When it come to the discussion of great combat aircraft that never got into service, well, it’s a pretty extensive list. But normally there are easy to understand – though not necessarily agreeable reasons – for those aeroplanes to have not made the grade.
Take a couple of American fighter’s for example – the F-20 Tigershark and the YF-23, both interestingly Northrop designs. These fighters were, by all accounts, excellent aircraft and would have made fine service aircraft. But their great qualities didn’t save them from harsh realities.
The F-20 was killed by change in policy, which saw the United States government decide that it made more sense to sell aircraft in production for US defence contracts, rather than a dedicated export fighter, which was the F-20s raison d’etre.
The YF-23 lost out to what became the F-22, and it seems to have been a decision driven by some perceived tactical advantages and that the F-22 seemed a less risky option for development, which is a perfectly legitimate basis for choice.
But the aircraft I want to look at today really does look like a missed opportunity; It had a solid pedigree in a proven airframe, had a large potential market, appears to have had a substantial potential for further improvement and upgrading and it was a proven performer.
I’m talking about Grumman’s F11F-1F – the “Super Tiger”.
The story of this aircraft begins with an aeroplane that did see service; the F-11 Tiger[i]. This single-seat supersonic fighter entered service with the US Navy in 1956 and, like many Grumman products was a tough, competent aircraft.
But there were a couple of snags.
For its engine, it used the Wright J65. This would seem a sound choice. The J65 was used on several US subsonic combat aircraft and would see a great amount of service over the years.
But in the F-11, the need for supersonic speed saw the J65 fitted with an afterburner which, quite frankly, was a piece of junk and never worked properly or delivered the expected performance, and that doomed the Tiger to a short front line service life of only four years.
This certainly wasn’t helped by the fact that at the same time the US Navy was adopting the F-11, they were also taking on the Vought F-8 Crusader, which performed essentially the same role. The F-8 would go to have a long service life and achieve a strong combat reputation over Vietnam in the 1960s, even being remembered on occasion as “the last gunfighter”.
The F-11 Tiger had a more unfortunate reputation as a gunfighter and it is now principally remembered for being an aircraft that managed to shoot itself down.
In 1956 a pilot conducted a test fire of his cannon during a shallow dive, which meant that he managed to catch up to his own projectiles as he flew down and hit himself. I mean, sounds daft, but it happened and that is what the Tiger is principally remembered for now.
So, with all this said, this all seems a pretty poor basis for the statement “possibly the best fighter not to get built”.
But the fact is, the Tiger did have a lot going for it. It wasn’t just tough, it was agile. In fact, it remained the favoured mount of the US Navy’s Blue Angel aerobatic team until 1968, well after it’s removal from mainstream service.
Essentially, what would cure most of the Tiger’s ills was a better engine and some design tweaks. And Grumman knew this.
So, in January 1955 they made a proposal to the US Navy to take two F-11 Tiger’s under construction and fit them with a new engine. Initially it had been intended that this would be the General Electric J73, but as this wasn’t used by the US Navy it was decided to try fitting the J79 instead.
This the Navy was indeed interested in. The J79 was a cutting-edge engine that was scheduled for use on the Navy’s new interceptor that was then under development, the F-4 Phantom. The J79 was not just 250lbs lighter than the J65 used in the existing Tiger, it also produced 2,600 pounds more force without afterburner, and 3,750lbs more with.
Additionally, it was the same size as the earlier engine, and so the proposed redesign of the fuselage was relatively simple, with only the inlets needing to be enlarged to accommodate the more powerful engine’s greater air flow requirements.
The other major change was the fitting of a larger nose, which was designed with the intention of fitting an AN/APQ-50 all-weather radar – the same as used on the early Phantoms.
Naturally, the fact that the changes were comparatively minor on a production aircraft meant that the Super Tiger was available for testing in short order. The change of powerplant was projected by Grumman to provide a comparatively marginal increase in performance over the baseline Tiger, though much more reliably.
The F-11 had proven to have a maximum speed of Mach 1.1, while the new Super Tiger was anticipated to be capable of Mach 1.3. Somewhat unusually in aeronautic history, that proved pessimistic.
The first flight took place on the 7th May, 1956, at Edward’s Air Force Base with the redoubtable Corwin “Corky” Meyer in the cockpit. Meyer had been a Grumman test pilot since 1942, with his first test project being the F6F Hellcat, and basically every Grumman aircraft after that.
(If you’ve read my article on the XF10 Jaguar, Meyer was the guy who climbed out of the jet and had to hang onto the nose after putting it down with a shattered canopy and an ejection seat about to kill him while the jet careened down a dry riverbed.)
Meyer took the Super Tiger up for the first time but had to rapidly abort because the air blowing into his cockpit was being heated to a dangerous degree. However, the fault was rectified and on only the second flight Mach 1.2 was achieved.
By the fifth flight on the 5th June, the Super Tiger hit Mach 1.6 at 35,000ft, and showed it had three times the rate of climb of the original F-11.
In August the second aircraft joined the test program. This had additional changes made to the intakes, and in May 1957 demonstrated the top speed achieved by the aircraft – Mach 2.04.
The aircraft’s performance capabilities were further reinforced when, on the 18th of April, 1958, Lt. Commander George C. Watkins of the USN achieved a new world altitude record for a jet of 76,939 ft (23,451 m) in the Super Tiger. Not bad for a project that had been hoped to provide a fairly small performance improvement initially.
The drastic improvement in the aircraft meant that both the US Navy and Air Force were extremely interested in flying the Super Tiger to see what it could do. Both concluded that the aircraft was excellent; the Navy report stated that they believed that the aircraft was “…an outstanding day fighter”.[ii]
But Grumman also knew that sales to the Navy were not going to happen. The poor showing of the original Tiger, and the ongoing purchase of the F-8 Crusader as the Navy’s day fighter meant that the Super Tiger would never see use from an American carrier.
But the USAF was in the process of taking on the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter; a fast, light weight day interceptor capable of Mach 2. In fact, the adoption testing for the F-104 was ongoing at Edward’s Air Force base at the same time as the Super Tiger was going through its paces – you might even think that Grumman had engineered the situation, requesting that testing be conducted at Edwards.
Certainly, Corky Meyer grasped the opportunity to wrangle a couple of test flights on the new F-104. His report pretty much sums up the issues that would bedevil the Starfighter throughout its life, and he noted that while its performance was impressive, the aircraft sacrificed much of its utility and range for that purpose.
In contrast, the Super Tiger had performance broadly comparable to the F-104, but retained much better agility, twice the combat radius, was considered an easier aircraft for pilots to learn how to handle and seemed a solid option for development as a multirole aircraft.
In fact, Grumman conducted a whole range of tests on different stores options and potential development. Particularly interesting, and practically unique as far as I am aware, was the trial fitting of AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles on the aircraft’s spine, with two being carried in line behind the cockpit.
Also carried for flight test purposes under the fuselage and wings were various combinations of 1,000lb bombs, drop tanks and both Sidewinder, Falcon and Bullpup missiles.
Grumman also proposed a two-seat interceptor, which would have had a payload of four Sidewinders and four Sparrow semi-active radar missiles.
All this meant that the Super Tiger seems to have had a whole range of development potential, and it also got plenty of praise from USAF pilots who test flew it.
But though they all seem to have universally loved the Super Tiger, again, policy was an issue. The USAF had already spent an absolute fortune on the “Century-series” aircraft that were intended to form the backbone of their forces throughout the 1960s.
Though they were notionally planning on adopting the Starfighter, in fact their primary focus was on interception of Soviet nuclear bombers, with tactical fighter duties pretty much rolled onto the earlier F-100 Super Sabre.
So, though those who might have to fly the aircraft into combat, and some of their commanding Generals who took the opportunity to test the aircraft themselves apparently thought the Super Tiger an excellent choice, the call wasn’t theirs to make.
Grumman then switched its attention to possibly selling the Super Tiger to other nations. At the time critical allies around the world were looking to upgrade from their subsonic fighters, aircraft like the F-86 Sabre and Hawker Hunters, and wanted a supersonic aircraft, generally with a multirole capability.
The Super Tiger seemed to fit the bill perfectly. But here Grumman hit a combination of bad timing, bad luck and ruthless opposition.
The Super Tiger was tested by the British and the French, but both those nations had their own aircraft on the verge of entering service to meet their requirements. In fact, the French pilot damaged the first prototype in a botched take off so badly that it was not repaired, leaving Grumman with just the second machine for demonstrations.
The Swiss also appeared to be a likely adopter. In 1958/9 they sent teams several times to the United States to fly the Super Tiger with a view to possible production for their own needs.
But ultimately, they selected the French Mirage III, which according to Corky Meyer was due to political considerations more than anything, as he asserts that the Super Tiger was the preferred choice of the Swiss Air Force, though whether that is a measure of sour grapes on his part it is difficult to tell. What is certain is that the procurement of the Mirage by Switzerland led to a scandal when the program was beset by huge cost overruns.
And this was far from the only scandal that occurred from fighter aircraft selections made at the time. Because other potential customers who all seemed very interested in the Super Tiger were Canada, Germany and Japan.
Canada was in the process of reevaluating its NATO role and defensive strategies, a situation that led to the cancellation of that other great “what-if” aircraft, the Avro Arrow. But Canada did want a new strike aircraft to replace their old Sabre’s, and the Super Tiger was very much a potential candidate.
Flight tests of the aircraft by pilots from the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) concluded that the F11F-1F appeared to be an excellent tactical fighter and that not only was it a suitable replacement for the Sabre but also that any pilot capable of flying the older aircraft could easily convert to the Super Tiger with a short conversion.[iii]
But here Grumman found its lack of experience in international marketing telling. While the Super Tiger’s marketing team was composed of a handful of test pilots and engineers, Lockheed employed a dedicated sales team who understood better the realities of the market.
Despite the RCAF apparently loving the Super Tiger, they selected the F-104, again, primarily for political reasons. Lockheed offered to allow the Canadian aero industry the chance to build components for aircraft not just built for their needs, but for other customers as well.
Considering the row that had developed over the cancellation of the Arrow, and the future of the Canadian aircraft industry in disarray, this offer was very much a winner for the Canadian government.
As Meyer put it:
“Lockheed was again teaching us international sales fundamentals much faster than we could absorb them.”
And this was the case with the two other big bids that Grumman pursued, though in this case Lockheed seems to have been somewhat…more direct…in their sales methods.
The German’s first flew the Super Tiger in 1957 and gave a demonstration of how tough the aircraft was when one of the pilots came back complaining that he had not been able to get much above Mach 1.
It turned out that he had forgotten to retract his flaps after takeoff. Despite this the aircraft suffered no damage![iv]
The German pilots appear to have had as high an opinion of the Super Tiger when they left as just about every other pilot who flew it. But the decision was made to buy the F-104 Starfighter. Notionally this was decided because the F-104 was in service with the USAF, whilst the Super Tiger was not in service with anyone.
This choice has continued to prove controversial. The F-104 in German service was often tasked for use as a low-level attack aircraft, something it was very much not originally intended for. Combined with a relatively inexperienced pool of pilots flying the aircraft, the Starfighter suffered a notoriously high loss rate with the German Air Force, and indeed with many of the other countries that bought it.
The fact that in 1976 Lockheed was found to have bribed senior government officials in multiple countries, including some in the German government at the time of the F-104 decision being taken, makes the choice to adopt it even more charged. And one has to wonder whether the adoption of the steadier Super Tiger, an aircraft recognized by the pilots who flew it as a far more stable aircraft, especially for pilots transitioning from older transonic aircraft, might have led to a lower crash rate.
That is, of course, speculation. But what isn’t is what happened with the final possible purchaser of the Super Tiger – Japan.
The Japanese first sent a team to the United States to test various aircraft as replacement for their F-86F Sabre’s in March 1958. And the Super Tiger wasn’t even on the list.
Apparently the intervention of Major General Boyd, who was basically the USAF’s top man when it came to new aircraft, saw the Japanese delegation decide to try out the Grumman aeroplane. And they reported that of all the aircraft they looked at, the Super Tiger was the best choice for Japan’s needs.
In April, it was publicly announced that the F11 was Japan’s preferred option, and that pending suitable arrangements being made between Grumman and the Japanese, the Super Tiger was going to be their next generation of fighter. It just had to go past the formality of approval by the Japanese Ministry of Defence, who sent another assessment team, this one headed by General Genda of the Air Self Defense Force.
If the name Genda sounds familiar, well, I’m not surprised. He was the guy that largely planned the attack on Pearl Harbor. In 1959 he was Chief of Staff of the Japan Air Self-Defense Force, and essentially had the final say on what would be selected.
The Japanese team once again assessed the Super Tiger and the F-104, and the reports were clear. Of the two aircraft the F11 was the best choice, especially due to its greater range.
Genda’s team returned to Japan…where they reported that the F-104 was the better aircraft and the original decision should be rescinded. As it turns out, Genda was one of the recipients of Lockheed’s largesse, a fact that came to light in the later scandal.
Of course, that was too late for the Super Tiger, and ultimately only the two test aircraft were built. The first, damaged aircraft was used for fire training practice until it was destroyed at some point in the 1980s. But the second, record breaking aircraft is still around and is on display at the China Lake Museum in California.
So, what do you think? Does the Super Tiger deserve to rank as one of the greatest missed opportunities in combat aircraft history?
We only have the test reports and assessments to go on, but they are pretty solid that the F11F-1F was a damn fine aircraft and certainly sounds like it would have made a better choice for transitioning air forces than the F-104.
And if you want to read up on this, I suggest you check out Corky Meyer’s book on the subject.
Anyway, I look forward to seeing the debate in the comments, and please share with anyone that you think might be interested in the discussion.
[i] Please note, I shall use the 1962 “F-11” designation for the Tiger to differentiate it from the later aircraft
[ii] Meyer, Corwin; “Grumman’s Mach 2 Interceptor; F11F-1F Super Tiger”, Ginter Books (1998), p.9
[iii] Ibid. p.33
[iv] Ibid, p.29