The Northrop YF-23 Stealth Fighter: The Killer Jet the Air Force Said No To
Key point: The YF-23 wasn’t bad, but the F-22 was better.
The U.S. Air Force came very close to buying a rocket ship.
In 1991, the Air Force selected Lockheed’s YF-22 fighter over Northrop’s YF-23 as the basis for the service’s new air-superiority fighter.
That wasn’t the only major decision the Air Force made at the time. The service also selected Pratt & Whitney’s YF-119 as the engine that would power that YF-22, in the process rejecting General Electric’s YF-120.
It’s apparent 28 years later that the Air Force preferred the YF-119 because it seemed it would be cheaper and easier to develop and build. The YF-120 demonstrably was more powerful. But that power came at a cost that the flying branch decided was unacceptable.
History flows in one direction and fantastical conjecture about long-ago weapons programs can be toxic. But in 2019 as the Air Force begins considering how eventually to replace the F-22, it’s worth considering the implications of choosing cheaper and more reliable technology over riskier, pricier but potentially more powerful tech.
The Air Force in 1971 began studying requirements for a new fighter to succeed the F-15, which itself at the time was still in development, recalled Paul Metz, a former Northrop test pilot who flew the YF-23.
Metz and fellow YF-23 test pilot Jim Sandberg in 2015 spoke at length about the YF-23 in a lecture series at the Western Museum of Flight in California.
Studies continued for 10 years before the service finally approached the aerospace industry. The Air Force in 1981 asked nine companies to pitch new fighter designs. Seven responded. The Air Force in 1986 tapped Lockheed and Northrop each to build and test two prototypes. The deadline was in 1991.
Meanwhile, the Air Force tapped Pratt & Whitney and General Electric each to develop a new engine to power the two YF-22s and two YF-23s that Lockheed and Northrop were building. One of each type of demonstrator would fly with the Pratt & Whitney YF-119 while the other flew with General Electric’s YF-120.
In a sense, the Air Force planned to consider not two competing fighter designs, but four. That’s how different the two motors were. “This was a competition between two airplane designs but also two engine designs,” Sandberg said.
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