American Tiger; The Northrop F-5C

March 5, 2024

Bit of an unusual one today as the Northrop F-5 is far from a forgotten aircraft and the particular model we are looking at was only built in tiny numbers and has so few differences from the original production aircraft that the redesignation is barely warranted. But the story of the F-5C, especially the amount of usage it got, means that it is a tale worth telling.

With the F-5, Northrop really hit its target market just about perfectly, creating one of the most successful export fighters in history. First flying in 1959 the F-5 was in response to concerns about the spiraling complexities and costs of modern jet aircraft, which Northrop was pretty much the only American aircraft builder to recognize.

Most of Northrop’s rivals were happily suckling at the teat of the US military, producing all sorts of hugely expensive aircraft, many of which never got into service or else were far more than was required by most potential export customers. Northrop, rather astutely, actually sent a team to ask American allies in Europe and Asia what they wanted.

The answer came back was for a small, agile, simple multirole fighter that should ideally be supersonic.

Northrop had already a number of projects in development that had this basic idea in their design, most notably the N-102 Fang, which had been built to compete against the Lockheed F-104 to become pretty much the NATO standard fighter in the early -50’s. The Fang lost out to the Starfighter because of…reasons…but was a very interesting aircraft in its own right.

But the design team assembled for this project under the legendary Ed Schmued was now working on a project for the US Air Force to build a new supersonic trainer. And this, the T-38 Talon, was almost ideal for alteration to the requirements of foreign users.

So, the F-5 was born.

Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t all plain sailing, despite the comparatively quick development; the USAF actually preferred the idea of building new versions of the F-104 as a multirole aircraft for export under the Military Assistance Program to allies. But the Department of Defense preferred the simple Northrop and in 1962 it was selected to be the United States military assistance export fighter, receiving its numeric designation as the F-5A for the single-seat fighter bomber and F-5B for the combat capable two-seat trainer variant, as well as being named the “Freedom Fighter”.

American allies rapidly queued up to order the new aircraft, giving many of them their first supersonic aircraft and representing a substantial improvement in capability for most of them.

The USAF however, was not interested in the little, trim fighter. They had more lofty aspirations, focusing on huge cutting-edge aircraft either designed to annihilate the Soviet Union in atomic fury or else to protect the United States from the same fate.

So, the Air Force was a little caught out when they found themselves becoming increasingly embroiled in a bush war in an obscure country on the other side of the world.

Vietnam.

The USAF’s commitment to that country had gone from a handful of T-28’s and B-26s employed on counter insurgency duties in 1961 to deploying F-100s Super Sabres, B-57’s bombers and even F-102 interceptors following the Gulf of Tonkin incident in August 1964.

With increasing demand for tactical air support by swelling numbers of American and South Vietnamese troops as the war kicked into a higher gear, the USAF decided that perhaps it was time to look for a more efficient close-air support aircraft. In December 1964 they initiated Project Sparrow Hawk to investigate available options, which really came down between the F-5 and the Douglas A-4 Skyhawk.

Twelve F-5A’s were promptly requisitioned from the Military Assistance Program and taken to Elgin AFB in Florida for trials to determine their suitability for air-to-ground use. Conclusions were that the F-5 was indeed suitable for the job and the decision made that a single squadron should be deployed to Vietnam for combat evaluation.

However, some alterations were desired before that occurred oo, the aircraft went back to Northrop where they were fitted with 90-lbs (41kgs) of armour of the aircraft’s undersides to protect the pilot and engine from ground fire, updated avionics and a new lead-computing gunsight to replace the fixed one used on the F-5A.

Additionally, the stores pylons were changed to be jettisonable and, in recognition that the F-5s small size was paid for in limited range, a fixed air refueling probe fitted. With all these modifications the USAF got their hands on their newest aircraft, the Northrop F-5C Tiger.

Notionally, there was also an F-5D, which was the two-seat version, but I don’t know if any of them were actually built.

It also explains, if you’ve ever wondered, why the later F-5E was called the Tiger II.

The combat test program also received a new codename: “Skoshi Tiger”. This was derived from the Japanese word sukoshi and is generally translated as “Little Tiger” by histories on the F-5C, but a more accurate translation is of “a few” or “a limited number of”. I am not actually sure which meaning the program creators intended, possibly both, as they are equally valid.

But few though they were, the Skoshi Tigers certainly saw plenty of use.

For the field trials, a new unit was established, the 4503rd Tactical Fighter Squadron (Provisional), and after completing six weeks of intensive training this transferred to Bien Hoa AFB near the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon. Landing on the 25 October 1965 at noon, within hours the aircraft were armed with 500-lb bombs and conducted their first mission in support of South Vietnamese anti-guerrilla operations.

This was the start of an intensive period of use which saw the F-5C’s operating continuously in roles such as close support and interdiction, but later even as escort to other aircraft on strikes into North Vietnam and Laos for which the Tigers would be fitted with Sidewinder air-to-air missiles to engage any MiGs that might try to intercept.

The heavy usage in combat meant issues were swiftly identified that hadn’t previously come to light. For example, it was found that napalm tanks would occasionally fail to drop away cleanly, leading to damage to the underside of the wings if they were struck by the departing ordnance.

Another issue was that the nose-mounted 20mm cannon when fired in strafing runs could smear and damage the windscreen, especially during rainy conditions, and the gases from firing the guns could lead to engine damage if they were ingested.

All these lessons were fed back to Northrop for rapid solving, and the F-5C’s would develop to be one of the most reliable aircraft to fly in the southeast Asian theatre. Between October 1965 and March 1966 the twelve Skoshi Tiger’s flew some 2,659 sorties for the loss of one aircraft and achieved an availability rate of 96% on any one day, as well an abort rate of less than 1% per month.

The ground crews were happy to have an aircraft that was comparatively simple to work on, with one team setting a record of changing an entire engine out and getting the aircraft airborne in one hour and fifty minutes, while the pilots appreciated the F-5Cs strength, agility and small size; handy for dodging anti-aircraft fire.

So successful was the program that in early 1966 the Air Force Advisory Group recommended both increasing the number of aircraft in USAF service, as well as equipping the South Vietnamese Air Force (RVNAF) with the type.

The first step didn’t really happen; an additional 24 F-5s were sequestered from MAP production and apparently received partial modification to F-5C standard to keep the original unit combat capable.

But in August 1966 the first Vietnamese pilots were sent to the US for training on the Tiger, and once these returned all of the USAF’s F-5s were handed over to the RVNAF’s 522nd fighter squadron, including the surviving seventeen F-5C’s.

The South Vietnamese soon took to the new jet, something they had been yelling for since 1962, and the successful conversion meant that the US was soon to implement far larger reequipment programs for the RVNAF, supplying considerable numbers of F-5A Freedom Fighters and A-37 attack aircraft that became the backbone of the force.

As the principal visual difference between the F-5A Freedom Fighter and the F-5C Tiger I was the fitting of an aerial refueling probe and this were removed from the F-5C’s when they were handed over to the RVNAF, tracking the use and careers of the F-5C’s once in Vietnamese service is impossible.

But I think it is fair to conclude that, as the war escalated to the final crescendo of the collapse of the Republic of South Vietnam in 1975, they continued to fight hard until the end and possibly in the hands of their former opponents afterwards.

 Sources/Related:

https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/systems/aircraft/f-5c.htm

https://web.archive.org/web/20210418011603/https://www.the-northrop-f-5-enthusiast-page.info/AirForces/USAFVietnamOperations.html

https://media.defense.gov/2017/Mar/28/2001722966/-1/-1/0/01-ILL_HIST_FRONT-CH02_(PAGES_I-36).PDF

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