Northrop doggedly continued in its attempts to sell the fighter despite these mutliple setbacks. GG1001, the first 'engine change only' F-5G aircraft, began flight test in August 1982. In November 1982, with Carter's 'modification of an existing aircraft' fiction no longer required, the USAF agreed to redesignate the aircraft the F-20. Bahrain signed on as the first customer the same month. GG1001 demonstrated outstanding reliability. By the end of April 1983 it had logged 240 flights, including evaluation flights by 15 pilots from 10 potential customer nations. In August 1983 GI1001, the second F-20 and the first with the new digital avionics, joined GG1001 in flight test. It proved equally stable and reliable. Only a month later it flew twelve simulated air-to-air sorties in one day at Edwards Air Force Base, demonstrating both reliability and surge capability.
Through 1983 and 1984, with the aircraft flying and proving itself, sales prospects looked up. South Korea was exploring production in Korea of the F-20 as part of comprehensive development of its aerospace industry under its F-X program. Northrop made an unsolicited proposal to Saudi Arabia for 150 aircraft. The US Navy was looking for a new agressor aircraft to simulate Soviet MiG-29's. GI1001 made a 2308 mile unrefuelled transcontinental flight in December 1983 in a demonstration of its range capability. A month later GG1001 and GI1001 had completed 500 test flights, and they were joined in May 1984 by GI1002, a second all-up avionics aircraft. The high point came at the Farnborough Air Show in September 1984, when the amazing maneuverability demonstrated by the F-20 in its flying display made it the hit of the show. GG1001 and GI1001 flew on from Britain on a round-the-world tour of prospective customers.
Then the tide turned against the aircraft. GG1001 crashed in South Korea on October 10, killing Northrop pilot Darrell Cornell. In January 1985 the Navy picked the F-16 rather than the F-20 for the aggressor role. General Dynamics had been able to make a price offer far below Northrop by having the Navy's F-16's engines and avionics supplied from existing government inventory, so the Navy only had to buy the airframes.
An investigation of the Korean crash cleared the F-20 of any mechanical or design fault. It was found that Cornell had blacked out due to excessive G's pulled in the acrobatic demonstration routine. During 1985 talks with Korea intensified and proposals became more detailed. By this time the production version of the F-20 being offered had many upgrades to the original configurations flying - improved radar, increased fuel, more powerful engine, new mission computer, electromechanical flaps, jet fuel starter, on-board oxygen generation - the list went on and on. The changes were made to ensure that the F-20 could now beat the F-16C in each and every performance category, while still being cheaper to buy and own.
But these changes all required an indefinite extension of the Northrop-funded aircraft development and test program. It was clear it would be some time before Seoul would be ready to sign a deal. T V Jones attempted to force the issue politically by making an unsolicited proposal in April 1985 to equip the Air Force with 396 F-20's at a guaranteed acquisition and maintenance cost well below the F-16.
After various political permuations, this was transormed into a competition between the F-16 and the F-20 for what the Air Force dubbed its 'Air Defence Fighter' requirement. This was to be versions of the aircraft equipped with AIM-7 and AMRAAM radar-guided missiles that would have to intercept and shoot down Soviet bombers in case of an attack on the United States. The F-20 had already demonstrated a successful shoot-down of a drone using an AIM-7 in February 1985 - a capability the F-16 did not possess.
Meanwhile GI1001 crashed in May 1985 at Goose Bay, Labrador, killing Northrop test pilot Dave Barnes. Barnes had been practicing his acrobatic routine at a stop on the way to the Paris Air Show. The cause was again eventually found to be pilot black-out due to the intense maneuvers, but the accident cast a pall on the struggling program. The remaining GI1002 aircraft made an appearance at the Dayton Air Show in July, and by May 1986 completed the 1500th flight of an F-20 aircraft. Northrop selected systems subcontractors and began construction of GI1003, which would be the first aircraft to include all of the new features promised to the Air Force and South Korea. A cost proposal for 120 aircraft was made to South Korea in April 1986 and the Air Defence Proposal was made to the Air Force for 180 aircraft.
On 31 October 1986, Halloween, the Air Force informed Northrop that the F-16C was selected for the Air Defence Requirement. But on the same day Northop was informed that it had been selected to design and build a prototype of the F-23 Advanced Tactical Fighter (Lockheed was selected to build a prototype of their competing F-22 design). The next day Northrop announced it was halting active development of the F-20, although it would continue to market the aircraft.
Did Northrop's highest management secretly agree to sacrifice the F-20 as part of a deal to get the B-2, the Have Blue, the TR-2, Tacit Rainbow, and a welter of other high-tech stealth programs in the 1980's? Was it sacrificed in order to get the F-23 development? The reality of any such deals are lost to history now.
Next: The Final Struggle
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© Mark Wade, 1997 - 2006 except where otherwise noted.
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