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Why Did History Forget the F-20 Tigershark Fighter?

Northrop F-20 (S/N 82-0062) in flight. (U.S. Air Force photo)

History is filled with U.S. military fighter jets that looked good in the testing stages but would not get to serve. The F-20 is a good example of this: a great plane that never made it past the testing stages despite having a good amount of support: As aircraft model hobbyists are aware, Monogram erroneously referred to its 1:48 plastic model kit of the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk as the “Tiger Shark.” That nomenclature gaffe aside, there was an actual fighter plane called the Tigershark, and it wasn’t a WWII prop job, but rather a sleek and supersonic Cold War-era jet fighter. It was the F-20 Tigershark, and no less an iconic aviation authority than Chuck Yeager — yes, the same Chuck Yeager who broke the sound barrier — opined in his bestselling 1986 autobiography that the F-20 was the finest fighter in the world at the time.

With an endorsement like that, the plane seemed destined for greatness, but it ultimately didn’t make the final cut. Let’s now take a look as to why this aerial shark didn’t survive the flying fighter feeding frenzy (so to speak).

Freedom Fightin’ Flyin’ Shark

The F-20 began development in 1975. It was initially designated the F-5G, a variant of the Northrop F-5E Tiger II AKA “Freedom Fighter” that was already being sold to U.S. allies around the globe (from Brazil and Ethiopia, to Switzerland, South Korea, and Taiwan) as a low-cost export fighter, not to mention going on to gain Hollywood fame for its role-play as the “MiG-28” in the original Top Gun film. The work on the F-5G gained additional impetus by the Carter Administration-directed DOD project called “FX”, intended to sell less-advanced fighter designs to U.S. allies to limit the possibility of front-line U.S. technology falling Soviet hands, and Northrop initially saw Taiwan as the most likely prospect for the new aircraft.

As noted in a June 1987 RAND Corporation case study by Tom Martin and Rachel Schmidt, “The Northrup decision to build the Tigershark was a reasonable one. Two lines of argument stood out in support of a new F-5 type fighter. The first was that a new plane was needed in order to service the still viable F-5 market. Secondly, it was argued that the emergence of new technologies underlined the need for a more advanced aircraft. The Tigershark was designed to meet these needs.”

The Northrup design team of Welko E. Gasich, Robert Sandusky, and retired Air Force Col. Everest “Rich” Riccione came up with the design, inspired by the iconic USAF Col. John Boyd’s concept of “energy maneuver. In addition, Mr. Sandusky in particular incorporated the “wasp waist” of engineer Richard T. Whitcomb’s transonic area rule, and the F-5G was soon redesignated the F-20A.

The Tigershark improved upon the Tiger II via a new engine that enabled greater speed (Mach 2.1/1,387mph2,232kph), addition of beyond-visual-range (BVR) air-to-air capability, and a full suite of air-to-ground modes capable of firing most U.S. weapons. The standard armament package consisted of two Pontiac M39A2 20mm autocannon with 280 rounds of ammunition per gun, and two AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles carried on the wingtips. Three prototypes were built.

The Tigershark made her maiden flight on 30 August 1982, piloted by test pilot Russ Scott out of Edwards AFB, California; Russ flew the prototype plane for 40 minutes, reaching an altitude of 40,000 feet (12,000 meters) and an airspeed of Mach 1.04 (791.65mph/1,284.19kph). The F-20 was soon deemed competitive with contemporary fighter designs such as the General Dynamics F-16/79 (a modified export-oriented version of the F-16A/B designed for use with the outdated General Electric J79 turbojet engine), but was much less expensive to purchase and operate. The success of the design should have taken off from there but would soon crash and burn both literally and figuratively (two bad puns in one sentence, yes I know).

Tigershark Becomes a Fish Out of Water

For one thing, global politics, as well as parochialist bureaucratic turf battles, played into the picture. As noted by the late great aviation writer Robert F. Dorr, “With the election of Ronald Reagan as president, the FX program gradually fell out of favor as the administration relaxed export restrictions. Then the 1982 signing of the U.S.-PRC Joint Communiqué on arms sales blocked sale of the F-20 to Taiwan. Worse for the F-20’s chance in other markets, the Air Force had an iron in the fire with regard to foreign military sales (FMS), as every F-16 sold to a foreign country meant the overall production cost of the Air Force’s own F-16s would go down.”

Then there were the two fatal crashes. The first such tragedy transpired during a demonstration flight at Suwon Air Base, Republic of South Korea, 10 October 1984, claiming the life of Northrup test pilot Darrell E. Cornell. The second occurred on 14 May 1985 at Goose Bay, Newfoundland, Canada. In both cases, investigations cleared the F-20A of any design or mechanical flaw, as the pilots had blacked out due to gravity-induced loss of consciousness (G-LOC).

Alas, the fate of the Tigershark was sealed. To quote Mr. Dorr again, “The F-20A Tigershark was fast, maneuverable, lethal, easy to fly and easy to maintain. But Northrop was never truly able to compete with the F-16 on cost and the Tigershark failed, ultimately, because it tried to be too many things. Too heavy to be a lightweight, lacking the stealth properties then being developed in super-secret “black” programs, the F-20A was also too light to be a robust, globe-girdling warplane like the F-15E Strike Eagle. It was an outstanding fighter, but in the end the Northrop F-20A Tigershark was the right aircraft at the wrong time.”

Where Are They (Is It) Now? 

The lone surviving F-20A Tigershark is on display at the California Science Center located at the Exposition Park area of Los Angeles, a stone’s throw for the L.A. Memorial Coliseum and the University of Southern California (USC) University Park Campus.

Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS). 

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Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon).