In this article:
The F-5 featured in the pictures of this article is not a faux “MiG-28” from Top Gun but a captured F-5E and made up in Soviet markings for testing.
The F-5 Freedom Fighter
The development of the Northrop F-5 began in 1954 when a Northrop team toured Europe and Asia to examine the defense needs of NATO and SEATO countries. A 1955 company design study for a lightweight supersonic fighter that would be relatively inexpensive, easy to maintain, and capable of operating out of short runways. According to the Pacific Coast Air Museum website, the Air force did not initially look favorably upon the proposal since it did not have a need for a lightweight fighter. However, it did need a new trainer to replace the Lockheed T-33, and in June of 1956 the Air Force announced that it was going to acquire the trainer version, the T-38 Talon.
On Apr. 25, 1962, the Department of Defense announced that it had chosen the aircraft for its Military Assistance Program (MAP). America’s NATO and SEATO allies would now be able to acquire a supersonic warplane of world-class quality at a reasonable cost. On August 9, 1962, the aircraft was given the official designation of F-5A Freedom Fighter. Optimized for the air-to-ground role, the F-5A had only a very limited air-to-air capability, and was not equipped with a fire-control radar. The F-5B was the two-seat version of the F-5A. It was generally similar to the single-seat F-5A but had two seats in tandem for dual fighter/trainer duties.
From F-5 Freedom Fighter to F-5 Tiger
Although all F-5A production was intended for MAP, in October 1965, the USAF “borrowed” 12 combat-ready F-5As from MAP supplies and sent them to Vietnam with the 4503rd Tactical Fighter Wing for operational service trials. This program was given the code name of “Skoshi Tiger” (Little Tiger), and it was during this tour of duty that the F-5 picked up its Tiger nickname.
On Nov. 20, 1970, the Northrop entry was declared the winner of the IFA (International Fighter Aircraft) to be the F-5A/Bs successor. The emphasis was on the air-superiority role for nations faced with threats from opponents operating the late-generation MiG-21s. An order was placed for five development and 325 production aircraft. In January of 1971 it was reclassified as F-5E. The aircraft came to be known as “Tiger II”.
F-5s tested by Soviets
‘[The F-5 featured in the pictures of this article] is not a faux “MiG-28” from Top Gun but a captured F-5E and made up in Soviet markings for testing. They were eager to get a close look at one and see how its engines, systems, and performance held up against their own frontline aircraft.
‘Their initial reaction was that the MiG-21 was a superior fighter, especially thanks to its higher thrust to weight ratio. They promptly tested the F-5 against the MiG-21 and found that the MiG…. lost every time.
‘At high speeds and energy fighting the two aircraft were considered to be equals. But as energy bleeds off and speeds get slower, developing into a maneuvering dogfight, the F-5 pulled the advantage and got into a position to kill the MiG-21. This shocked the Soviets and they determined that the F-5’s superior aerodynamics made up for its lesser power to weight ratio and gave it an edge at slower speeds.
‘If you want to know more about the tests and to see how the F-5 also held up against the MiG-23M, you can read this excerpt from the book Life-Long Runway written by Soviet Air Force test pilot Vladimir Kondaurov.’
Why the F-5 beat the MiG-21 in every engagement
In the summer of 1976 a disassembled American F-5 fighter jet was delivered to our base at Aktubinsk. To be correct, it was F-5E – the latest variant with increased engines thrust. By the size it was smaller than MiG-21, had two engines installed side-by-side in the fuselage, a sharp swept-down nose and short tapered wings. The war in Vietnam had finished, and the United States Air Forces were leaving this long-suffering country, hastily abandoning several aircraft of this type on one of the airfields. One of them was handed over to the USSR together with its pilot manual.
There were no technical descriptions, but our engineers figured everything out, assembled it to the last bolt and made it flyable, bringing not only the foreign hard pieces together, but also tons of electric wiring. A test brigade was formed to conduct special flight tests, and a program was written, which assumed 35-40 test flights. I was one of the test pilots, our lead was Nikolay Stogov.
After a proper training I was trusted to perform the first speed run on the runway and then a run with a 3-6 feet jump. These precautions had their reasons in our uncertainty, that all the systems had been assembled and connected correctly.
And finally, we were alone. The “Foreigner” hid within. From the manual I knew, that it had had no problems in operation whatsoever. But I also knew that every manufacturer had their own zest in the product. Unlike our fighters in production, the “Foreigner” had brakes on pedals, which we had on heavy aircraft only. The cockpit was not cluttered by various switches and circuit breakers unneeded in flight. They were all concentrated in a single horizontal “stock” away from the working area. I understood that F-5 was a way not the most modern plane and that it was inferior even to MiG-21, but, nonetheless, I liked the cockpit layout.
I decided to make the run on the second runway, which was the longest one. “There is never too much runway ahead,” I thought, taxiing to the runway. It was the winter of 1976-77. Of course, there was no reason to hide I was proud that the only aircraft of this type available in the USSR was trusted to me.
I turned on the extension of the nose strut – the electrohydraulic retractor engaged, and the nose of the aircraft started to “crawl” up. “How about that?” I shook my head surprised. “Couldn’t you do without it on this little one?” As for me, not a common way to reduce your takeoff roll. In the USSR, only Myasischev used this on M-3 and M-4 – the heavy long-range bombers with a tandem gear layout, thus with very short nose struts.
Unhappy with runway condition
“Alright,” I thought, “we kneeled, so let’s run. It is awkward to fool around this way.” I increased thrust and released the brakes. The aircraft started to roll. It rolled evenly, reluctantly gaining speed. Aha! That’s why they raise the nose strut! The engines are feeble, and the wing is too small. I lifted the nosewheel off the ground and held the airplane from the premature liftoff. Enough for this time.
I powered back and lowered the nose. And then… what the heck? The entire nose started to shake and vibrate, then it started to wander left and right so violently, I thought it would just fall the hell off in a moment. Something was screeching and rumbling below. My first thought was about the nosewheel shimmy, but then I realized the nosewheel had been destroyed. I pulled the drag chute handle. “Not the brakes… Main wheels damage is the last thing we need: we don’t have spares,” the thoughts were rushing in my mind.
Gradually reducing the speed, I stopped. I switched everything off, opened the canopy and impatiently jumped down onto the tarmac. I looked and I was puzzled: the wheel was intact. “That’s strange! So what were you so unhappy with?” I looked at the “Foreigner” suspiciously. It turned out that he was unhappy with our runway condition: rough grooves and seams were so deep, and the surface of the concrete was decayed, so he just didn’t stand it. One bolt was cut off, and the strut together with the wheel was turning around.
– “Nice! Ours don’t do things like that,” I gave his nose a pat and whispered: “Don’t worry, we’ll find a new bolt for you and you’ll gallop around again!”
Not an ordinary F-5
As I got to know the “Foreigner” I grew up in my respect to him both as to the flying machine and as to the fighter jet. Unapt to aggressive maneuvering when in “cruise” configuration (flaps and slats up), he would have changed when the pilot put it into the “maneuvering” configuration (flaps and slats down). Then from a heavy clodhopper he turned into a swallow. Checking out the capabilities of the optical sight, I enjoyed keeping the reticle on the target while attacking with a 6g pull, whereas on MiG-21 it would disappear from the view at 3g.
After determining the basic specification we decided to set up for a mock air-to-air combat with MiG-21bis. I would fight on my “native” MiG-21, and Nikolay Stogov – on F-5. The close air combat started head-on in equal positions. Every flight ended with the same result: MiG-21 lost, although he had much higher thrust-to-weight ratio. I laid myself out just to keep the initial position. I took the most out of the aircraft, took all he could give, but the targeting angle grew steadily and in a few minutes the “bandit” was on my tail. Only tactics could save me.
What I was stricken by the most is that the result of the mock fights took not only the generals by surprise (one could explain this somehow), but also the military research departments of the Air Force and even the aviation engineers. They would review the data records for thousand times, ask the pilots, especially me. Frankly, I was somewhat confused as well, but when I tried the F-5, I realized that it was not an ordinary one.
F-5 Vs MiG-23
So, what was happening in flight? At the speeds of 800 km/h (430 kts) and above the fight was on equal terms, nobody had explicit advantages, but the fighting was not literally maneuvering because of the large radii of the maneuvers. We would both stay at the equal maximum allowable g-loads. Whilst at the speeds below 750 km/h (400 kts) one couldn’t sustain these g-loads even with the afterburner. And the lower the speed was the faster it decayed, thus lowering the maximum available g-load. It turned out that the aerodynamics was what won the day, not the thrust/weight ratio. But how was I to explain all this to the people above? They wouldn’t have patted our backs for this. Then the MiG company representatives suggested:
– “Let’s set MiG-23M against him.”
– “But they cannot be compared to one another; they are from different generations.” The chief of our research institute objected.
Why the F-5 beat the MiG-23
The chief of our institute, colonel general I. Gaidayenko had been a fighter-pilot during World War II and a wingman of the very P. Kutakov, who was the supreme commander of the Air Force at the time of our struggle with the F-5. The result of the test flights was supposed to be reported to Kutakov.
– “So what? We will kick his ass anyway!” 2nd lead engineer of MiG-23M spoke out, rubbing his hands in expectance of the revenge.
Well, the ass was kicked, for sure… but one of our own. The result was the same with the only exception that the agony lasted for 4-5 minutes. You have also to keep in mind that I had been considered a pilot capable of any stall and spin recovery and I had been permitted to break any angle of attack limitations. In the dogfight, I set the optimal wing sweep manually, but all in vain. The foreigner would slowly, but steadily, approach my tail. After these flights all calmed down for some time, all discussions ceased. The chief of the RI ordered to promptly compile a statement on the tests and directed me and Stogov to Moscow, to the Central Research Institution No. 30, which was involved in elaboration of the long-term problems of aviation advancement.
MiG-21 advantages over the F-5E
Paying a visit to one of its departments we asked, what they could tell us about the MiG-21 advantages over the F-5E.
– “Oh!” The military scientists immediately exclaimed. “With pleasure! There is a fray right now between Ethiopia and Somalia, and these very aircraft fight each other there. And we are busy preparing recommendations for the pilots on how to successfully fight the F-5 in aerial combat.”
– “And what you’ve got?” I asked with an interest.
– “Take a look at the graph of the attack success probability. See? We beat him everywhere.”
– “Indeed,” I droned, looking at the so familiar graph in front of me and feeling somewhat hurt for the “Foreigner”.
Much better thrust-to-weight ratio
– “And what’re the odds?” My friend asked, making a face of a village gull.
– “We’ve got much better thrust-to-weight ratio,” the scientist replied in a voice of a mentor, who knew his worth.
– “Alright, then could you read this Statement and give us your final conclusion, please? And…”
– “And we’ll go have a lunch,” Nikolay suggested, “You know, on an errand it’s like in defense: the meal is the ultimate thing.”
The end of the comparative evaluation
This was the end of our work on the comparative evaluation of the “Foreigner” and our Soviet fighters. I don’t know what kind of discussions were held “up there”, but I know for sure, that the recommendations for the Ethiopian pilots were changed. Our “experts” suggested not to engage in a close dogfight, but to use the “hit-and-run” tactics instead. What about MiG-23, everyone preferred to forget about it. You bet! It had been supposed to fight even more advanced aircraft! Our Statement was classified as top secret and removed somewhere away from the eyes. The “Foreigner” was given to the aviation industry specialists with a strict clause: no flying, but to disassemble and study the structural features to use the knowledge in further projects.
Some time passed, and the Su-25 close air support aircraft emerged. It had the wheel brakes on the rudder pedals, “maneuvering” wing configuration and a different approach to the cockpit layout. In the terms of the pilot workstation our engineers went even further, and nowadays the cockpit of MiG-29 can serve as an exemplar for similar foreign combat aircraft. The same can be said about the aerodynamics. The aerodynamic capabilities of Su-27 fighter are considered unexcelled so far. It appears that what is clear for one is a revelation for the other. I believe that similar situations arose in the USA as well, as they got our aircraft at times from MiG-21 to MiG-29. We had luck only once.
Photo credit: Unknown