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Aviation History And Aircraft Photography

YF-17 — The Cobra Survivors


For many, the YF-17 Cobra is a little-known footnote in late 20th century military aircraft history. But its bloodlines developed into two very important front-line Navy jets, one of which is just starting its long career. To begin this story, we have to rewind to the mid- and late-1960's. Northrop was doing a good business supplying F-5 jets to the free world. The F-5A Freedom Fighter was a small, simple aircraft that was easy to fly, easy to maintain, and did its job in a cost-effective manner. Northrop came to the conclusion that there would be a global market for an up-rated version of the F-5 that could fly Mach 2. This plane was called the P-530.

The P-530 program was unveiled in early 1971. While it was a capable aircraft, there were no buyers. To make matters worse, the USAF was afraid of the P-530, thinking that it could cause problems for the F-15 Eagle program. The P-530 program stumbled since foreign nations were not going to buy a plane that the USAF did not use. The F-15 itself was in flux given that the Soviets unveiled the Mig-25, which could hit Mach 2.8, faster than any front-line western jet. As a result, the F-15 was enlarged to carry bigger engines, more fuel, longer range radar, and heavier weapons. That made the F-15 price that much more expensive.

Click YF-17 Photo

The growth of the F-15 turned out to be an opportunity in disguise. The F-15 was now so expensive that the USAF could not afford to equip all of its squadrons. The Pentagon came up with the concept of a smaller and less expensive Lightweight Fighter Program. Eventually, the nod was given to General Dynamics to build two YF-16 demonstrators, while Northrop would build two YF-17s based on the P-530 (now called the P-600). The Air Force would fly the prototypes head to head and pick a winner.

Both the YF-16 and YF-17 performed well. The YF-17 became the first USAF aircraft to break the sound barrier in level flight without using afterburners. While the YF-17 outperformed the YF-16 in many areas, the YF-16 used a proven engine, it had longer range, and was less expensive. As a result, the YF-16 won the contest, and went on to be produced in large numbers as the Fighting Falcon. The two YF-17 were sent to NASA, which used them for research for a few years before retiring the two prototypes.

That was not, however, the end of the story. The US Navy needed an airplane to replace the carrier-based F-4 Phantom II, A-6 Intruder, and A-7 Corsair II. When the design program floundered, the main competitors were ordered to look at the aircraft from the Lightweight Fighter Program. The Navy preferred two engines when flying over open water, so the F-16 was not a choice. Northrop determined that they could adapt the YF-17 design to naval use by refining the design and beefing up the landing gear. Northrop teamed up with McDonnell Douglas and submitted a proposal to the US Navy. The proposal was accepted, and the F-18 program was born.

As the Hornet, McDonnell Douglas, now Boeing, produced the F/A-18 in large numbers. First came the A model, a single seat, and the two seat B. A second version followed, the single seat C and two seat D. Over time, the Navy became aware of problems with the Hornet, namely, short range and light bomb load. A new generation of Super-Hornets were deployed, F-18 E and F models that are about 30 percent larger than the original Hornet, and the Cobra it descended from.


YF-17 Cobra On Static Display

Serial Number Aircraft Type City State Location Notes
Mockup YF-17 New York City NY Intrepid Air & Space Museum Displayed indoors.
72-1569 YF-17 Torrance CA Western Museum Of Flight Displayed outdoors.
72-1570 YF-17 Mobile AL USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park Displayed indoors.
Note—click on the Serial Number to see a photo of each airplane.

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Authored by John A. Weeks III, Copyright © 1996—2014, all rights reserved.
For further information, contact: john@johnweeks.com