T-38 / F-5 History

The Northrop F-5 and T-38 family of lightweight fighter and high-performance trainer aircraft are an example of one of the most successful aircraft development and production programs of the last several decades. In total, over 3800 aircraft of five main derivative types were built over a span of approximately 30 years, ending in 1988. Today, more than 1500 of these aircraft remain in active service in 27 Air Forces around the world, including 600 T-38s in the USAF inventory. Many of these aircraft (especially the dual-seat versions) are being upgraded and refurbished and are planned to remain in active service until at least 2010. The USAF Air Education and Training Command (AETC) has stated its intention to maintain it's fleet of dual-seat T-38s at a level of at least 425 aircraft until 2020.

The longevity of this aircraft family results directly from the high quality of the basic design. These aircraft are widely praised for their superior flying qualities, lightweight but durable structure, highly reliable systems and ease of maintenance. Importantly, the safety record of these aircraft has proven to be very good. In fact, the T-38 has the best safety record of any supersonic aircraft that has ever been in the USAF inventory.



The dual-seat T-38 was developed to be a high performance trainer aircraft with no requirement for any combat capability. A total of 1190 were built. From a performance standpoint, when compared to its trainer contemporaries, the T-38 was a "rocket". Even when compared to the fighter aircraft of it's day, the T-38's performance level was impressive. When compared to today's high performance trainer aircraft, the T-38 is still in a performance class by itself. Due to the inherent quality of its design, the T-38 will be modernized and upgraded, and will not be replaced with a new design trainer for many years.


The F-5A “Freedom Fighter” was developed from a Northrop-funded protype aircraft called N-156 that made its first flight in 1959. The F-5A was developed to be a lightweight, multi-role fighter for export to US allies through the Military Assistance Program (MAP).

In direct contrast to most fighter aircraft of its day, design emphasis in the F-5A was given to simplicity. The aircraft was sold to 21 different foreign countries. A total of 904 single-seat F-5As were built. A dual-seat version (the F-5B) was built in limited numbers (295), principally to serve as a transition trainer for pilots scheduled for the single-seater.

Fewer than 100 F-5A/B aircraft are still in operational service in only a few countries. In some countries, the F-5A/B aircraft have been upgraded and converted into fighter lead-in trainers for pilots that will later fly the F-16.



In the early 1970s, the single-seat F-5E was developed as a follow-on to the F-5A. The F-5E incorporated higher thrust engines, a larger wing, and greater internal fuel capacity. The F-5E also was given a more advanced weapon delivery system than the F-5A, incorporating, for the first time, a search radar. The prototype F-5E made its first flight in 1973. A dual-seat version was also developed (the F-5F) and made its first flight in 1974.

The F-5E/F aircraft were sold to 23 different countries. The USAF and USN operated the aircraft as surrogate threat aircraft in the famous Aggressor and Top Gun programs. A total of 1183 single-seat F-5Es and 241 dual-seat F-5F aircraft were built. More than 900 F-5E/F aircraft are still in operational service in 22 countries.

Programs to upgrade the avionics systems in the F-5E/F and extend the structural life of the airframe have been undertaken in many countries, including Chile, Brazil, Thailand, Jordan, Singapore, Indonesia and Morrocco.


Both the F-5A and the F-5E were designed with the capability to perform reconnaissance missions by replacing the nose section (or radome) with a small camera package. The reconnaissance capability of these aircraft was very limited due to the size of the cameras that could be installed.

In the late 1970s, Northrop developed a dedicated reconnaissance version of the F-5E that was designated RF-5E. This aircraft featured an extended nose section with greater volume that could accommodate a wide range of sensors in different “pallets”. Northrop built only 12 of these aircraft. Subsequent to the closure of the F-5 production line, 13 additional F-5E aircraft were converted in the field to the RF-5E configuration, bringing the total fleet size to 25.

Programs to upgrade the avionics systems in the F-5E/F and extend the structural life of the airframe have been undertaken in many countries, including Chile, Brazil, Thailand, Jordan, Singapore, Indonesia and Morrocco.

F-5G (F-20)

In August 1979, Northrop launched a project to develop the successor to the F-5E/F “Tiger II”, called the F-5G “Tigershark”. This aircraft was very similar to the twin-engined F-5E but was powered by a single F404-GE-100 engine, providing a 70% increase in thrust and propelling the aircraft to Mach 2 capability. The first flight of the prototype was in August 1982. Initially, the F-5G used the same avionics that were installed in the F-5E. Later in the project, a modern avionics system was developed for the aircraft and its designation was changed to F-20.

Development of the F-20 was launched under the Carter administration to be a less-capable fighter than the F-16 that could be exported to our allies as a “non-provocative” multi-role fighter. Later, the Reagan and Bush administrations decided to export the more capable F-16 widely, killing the market potential for the F-20. A total of 4 prototype aircraft were built at a cost of over $1.2B. The F-20 was a technical and engineering success but, as a result of the geo-political “changes in the wind” mentioned above, it ultimately was a failure in the marketplace. The project was canceled in October 1986.