Tigershark, Tigershark burning bright, but briefly

It didn’t have foreplanes, or thrust vectoring, but one of the most enjoyable aircraft I’ve seen on the airshow circuit was Northrop’s F-20 Tigershark. I remember sitting in a traffic jam outside Le Bourget, watching the F-20 literally skid sideways above my head – powered by sheer marketing exuberance…or maybe desperation, as the Tigershark was that strangest of beasts – a private-venture export fighter.

When I joined Flight in 1978, the F-5 was already viewed as a fighter from a previous generation (although the last one was not delivered until 1989!) That changed when Northrop announced the revamped F-5G, later redesignated as the more marketable F-20. It was definitely an F-5, but with distinctly modern touches: the shark nose, the reprofiled canopy, the muscular F404 engine.

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Red, white and whoo!We in the aviation press were subject to the full force of Northrop’s marketing machine. We resisted bravely, but we loved the F-20. It helped that the Tigershark was up against the anaemic F-16/79, about the only non-cool version of the F-16. But in the end the US government pulled the market out from under both of them by allowing their principal customer, Taiwan, to buy the “real” F-16A/B.

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Northrop ended up in the odd position where it’s share price would jump whether it succeeded in selling the Tigershark or canceled it. They chose to cancel it, in 1986, after spending a lot of money – some of it on boring glorious holes in the air at shows like Paris. Pieces of the F-20 went on to appear in various F-5 upgrades – the radar, the cockpit – but the Tigershark was the last of the line.

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Frank Munger’s F-5G cutaway (Flight archive)

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8 Responses to Tigershark, Tigershark burning bright, but briefly

  1. Mike Plunkett 9 April, 2008 at 6:45 pm #

    Always had a soft spot for the Tigershark (I was in my early teens when it was in its prime and I thought it was Cool). I suppose one could make the argument that it’s the spiritual ancestor – on the export market at least – of the Gripen. A small, lightweight, relatively simple and above all cheap fighter for countries that can’t afford/don’t have access to more sophisticated kit. I believe they even share basically the same engine.

  2. The Woracle 9 April, 2008 at 6:56 pm #

    I was going to put the Gripen on my “love to hate” list – but just to wind up my colleague Craig Hoyle, who puts so many pictures of the beast in Flight’s defence pages!

    But I like the Gripen (I was at the roll-out). It’s a potent little fighter, although maybe not so cheap…

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