F-20 prototype 82-0062 (National Museum of the USAF photo)

F-20 prototype 82-0062 (National Museum of the USAF photo)

The best plane that never was.

So much time, energy, money, and a little bit of scandal. But in the end, nothing.

When Chuck Yeager, the man who broke the sound barrier, got behind the stick of an F-20 Tigershark, he called it “fabulous.”

“I’ve flown just about every fighter there are, including the F-15, F-16, F-18. It’s one of the sweetest planes to fly I’ve ever seen,” he said. “An easy airplane to fly. It’s a lot fun to fly.”

Northrop began development of the F-20 in 1975 as an evolution past its highly successful export fighter, the F-5A/B Freedom Fighter and F-5E Tiger II. But in terms of evolution, the F-20 was a human if the F-5 was an ape. There bears a resemblance at times, but the F-20 was so far advanced. The F-20 featured a new engine, powerful radar, and advanced avionics. It could engage air targets beyond visual range. It could drop bombs and fire air-to-ground missiles.

The F-20 was most comparable to the F-16, which it competed with and ultimately lost out to on the export market. It was about as fast as the F-16, had a better rate of climb and would have cost less per unit than the F-16’s $15 million pricetag. The F-20 was also 53 percent more fuel efficient and required less than half the maintenance of the F-16.

Politics likely spelled the end-with-no-beginning for the F-20. Northrop built the F-20 itself, with its own money, intending to make it an export fighter. General Dynamics developed the F-16 in close partnership with the United States Air Force. When the Air Force chose the F-16, the countries that were looking at the F-20 suddenly had a big reason to buy the F-16 instead — those countries could get their hands on a front-line American warplane. In turn, the Air Force had a stake in the F-16’s export success. The more F-16’s were built, the cheaper the Air Force’s ones would cost. To date, three prototype F-20s were built. More than 4,500 F-16s have been built, with foreign orders still being fulfilled in 2012.



Crew: One
Length: 47 ft 4 in
Wingspan: 27 ft 11.9 in with wingtip missiles (26 ft 8 in; without)
Height: 13 ft 10 in (4.20 m)
Empty weight: 13,150 lb (5,090 kg)
Max. takeoff weight: 27,500 lb (11,920 kg)
Engine: Oee General Electric F404-GE-100 turbofan, 17,000 lbf


Maximum speed: Mach 2+
Range: 1,490 nmi with 3 × 330 gal drop tanks
Ceiling: 55,000 ft (16,800 m)
Thrust/weight: 1.1


  • 2x 20mm M39A2 cannons in nose
  • Five external hardpoints with 9,000 lb total capacity including:
    • Rocket pods
    • AGM-65 Maverick air-to-surface missiles
    • Bombs, including Mark 80
  • 2x AIM-9 Sidewinders on wingtip rails

Essential Reading

There are some engaging books that deal with the F-20 Tigershark and the politics around it. If you can get your hands on it, buy “Arms Deal: The Selling of the F-16,” but good luck finding it. There are some period-produced reference guides like “Northrop F-5/F-20” by Jerry Scutts and “Warbird Tech Vol. 44” by Fred Johnsen.

Online Resources:

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