RogerBW's Blog

Northrop YF-23 24 May 2014

The YF-23 was a prototype that competed against the Lockheed YF-22 to become the USAF's Advanced Tactical Fighter in the 1990s; the Lockheed plane won.

Much like the YF-22, the YF-23 was a single-seat, twin-engine aircraft, in the tradition of the F-15 which it was meant to replace. The two were quite similar overall, being designed for air-to-air combat at the expense of other capabilities, but the YF-23 went for stealth and speed while the YF-22 went for agility.

Northrop had been working on the B-2, and used a similar design of tiled trough to mix and cool the engines' hot exhaust gases; this also helped reduce the plane's IR signature from below. To reduce sideways radar signature, the twin tailplane was canted steeply outwards. The most distinctive visual aspect, though, was the diamond-shaped wing, in contrast with the deltas or sweeps of most other aircraft of the day. Also, the fuselage is area-ruled to reduce trans-sonic drag, blending into the wing from above as the engine mounts rise from it.

The YF-22 was chosen for production. Some of this was certainly conservatism: it looked much more conventional than the YF-23, which made it appear a lower-risk project. There's some speculation that the YF-22 was considered more suitable for adaptation to the US Navy's Naval ATF programme (to replace the F-14), but that was cancelled in 1992 before any serious work could be done on it.

Late in 2004, Northrop modified one of the prototypes to bid for an interim bomber contract, but this was cancelled before an aircraft was chosen. Since an F-22 derivative was also in the works, maintenance commonalities would probably have pointed to that one anyway.

I'm writing up this aircraft largely because it was one that made a great visual impression on me; it looks good to my sense of aesthetics in a way that for example the DH.88 Comet, the SR-71 and Concorde also do. Many aircraft look effective but brutal (the F-15, the B-58); this one looks as if someone got something fundamentally right at an early stage. It doesn't so much beat the air out of the way as whisper sweet nothings into its ear.


  1. Posted by John Dallman at 12:55pm on 25 May 2014

    It's certainly futuristic-looking, although it doesn't quite make the same impression on me. The USAF taking the less stealthy option of two does see like a potential error to me: whichever aircraft they picked was going to be in service for a long time, and there's plenty of time for opponents to improve their sensors. However, we don't get to see the numbers.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 04:12pm on 25 May 2014

    I heard rumours at the time about problems with the tractor that ejected missiles from the weapons bay, though I suspect they'd have been within the tolerances for a prototype aircraft.

    Given how late the choice was made, and how the Cold War was clearly changing if not obviously ending at the time, I'd have thought the more flexible design would be the one to pick; that might well end up being the -22.

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