Two decommissioned Taiwan Air Force warplanes, a Northrup F-5E and an F-5F, sent to the US for display, were recently revealed to the public at the Classic Aircraft Aviation Museum in Hillsboro, Oregon. The pair of airworthy jets were swapped for an airworthy Douglas A-26 Invader in a trade so mired in international red tape, that it required the assistance of the US State Department and the approval of Congress.
The Northrup F-5 was initially designed as low-cost, low-complexity and high reliability jet fighter, for use on US Navy escort carriers that could not accommodate larger jets. The F-5 suffered a torturous, meandering development with the the Navy dropping escort carriers from its strategies, but Northrup carried on with development. The F-5 did become the basis for the T-38 Talon trainer used for training pilots within the US Air Force, which remin in service to this day, over 50 years after their first entry into service. The USAF felt there was no strategic need for a light attack fighter within the force, and despite the F-5 proving itself superior in ground attack duties, and demonstrating unprecedented reliability, the air force passed on the design.
The F-5 project was saved by the Kennedy Administration’s selecting the plane as the winner of a competition to provide an inexpensive export fighter and the plane was ordered into production in 1962. Testing of the F-5 included USAF combat in the Vietnam War as an assurance of quality for client air forces. While there the F-5s acquitted themselves admirably, flying more than 2,600 sorties, losing seven of the planes to enemy ground fire and two to operational causes. The battle testing revealed that the planes were indeed extremely reliable and capable ground attack aircraft, with capabilities that matched the North American F-100 Super Sabre that was at that time the preferred USAF ground attack aircraft in the conflict.
The F-5, while failing to find much demand within the United States, ended up becoming one of the most widely utilized fighter jets of the cold war, finding itself deployed by the air forces of Austria, Bahrain, Botswana, Brazil, Canada, which built a licensed edition of the plane the Canadair CF-5, Chile, Ethiopia, Greece, Honduras, Indonesia, Iran, Jordan, Kenya, South Korea, Libya, Mexico, Morocco, Malaysia, The Netherlands, Norway, The Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Spain, Sudan, Switzerland, Thailand, Tunisia, Turkey, Venezuela and Yemen. The F-5 was also fielded by the South Vietnamese during the Vietnam War, and after the loss, the planes continued in service with the Vietnamese People’s Air Force, though several were sent to the Soviet Union, the captured F-5s providing the benchmark against which they developed the MiG-29. Even today there are still hundreds of F-5s still in military service around the world.
Somewhat ironically, F-5s were used by the USAF within “aggressor squadrons” as “enemy planes” facing off in training exercises against USAF pilots. So formidable in combat, even well over a decade after its introduction, in 1977 the F-5 still managed to beat the then-new McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle in head to head combat, a true testament to the inherent attributes of its design.
The Republic of China (ROC), located on the island of Taiwan, with an ongoing dispute with Communist China over its right to exist as a sovereign nation, was of significant strategic importance in the cold war. To aid in the defense of the ROC, the United States started allocating F-5s to the ROC Air Force in 1965, and the planes served as the nations primary fighter force straight through to the late 1990s, when the arrival of newer craft relegated the F-5s to training duties, with 32 of the planes still in active duty within the ROCAF.
The still potent performance and low operating costs of the F-5 had several countries seeking to purchase the planes from the ROCAF, but as the US government was unwilling to authorize the transaction, many of the planes have now been deployed around Taiwan as gate guardians for their air force bases, and in an unusual move, two of the planes were exchanged for a Douglas A-26 Invader owned by the Classic Aircraft Aviation Museum.
Within the ROC, the A-26 was used in Taiwan’s “Black Bat” reconnaissance squadron during the Cold War-era. The Black Bats were a corps of CIA reconnaissance plane pilots and crew, citizens of Taiwan, who flew missions over mainland China, to drop agents, gather reconnaissance and intercept military signals from mainland China’s military sites. The squadron was formed in 1953 and flew its last operational mission against The People’s Republic of China in 1967. Their planes, painted black to decrease visibility for their nighttime missions, specialized in very low level air space penetration, hugging the ground in order to evade enemy radar and fighter interception. From 1953 to 1967, the squadron flew 838 missions, losing 148 Black Bat crew members and 15 aircraft. After the squadron stopped flying over and near Mainland China, they moved to special operations over Vietnam, working with US forces there until 1972.
The Invader from the Classic Aircraft Aviation Museum, Serial #: 44-35444 was built in 1944 and served in World War II with the USAAF, the Korean War for the USAF, and served in the ROCAF’s Black Bats 34 Squadron until 1969, when it was decommissioned and entered into civilian service, first with Northwest Air Service in Seattle, Washington through 1971, then converted to an agricultural sprayer for Air Spray Ltd. of Edmonton, Alberta. The plane was then converted into an aerial Tanker in Chino, California in 1975. The Museum acquired the plane in 2006 and made it airworthy again, though they did not restore its military markings. The plane was disassembled and shipped to the ROC in January 2012 where the Taiwanese Air Force further restored it, painted it in black and marked it with the squadron number “844,” the number of an invader flown by the Black Bats. The plane was unveiled at a ceremony attended by over a dozen surviving members of the squadron, and is now on permanent display at the Republic of China Air Force Academy in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, commemorating the extraordinary bravery of the men of the Black Bat Squadron.
The Northrup F-5s recently received by the Classic Aviation Aircraft Museum are scheduled to be cleaned up, painted, and will be put on static display at the museum, in a restoration project that the museum anticipates will take approximately about a year to complete.