.

Robert Sacchi (author) on March 19, 2018:

Yes, it was a good look at the early days of the U.S. space program.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on March 18, 2018:

"The Right Stuff" was an entertaining movie in its day.

Robert Sacchi (author) on March 14, 2018:

Peggy, the movie "The Right Stuff" made Brigadier General Yeager a hot item. He endorsed a number of items. I can see where the F-20 would have fit his personality. Northrop gambled twice before and won big. With the F-20 the went to the well once too often.

Robert Sacchi (author) on March 14, 2018:

Thank you Elijah. I'm glad you found the article interesting.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on March 14, 2018:

Interesting that Brigadier General Chuck Yeager was the spokesperson for the F-20. Building the F-20 at a billion dollar cost certainly did not pay off for the manufacturer if none of them were ever sold.

Elijah A Alexander Jr from Washington DC on March 14, 2018:

I was a 1 & 2 Air Mec during my 5 years 7 days in the Air Force but knew nothing about anything except the trainer. Of course I have not kept up with any fighter after my 5 years so that was an interesting read and makes me want to check out more of your work.

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