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Recollections and reflections — a seasoned reporter’s view of aviation history

Definitely not old wine in a new bottle — first prototype F-20 Tigershark 82-0062 at the Le Bourget Salon, 4 June 1983. As Alan Partridge said of the Rover Metro, “They’ve rebadged it, you fool!”

If it looks right, it’ll fly right’ is an adage seemingly proven by such aesthetically pleasing designs as Reginald Mitchell’s Spitfire and Sydney Camm’s Hunter. That’s not to say other, far less attractive (didn’t say ‘ugly’) aeroplanes haven’t proved supremely successful in service: witness the F-4 Phantom II which, coincidentally, picked up in service the nickname ‘double ugly’. In the field of civil airliners, manufacturers and airlines have long recognised the need to sell the attributes of their latest aircraft direct to potential passengers. Old BOAC advertisements for the (lovely) VC10 played on the type’s unique selling points.

One claimed it was “easy on the ears”, which may well have been true from inside the passenger cabin, but was perhaps less so for those living in the near vicinity of Hounslow. Perhaps more prophetically, another period BOAC ad noted, “A lot of airlines can fly you across the Atlantic. But not on one of these”, with a photo of the rear end of a VC10 and its four ‘quiet’ Rolls-Royce Conways.

As history records, BOAC’s lukewarm enthusiasm for the VC10 and its stultifying requirement for ‘hot and high’ performance restricted the type’s appeal with most airlines, and the corporation and the RAF would prove to be its only large-scale users.

In the C-130 Hercules there is little doubt that Lockheed predicted successfully what air forces would want from a tactical airlifter — pressurised cabin with truck bed-height ‘roll-on, roll-off’ rear loading ramp and short-field performance. Sixty-five years on, production continues unabated at Marietta, Georgia, with more than 2,500 built.

After all, what would any air force want to replace an old C-130, other than a new C-130? Its cargo compartment can carry 90 troops, arranged on sideways-facing seating in four long rows running nose-to-tail. The C-130 is no great looker and the canvas seating is nothing other than utilitarian but, in a military transport, there is little call to provide ‘passenger appeal’.

For the military export market, manufacturers need to offer an aircraft that is — or, at least appears, to be — ‘stateof- the-art’. In the case of American industry, it helps no end if the product is also in widescale use with US forces.

In an astute public relations move, Northrop redesignated the F-5G as the F-20 Tigershark, but it never went into production

Northrop had some success with international sales of its F-5 ‘Freedom Fighter’ and F-5E Tiger II, even though the type was never seriously adopted for front-line use by the US except one deployment to Vietnam. A later attempt to offer a vastly improved, single-engined (General Electric F404) upgrade of the F-5E for the export market as the F-5G never gained traction, potential purchasers instead being attracted to General Dynamics’ F-16. In an astute public relations move in 1982, Northrop redesignated the F-5G as the F-20 Tigershark but despite the type’s demonstrated capabilities, its new designation ‘later in the Department of Defense system than the F-16’ and some very public endorsements by the legendary ‘Chuck’ Yeager, it never went into production.

Lockheed Martin is today proposing its F-16V Block 70, updated with an active electronically scanned array radar, in-flight refuelling and, most importantly, a ‘made in India’ tag, in order to meet an Indian Air Force requirement for 100-plus fighter aircraft. In an attempt to leapfrog the competition for the deal, which includes Boeing’s F/A-18E Super Hornet, it is this time the F-16 itself that has been re-designated. The aircraft is now being promoted to India as the F-21, this even though F-21 was allocated to the IAI Kfirs used by the US Navy from 1985-89 for aggressor training. Will this clever public relations move prove to be a masterstroke? While the engineers toil to add the features that will satisfy the technical side of the evaluation and the accountants strive to come up with an attractive overall package, there is little doubt that the company PR department still has an important part to play.