After selling more than $4 billion worth of F-5 jet fighters over three decades to 30 foreign nations from Chile to Sudan, Northrop is closing down the F-5 program.
Two new F-5s purchased by the sheikdom of Bahrain are scheduled to take off from Northrop’s Palmdale assembly plant this morning and fly to a ceremony at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, marking the official conclusion of F-5 sales.
Over the years, the F-5 has become the Volkswagen of supersonic jet fighters, a low-cost and reliable weapon purchased by countries that needed a basic air defense capability but lacked their own aircraft industries.
Like the VW Bug, it became an enduring commercial success. More F-5s are in current use in the non-Communist world than any other jet fighter. Northrop sold 3,789 F-5s and related T-38 trainers, principally to less-developed nations.
At its 1960s peak, Northrop was building 18 of the aircraft per month, but output has been slowing for several years. About 200 workers are employed on the F-5 today, mostly for customer support, and no sharp employment drop is expected.
The F-5 isn’t equipped with the extras that the heavy, most-advanced fighters of the U.S. Air Force have always carried, but the agile little aircraft has proven itself in plenty of battles. Even today, Iran is thought to be relying on F-5s in its bloody conflict with Iraq, Air Force officials say.
The F-5’s principal adversaries through the years were the MiG-15 and MiG-17, the Russian-built no-frills fighters that were widely exported in the Soviet bloc.
“The F-5 would outperform the MIG in acceleration and turn rates, that sort of thing,” said Robert Gates, Northrop vice president for international business. “The airplane would just keep flying. The very first F-5 went to Norway and they’re still flying it.” The list of F-5 customers embraces almost every race, religion and economic system. It is used by democracies and dictatorships. It is flown by nations that have seldom been at war and those that have scarcely known peace.
It was purchased by Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Malaysia, Kenya, Singapore, Taiwan, Korea, the Philippines, Libya, Morocco, Jordan, North Yemen, Mexico, Thailand and Vietnam. The F-5 also went to Canada and to Europeans, including Norway, Spain, Greece and Switzerland.
The F-5’s appeal was its simplicity of design, a reputation for low maintenance and a cost that was hard to beat on the international arms market.
Early versions of the jet fighter sold for $750,000 each, a price almost incomprehensibly low by today’s standards. For example, the Air Force F-16 costs $15 million and the Navy F-14 costs $63 million.
Three Key Men
Northrop launched F-5 development in 1953, based on the designs and theories of three key men who were all Stanford University graduates and had worked together earlier at Douglas Aircraft. They were Thomas V. Jones, Welko Gasich and William Ballhaus.
Jones became the chief executive of Northrop in 1960. Gasich is a Northrop executive vice president. Ballhaus was president of Beckman Instruments and remains a Northrop director.
The design philosophy of the F-5, emphasizing reliability and low maintenance, would eventually become the hallmark of Northrop.
“There were a lot of simple things that we did,” Ballhaus said. “Like putting on an access door in such a way that when it opened it would become a shield from the rain.”
The F-5 was conceived in the days when airplane designs didn’t come from large corporate committees and didn’t depend on computer-generated graphics. A critical turning point in the F-5 program came in an encounter when a General Electric jet engine representative dropped in on Ballhaus, carrying a large wooden box with a mockup of a low-cost engine for missiles inside.
Adapted for Plane
“He said you could put this engine on all your missiles,” Ballhaus recalled. “I said ‘What about an airplane?’ He said ‘What the hell kind of an airplane would use this engine?’ But you could see the dollar signs going off in his head when he realized how many engines he could sell us.”
Northrop used the missile engine, specially outfitted with an afterburner to boost its thrust. The F-5 uses two of the engines, which are mounted internally in the fuselage. They are designed in such a way to be removable in 15 minutes.
“When we give credit to what made the program such a success, General Electric played a big part,” Gasich said. “There is as good a relationship between General Electric and Northrop as any in the industry.”
The F-5 was co-produced under a license from Northrop in five countries--Canada, Spain, Switzerland, South Korea and Taiwan. The airplane went through major design changes, taking it to the F-5E version.
Northrop eventually decided to develop an F-5G version of the aircraft, its biggest redesign ever. At a cost of $1 billion, Northrop reconfigured the fuselage to carry a single engine, redesigned the cockpit and put in new radar.
The plane was eventually renamed the F-20. But when Northrop attempted to sell the F-20 to its old F-5 customer Taiwan, it found the international market for U.S. weapons had become forever more complex.
The Reagan Administration decided that the F-20 was such a potent weapon that its possession by Taiwan would upset the new friendship between China and the United States.
The F-20 failed to gain a single order and was canceled last year by Northrop. Meanwhile, interest in the F-5E waned. “It was good for a long time, but any program will come to an end,” Gates said. “The market kind of dried up.”