Fighters For The Missile Era
The Navy’s Hornets
Northrop received an Air Force contract on April 13, 1972, for two YF-17 prototypes to compete against the General Dynamic YF-16 for the lightweight fighter contract. Developed from an earlier design study called the P-530 Cobra, Northrop’s project differed from the YF-16 in having two engines and twin vertical fins.
Powered by new General Electric YJ101 turbojets, the YF-17 was also armed with an M61 and Sidewinders, and had five stores pylons besides the wingtip missile stations. The first example flew on June 9, 1974, and claimed to be the first U.S. aircraft to fly supersonic in level flight without afterburner, while the second YF-17 flew on August 21.
After learning that the Air Force contract was lost, Northrop focused on the Navy’s need for a lightweight fighter to supplement the F-14. Since Northrop‘s Hawthorne plant lacked experience with carrier-based aircraft, they joined with McDonnell Douglas on October 7, 1974, to jointly prepare a Navy fighter. The St. Louis factory would build the Navy version, and Northrop would work out a land-based variant for NATO. The second YF-17 was turned over to the Navy for thorough testing.
The Navy did not really want to follow the Air Force’s lead anyway, and preferred a twin-engine configuration. Adapting the YF-17 to Navy requirements involved increases in fuel load and weapons provisions that added over 10,000 pounds to the weight, and required more wing area. Despite the added weight, speed was to remain about Mach 1.8, and combat radius 460 miles. On May 2, 1975, the Navy announced its selection of that design as the
F-14’s low-cost counterpart, and a January 22, 1976, letter contract provided for 11 F-18 developmental aircraft, including two two-seat trainers.