Military Aviation

YF-23A thermal designer explains why Northrop lost ATF competition even though the Black Widow II was stealthier than the YF-22A

“The real reason we (Northrop) lost the program was that Lockheed had no new fighter programs at that time, while Northrop had the F/A-18E/F and the B-2. It was in the national interest of the U.S. to keep Lockheed alive as an airframer.” John Shupek, designer of the YF-23A Black Widow II aft deck.

The YF-23A “Black Widow II” was the Northrop/McDonnell Douglas team’s entry into the Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF) competition.

The four-way ATF competition pitted the Northrop/McDonnell Douglas YF-23A “Black Widow II” team against the Lockheed/Boeing/General Dynamics YF-22A “Lightning II” team. The Pratt & Whitney YF119 engine competed with the General Electric YF120 engine. At the end of the competition, the YF-22A “Lightning II” (The YF-22 was originally given the unofficial name “Lightning II”, after the World War II Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighter, which persisted until the mid-1990s, when the USAF officially named the aircraft “Raptor”) and the Pratt & Whitney YF119 engine were the winners.

Nevertheless, the YF-23A remains one of the coolest (and most intriguing) aircraft ever built.

Photo of the wheel well door of PAV-2. “I took this photo when I was the Curator of the Western Museum of Flight. At that time the Museum was located in Hawthorne, CA. This particular picture was taken circa 1995 after PAV-2 and been restored at the Western Museum of Flight. I believe that this particular callsign was placed on PAV-2 in error, since the Museum’s PAV-2 was known as the “Gray Ghost,” says John Shupek.

Retired Aeronautical/Aerospace Engineer and now owner of aviation website John Shupek was hired by Northrop in 1985, at the start of the ATF competition to do the thermal design of the back end or “aft decks” of the Northrop ATF.

As Shupek tells The Aviation Geek Club, Northrop built two YF-23A prototypes. “YF-23A PAV-1 (with the Pratt & Whitney engines) was actually referred to as “Spider” and its callsign was painted on the inside of the nosewheel door. YF-23A PAV-2 (with the General Electric engines) was actually referred to as “Gray Ghost” and its callsign was painted on the inside of the nosewheel door.”

“Collectively both aircraft were referred to as the Black Widow II.” He explains “Why do I know this? I won the contest for the naming of the aircraft. Back around 1987, we had a “name the plane” contest in an obscure building referred to as “AL” which was located about a half a mile away from the main Northrop campus. This AL building is where the initial design work on the ATF program was conducted in utmost secret.”

This print is available in multiple sizes from – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. F-22A Raptor 192nd Fighter Wing, 149th Fighter Squadron, FF/04-4082 – Langley AFB, VA – 2014

Shupek continues providing some interesting information about both the role he played in the YF-23A program and the “name the plane” contest. “Basically, my job was to make sure that the backend of the airplane didn’t burn off. I evaluated various types of cooling designs for the aft deck and eventually came up with the decision that “transpiration cooling” was the most effective method of cooling the aft deck of the proposed Northrop ATF design. As time passed, the initial eight airframers boiled down to 2-teams: the Lockheed team with the YF-22A (Lightning II) and the Northrop Team with the YF-23A (Black Widow II). By the way the official designations for the two aircraft were YF-22A and YF-23A, not YF-22 and YF-23 as painted on the tails. My California automobile license plate for ten years was YF23A (the correct designation). One of my ATF co-team members chose YF23 as his license plate and was really upset when he found out it was the wrong designation. After the final two teams were selected, we held an in-house competition to determine what supplier would be chosen to build the transpiration cooling tiles that were to form the aft deck of the YF-23A. We eventually chose Allison, located in Indianapolis. The Northrop chosen name for the YF-23A aircraft (Black Widow II) was not officially announced until a short time before the original photographs of PAV-1 were made public.” 

“At that time, my design work on the YF-23A was complete, and I moved on to become a Thermal Manager on the TASSAM (Tri-Service Standoff Attack Missile) subsonic stealth cruise missile program.” Shupek explains. “While on the TSSAM program circa 1989, I received a phone call from Robert R. Sandusky, Jr’s. (Robert was Northrop’s ATF Chief Engineer) secretary (Greta Kane), informing me that I had won the naming contest. The name “Black Widow II” was quite appropriate because it shared many of the same characteristics of its namesake, the Northrop P-61 “Black Widow” World War II night fighter. Both aircraft had two engines, both aircraft were extremely lethal, both aircraft were all weather aircraft, and the coup de grace for the YF-23A was that it’s RCS (Radar Cross Section) signature looked just like a spider web. The name was perfect!”

“One day I was having lunch with Tom Rooney (former Northrop Aircraft Division vice president) in the Northrop cafeteria and I told him about my YF23A California license plate. I asked him if it was possible to get a picture of the license plate hanging off the nose of the YF-23A. Tom instantly said yes. He wanted to do this because it was a California plate, not a Missouri plate. This goes back to all of the legal problems between Northrop and McDonnell Douglas when the USAF Northrop YF-17 Cobra morphed into the USN F/A-18 Hornet. It was a bitter battle between the two companies that lasted many years. McDonnell Douglas ended up being the prime contractor, while Northrop (the initial designer of the airplane) was referred as the major subcontractor. For the ATF, these roles were reversed, thus Tom’s statement about the Missouri plate. The only reason we didn’t fly the YF-23A with the license plate hanging off the nose, was we could not find the mil-specs for a ‘License plate hanging off the nose of an airplane going over Mach 2.3.’ Well, at those speeds the string holding the license plate probably would’ve broken anyway. Needless to say Northrop ATF team was really proud of our aircraft. We absolutely knew that it was the better of the two airplanes,” he recalls.

Here’s a photo of John Shupek license plate on the YF-23A. “I still have the plate,” he says

About the US Air Force (USAF) ATF requirements Shupek explains that “the USAF ATF requirements did not require the ATF design to have a lot of agility. The USAF was looking for a stealth fighter that would have a significant time differential between the ATF and the bandit’s discovery of the ATF. For Northrop, the aft deck of the YF-23A was one of the key stealth features of Northrop’s ATF design. Northrop chose stealth over agility to meet the USAF specifications. Northrop’s aft deck design shielded the aircraft from horizontal and look up threats by hiding the exhaust. Lockheed did the opposite, they chose agility over stealth for the design of the aft section of their YF-22A.”

As explained By Shupek one statement, that really tells in just a few words iust how lethal the ATF designs were, was made by Norhtrop Program Manager, Dell Jacobs, circa 1986 for a Wright-Patterson briefing about the ATF program. The ATF will have the same tactical advantage over the F-15 that the F-15 has over the Goodyear blimp. Believe it or not, that’s a true statement. The statement applies to both of the ATF designs. The first sign that a MiG pilot would have that an ATF was in the area, would be its engine blowing up from a missile hit!”

“The real reason we (Northrop) lost the program was that Lockheed had no new fighter programs at that time, while Northrop had the F/A-18E/F and the B-2.” Shupek reveals. “It was in the national interest of the U.S. to keep Lockheed alive as an airframer. We were told through unofficial channels after the competition, that our design actually met the specs better than the Lockheed design. Believe it or not, Northrop actually won by losing the ATF competition. The Soviet threat that the ATF aircraft were designed for evaporated in 1989 as Humpty Dumpty fell off the Berlin Wall and all the Kremlin’s resources and the Kremlin’s men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again. After Humpty Dumpty, the U.S Congress reduced ATF funding thus forcing the USAF to reduce the number of F-22s that were to be purchased. Meanwhile the Boeing/Northrop-Grumman team kept on building the F/A-18E/F/G’s and everybody seemed to want some of these aircraft for their tarmac.”

During his 36-year career Shupek was also part of the Pratt & Whitney (P&W) jet engine design team for the CIA/USAF’s Lockheed A-12/SR-71A “Oxcart/Blackbird” engines (J58/JT11D-20), as he recalls. “In my earlier years, as a brand new engineer fresh out of the “Cookie Jar”, I worked at Pratt & Whitney in Florida on the SR-71A Blackbird engines. My job was to design the cooling for the first stage turbine blades and vanes. Again, like the YF-23A, it was my job to make sure that the JT11D first stage turbine blades and vanes didn’t burn up and cause a big boom. Keep in mind, during this era, our computers were in their infancy. Both Lockheed and Pratt & Whitney engineers used slide rules for the majority of their calculations. At Pratt & Whitney, we had an IBM 1600 “16K” card reader computer, and an IBM 360 mainframe computer with an amazing “360K” of computing power. My God, who could ever need more computing power than that!”

Going back to the YF-23A program, Shupek says that testing of the ATF aft deck tiles was made at P&W’s FRDC (Florida Research and Development Center) behind Pratt’s YF119 ATF test engines. “We tested several designs behind the engines and found out that the “transpiration cooled” aft deck tile design did the job. I still remember the exact moment when I called Bob Sandusky back in California and all I said was “Bob, we have an airplane!” Needless to say, Sandusky was extremely pleased and we continued on from there. If the tile design had not worked, we most likely would have had to redesign the back end of the aircraft, which most likely would’ve increased the RCS signature of the aircraft, thus making it less stealthy.”

Shupek adds some interesting details about the testing of the aft deck tiles. “When we did the testing of the aft deck tiles down at Pratt, the YF119 was in the full afterburner mode. This might help you to imagine what it looked like. Imagine a 50 foot long exhaust flame plume coming out of the backend of the engine with seven or eight shock diamonds visible in the exhaust plume. Of course the sound that the engines produced was extreme. For example, when I worked on the Blackbird engines, I lived in Jupiter, Florida which was about 20 miles away from the P&W plant, and the test cells were an additional 4-5 miles back into the Everglades. At night, 25 miles away, we could hear the SR-71A engines being tested.”

A picture of the aft deck tiles taken by John Shupek at the Western Museum of Flight, during his tenure as the curator.

“Time marched on, and I eventually retired from Northrop-Grumman in 2000 with the title of Northrop Grumman Program Director F/A-18E/F Super Hornet,” Shupek concludes. “Working for Northrop was one of the “funnest” times of my life. Believe it or not, it was one of those jobs that you looked forward to going to work every day just for the adventure of it. Who could ask for a better job?”

Photo Courtesy of John Shupek

Additional images: U.S. Air Force

This model is available from AirModels – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS.
Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

View Comments

  • How come Northrop couldn’t build the YF23 and get permission to sell to NATO / UK , or Japan ?.

  • The YF-22 had working weapons launching where the YF-23 didn't, despite it not being a requirement of the test, it showed Lockheed was likely well ahead on development. The YF-23 also had a overly complicated and failure prone weapons bay design.
    Northrop was already making aircraft for the DoD- the B2 which was way beyond above budget, and while the F-22 is expensive to maintain, the YF-23 claimed an even more expensive lifecycle. Not only that, but the YF-23 showed stress damage after tests, while the YF-22 did not. While the YF-23 was expected to be faster in testing, the F-22 was planned to adopt more powerful P&W engines where the YF-23 was said to have planned to keep the GE engines after delivery.

    Ultimately, they were both great aircraft, but Lockheed showed much more promise to meet demands.

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