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The Northrop Jet Fighter Family: A Pictorial History


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There's something about an - essentially - unbroken line of development stretching back 60 years that just makes me a bit sentimental. Sure, they never have been the highest performance fighters in the world, but maybe that's why the family has lasted so long. From the first proposal of the N-102 in 1953, to the Growler, this is the Northrop jet fighter family appreciation thread:

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The Boeing EA-18G Growler? The Prowler is probably the one you're thinking about.

 

Also I think you're missing a big one if you're counting the Growler as a fighter, but it's understandable why you'd miss it, it's designed for that.

 

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Can't appreciate Northrop birds without it even if it's not technically invited.

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It's not that crazy:

 

-YF-17 was a Northrop bird.  Ostensibly it was their entry into the LWF competition, but actually they'd been working on an F-5 replacement for years before the competition was announced.  This used YJ101 "leaky turbojet" engines.  This lost to the YF-16 for the LWF bid, but some genius had meanwhile decided that the Navy would have to buy LWFs as well, not realizing that carrier birds are much, much better off if purpose-designed.

 

-F/A-18 was the ultimate result of this foolishness.  Although the YF-16 was the better design in most respects, the YF-17 was drastically better suited to carrier operations thanks to twin engines, much wider landing gear and lower landing speeds and AOA.  However, Northrop had no experience making carrier birds, so they partnered with McDonnell Douglas, who had the entire phantom/banshee/demon/phantom II family of carrier fighters under their belt.

 

The changes from YF-17 to F/A-18 were quite major.  F/A-18 was going to be a multi-role aircraft, not just a simple day fighter.  to that end a whole mess of new avionics were added, chiefly a much bigger and better radar and also the most advanced cockpit of the time, were added to the aircraft.  Because the aircraft would be tasked as a fighter and as an attack aircraft, a lot of work went into designing cockpit instruments that could display lots of information in a smooth, efficient way.  

 

The structure was reinforced to withstand carrier operation and anti-corrosion coatings were added where needed to survive being next to the ocean all the time.  The engines were now the godly GE F404; hands down the best fighter engine until the F110.  Weight went up enormously (about 30%) and the wings were enlarged to compensate.  To try and minimize weight increase, a large percentage of composites were used to replace traditional aluminum structure.  Initially, F-15 style dogtooth leading edge vortex generators were added to the wings and horizontal stabilizers, but these were later deleted.  The gap between the LERX and the fuselage was also eliminated, except for a small slot for boundary layer air from the inlets.

 

F/A-18L:  McDonnell Douglas and Northrop agreed to share production responsibilities on the F/A-18, with some parts coming from each company.  In the meantime, however, Northrop was given full responsibility and ownership of the F/A-18L design, which would be a de-navalized F/A-18.  The advanced avionics, new engines and aerodynamic refinements would stay, but the structure would be made lighter and some of the special corrosion-resistant materials would be removed in order to save weight.  The aircraft was never built; Northrop simply dressing up the YF-17 prototypes to play the part.  Canada and a few other countries seriously flirted with the idea of buying these, but in the end all prospective buyers either bought regular F/A-18s or F-16s.

 

-F/A-18E/F:  In 1987, McDonnell Douglas submitted a series of proposals for developments of the F/A-18 under the name "Hornet 2000."  Configuration 1 was a fairly simple upgrade with uprated engines, a more powerful radar, and some updates to the avionics and cockpit.  Configuration 2 was similar, but further featured some structural improvements to the wings, and an extended fuselage spine to house extra fuel.  Configuration 3 took configuration 2 and added a larger wing and tail and even more fuel.  Configuration 4 was a new aircraft altogether; a canard-configured hornet intended to lure away members of the then-troubled Eurofighter program.

 

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None of these proposals ever proceeded, but the spectacular failure of the USN's A-12 program did create a need for some sort of stopgap until the NATF arrived (NATF also failed).  The superhornet was thus created.  Shornet is similar to configuration 3 of the hornet 2000 proposal, but with some further elaborations.  The engines are the new F414, which is based on the F404, but incorporating changes intended for the engines of the A-12 as well as changes made by the Swedes for the gripen.  The latest version of the F414 produces over double the thrust of the YJ101; the engine that the core was originally based on.  The radar is new, additional weapon stations have been added, the LERX have been redesigned to clear up some nagging issues with the vertical stabilizer interacting with the vortices, and the inlets have been redesigned to accommodate the new engines as well as to reduce radar cross section.

 

Since the super hornet is literally the only fixed wing carrier-based aircraft to be designed since the 1970s, it's been forced to do all sorts of other things like tanking and EW.  Thus, the buddy tanking system and the EA-18 Growler.

 

In the meantime, McDonnell Douglass merged with Boeing, which is why the shornet is a Boeing bird now.

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Yeah, it's more that it's bizarre and unnatural that a design originally made by one manufacturer got elaborated on in a partnership with another, which was later able to elaborate on that in one of the very few seriously successful acquisition projects of that size in that time period (as far as getting what was asked for on time and on budget goes). And then naturally the first company goes in and plays with the avionics.

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Alas, not even Chuck Yeager could save tigershark from the specter of unrestricted F-16A sales.

 

It would have been interesting to see how the F-20 would have stacked up to the gripen; they're very comparable.

I really wanted Canada to buy some as backups to the F-18s we bought.  Would have been a good fit, we flew the F-5 for quite a while.

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  • 1 year later...
  • 6 years later...

Thanks to this Secret Projects thread, we have some images of the transitional forms of the Northrop fighter lineage which help connect the T-38/F-5/etc to the Cobra/Hornet. As is fairly well known, the this transition begins with the Northrop P-300, which is still firmly grounded in the Freedom Fighter. This is an important member of the family, which I left out of my original posts:

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This is a configurable study model of the late version (A43) of the P-300 (seemingly evidenced by the very difficult to read nameplate). Clearly visible is its resemblance to a high-wing F-5, but you can also see in the belly shot a very clear view of the flared out body-intake configuration that would follow the design all the way through the P-530 and YF-17, which was much more subdued in the F-18:

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In fact, the early P-530 looks much more like the P-300A43 than it does the later P530s:

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Note that by May '67 they haven't even ditched the single tail yet (that wouldn't happen until the summer of 1968)!

By the end of the P-530 the aircraft gets looking very much like a proto-Cobra:

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You can see that in this very "Starfightery" series of designs, one of the big distinguishing features visually is caused by the location of the gun. Not in front of the pilot like in the Cobra and Hornet, but below the pilot:

 

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Speaking of guns, evidently the armament of two M39s in lieu of an M61 was being considered as late as 1973/4:

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The photos in that SP thread really clearly illustrate the evolution from the F-5 to the Hornet very well, and there's even a handy visual outline:

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But what's this? It mentions a single-engined P-610? Indeed:

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  • 5 weeks later...

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