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Northrop believed strongly that one factor in the loss of its F-17 design to General Dynamic's F-16 in the Lightweight Fighter competition of 1974 was the snazzy red-white-blue paint job GD had applied to the F-16 prototype. The F-17, by contrast, was painted an elegant but muted silver with blue and black detailing. Mock-ups of the F-5G aircraft displayed at the beginning of the program were painted in tan-green camouflage. But for the August 1982 roll-out, the first GG1001 aircraft appeared in a flashy bright red paint scheme with white racing stripes. But after a while the paint scheme was seen as mitigating against sales. It looked like a 'goddamn sports plane' instead of a fighter.

By the 1980's stealth was 'in' and US fighters were all in matte air superiority gray, a scheme that both reduced the aircraft's radar signature and lowered its visibility. So GI1001 was rolled out in July 1983 in air superiority gray, and GG1001 was repainted in the same color. Since GG1001 had no Emerson radar installed, there was no problem painting over the radome.

When GI1002 was rolled out in May 1984, it was also in air superiority gray, but some marketing genius had painted a grotesque-looking pyramidal-shaped F-20 logo in large white letters on the vertical stabilizer. This didn't last very long, and for a while all three aircraft were in air superiority gray.

But now there was nothing to distinguish them from other fighter aircraft. Then Northrop CEO T V Jones decided that that the perfect paint scheme would be the same metallic finish as their BMW. The orders went out for the aircraft to be painted in BMW gray. The problem was that the metallic paint, if applied to the radome, would destroy its radar-transparent qualities. For the fist public display of the new color, one of the radomes was painted over, ruining it. It was decided that the other radomes would be cycled back to Brunswick and painted a radio-transparent black. But until they were all finished, some of the F-20's flew with metallic BMW gray or light air superiority gray radomes, which actually looked quite spiffy. But eventually all were standardized in BMW gray, with black radomes. GG1001 was painted black behind the radome line to match the shark-nosed GI1001/GI1002, roughly. The BMW gray finish was pretty cool, but gave the photographers headaches. It could appear inky black at high altitudes in a clear sky, and was difficult to photograph correctly against clouds with high contrast differences.

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