Northrop N-156 family program
Last update 03-12-2020
The US Air Force was engaged in a run to obtain higher and higher performances and armament load from its new fighters up to the sixties, with the consequence of increasing complexity, increase in airframe weight,
spiralling maintenance costs and necessity for long runways.
studies on lightweight fighters begun in the mid fifties with the N-102
"Fang" project, which was not built. This had no resemblance to the
Northrop N-102 Fang mock-up with fictitious serial 22777
lightweight engines with enough power were a problem, solved wth the
availability of General Electric's J-85 beginning 1955. A new project
was started with the designation N-156 and implied a family of
consisting in a ground based fighter (N-156F), a carrier-borne
(N-156N) and a trainer (N-156T, later TZ-156).
US Air Force needed at the time a new supersonic trainer to replace the Lockheed T-33A; it issued in
May 1955 an operational requirement for what was to be selected and designated Northrop T-38A.
Northrop went on with development of the fighter version as a private venture, although
the US Air Force was not interested in the proposal for its own use, but the aircraft
might have been of interest to allied nations.
Official presentation to the USAF of both the single- and double-seater was in January 1956.
Construction go-ahead (with company funding) was
given early 1958. On 27-05-58 (rather unusually) an research and development contract with the US Department of Defense was formalized allocating almost
USD 50m (32m
to Northrop and 18m to General Electric) for 3 aircrafts and 1 static
test airframe to Norair, the division of the new Northrop Corporation now
responsible for building aircrafts and missiles.
Mock-up with fictitious 56 (Fiscal Year) 156
(project number) serial. Photo: Northrop Colour picture of Northrop N-156F mock-up in March 1957
first prototype roll-out followed at Hawthorne on 31-05-59. Representatives
of forty allied nations attended to the ceremony.
production discussions were held with European aircraft builders:
Fokker of the Netherlands, SABCA of Belgium and FIAT of Italy but their
governments selected the Lockheed F-104G as their new fighter.
Discussions were also held with Australia and the United Kingdom
Northrop publicity drawing, rocket assisted
First prototype 94987, before being selected by USAF, with (future) gun bay open Photos: Northrop All armament to be carried (serparately) by the N-156F on show
First flight of the first prototype, serial 59-4987, took place on 30-07-59
(without any Air Force insignia and markings) at Edwards AFB, where the
aircraft had been transferred, going supersonic on the first flight
despite the low thrust
of the installed General Electric YJ-85-1 engine.
of Edwards AFB still in company colours (Norair on tail, no nationality
Freedom Fighter nose
inscription before selection by the USA
USAF - F-5A Freedom Fighter development
The second protoype at an Edwards AFB open-day with Sidewinders and a full load of tanks.
No cannon armament was originally fitted, but tests with 20mm underwing podded cannons took place.
No nationality or US Air Force markings yet painted as the type had not been officially accepted.
Photo was taken when already selected by the
USAF Bothphotos by Northrop.
Flight tests proceeded smoothly, a
USAF project test pilot flying the aircraft from the third flight for
First prototype with GAM-83
Bullpup missile underwing. Photo: Northrop Air-to-air and (non USA, quite unusual!) air-to-ground missiles were taken in consideration as
armament in 1960: Nord AA.20 (a-a) AS.20 (a-g), Nord AA.25, AS.25 and AS.30, without follow on.
powerful General Electric YJ-85-5, with afterburner, replaced the
early version after 32 test flights; the second prototype was foreseen to fly in January 1960.
Intensive armament trials took place: live 250/500/750 pounds bombs and napalm canisters were dropped,
third prototype on a test flight, note long nose pitot tube.
2.75 inch rockets were fired, AIM-9B Sidewinder air-to-air missiles were carried on the wingtips, a
"special missions" (nuclear) bomb mock-up under the fuselage.
Air Force tests at Edwards AFB were concluded with great satisfaction in
August 1960, but this did not lead to an Air Force
change of mind. No order for its own use was placed and it
seemed the the programm
was going to be stopped, so the
construction of the third prototype remained incompleted.
interest in the aircraft was renewed when the Kennedy administration
beginning 60's decided to suppy it allies with a low-cost fighter under
the Military Assistance Program FX; a competition was held involving
Fighter, the Douglas A-4 Skyhawk and the Lockheed F-104H, a simplified version of the Lockheed F-104G, this last being preferred by the Air Force.
The Northrop F-5A was anyhow selected as
the winner, officially announced on 23-04-62, receiving the USAF designation Northrop F-5A Freedom Fighter in August 1962.The third prototype, designated Northrop YF-5A,
was completed and flew on 31-07-63,
being fully representative of production aircrafts. Both earlier prototypes were later brought up to YF-5A standard
F-5B Freedom Fighter trainer development
This picture clearly shows the external diffence between the Northrop F-5B (serial 38443,
the company's demonstrator) and the Northrop T-38A trainer.
First flight of the two-seater
Northrop F-5B fighter was on 24-02-64; it was accepted ba the USAF and declared
operationa on 30-04-64, some four months earleir than the single-seater. The experience with
the Northrop T-38 trainer was fruitful.
F-5A Freedom Fighter development - US Army trials
The US Army's wish to operate its own supportforce
led in January 1961 till July 1961 to trials for the
possible selection of a jet aircraft. This would have operated in the
Forward Air Control and the Close Air
Support role operating from
uniproved airfields near front lines. Initial factory tests were held
on a grass runway at Hughes airfield, Culver City, not far from the
Hawthorne factory, followed at NAS Jacksonville
and NAS Pensacola.
Two Fiat G-91R-3s, two G-91R-4s, one G-91T-1, two Douglas A-4D-2 (A-4B) Skyhawks and the two Freedom
Fighters prototypes (59-04987/988) participated at Fort Rucker Army Base to the
The Northrop aircraft was preferred by the Army, but the project was cancelled due to US Air Force
Bombs armed Northrop YF-5A 94987 (without guns) in company with its competitors,
Fiat G-91R-3 and Douglas A-4B.
Photo: Northrop Grumman Corp.
First Northrop YF-5A 94987 on an US Army test carrying two underwing
F-5A Freedom Fighter development - USAF soft-ground trials
Soft ground trials at Pensacola in June 1961: the second Freedom Fighter prototype with Second prototype Northrop YF-5A 94988 seen on the grass runway, with external fuel tanks
larger tires on the main and two-tires on
the front landing gear, later removed.
and single-tire wheel on the front landing gear.
included landing in 1300 ft/396m
on grass and taking off with a maximum load in less
than 2'500 ft/762m. USAF inscription was replaced by "Army" in September 1961 for
F-5A Freedom Fighter development - Production lines
Construction line for the Northrop F-5s in 1960s
US Navy - F-5NN Freedom Fighter
certain interest for the Northrop N-156 was shown after World War II by the US Navy, as only their
piston engined aircrafts could be handled by small escort
carriers, at the time used mainly
as aircraft transport carriers.
The first Northrop (paper) light fighter project for the US Navy was the N-156NN or PD-2706 show in November 1955, but interest died when the Navy retired end 1950's these carriers.
Left drawing of the poroposed Northrop N-156NN