One of the classiest designs ever to emerge out of the 1950s, the Northrop F-5 is an head-turning, eye-catching fighter. Not only a winner in the good looks department, the nimble, supersonic fighter was relatively cheap to obtain and operate. A host of nations agreed, with over 2600 of the type built during the 25-year production run and the type is still in service over four decades later. One such nation is Brazil, where the Tiger still flies in the Força Aérea Brasileira.

In the US, you can find US Navy and Marine Corps F-5s painted in various camouflage schemes and operated in an adversarial role. Those particular critters you’ll find at MCAS Yuma in Arizona, NAS Fallon in Nevada, and NAS Key West in, well…Key West! But one summer a few years ago, some F-5s from the southern hemisphere ventured north and west to a base near Las Vegas that we at FighterSweep sometimes (okay, most times!) like to visit: I’m talking about a lovely, little place called Nellis.

A Força Aérea Brasileira F-5EM Tiger. (Photo courtesy of
A Força Aérea Brasileira F-5EM Tiger. (Photo courtesy of

In town for a Red Flag exercise, the dark green and blue-ish Brazilian Tigers stood out from the bright concrete and bleached desert soil of southern Nevada. Though the small wings make the F-5 tough to spot in the sky, they made for a lengthy takeoff roll in the hot mid-day air and an opportunity for the Tigers to show off their loud end. The two General Electric J85s powering the F-5 aren’t the biggest or most powerful engines around, but still push the sleek, lightweight design to speeds up to Mach 1.6.

The Brazilian Air Force first placed their order for the F-5A/B in October 1974, and the first FAB jets were fielded by the Força Aérea Brasileira just six months later. Brazil took a liking to the light, twin-engine design and obtained even more Tiger IIs in the late 1980s. By the turn of the century however, the jets were getting long in the tooth and with neighboring countries obtaining newer types, the decision was made to modernize the Tiger fleet. Embraer Defense and Security was charged with the massive upgrades, with the newly revamped jets designated F-5EM/FM.

As part of the process, the F-5s received hefty internal upgrades that ran the full gamut of war fighting systems to include a glass cockpit with multifunctional displays, along with navigational, datalink, targeting, electronic warfare, radar, and self-defense systems. But that’s not all! Additional enhancements include Hands On Throttle And Stick (HOTAS) controls, a Head-Up Display (HUD), an air refueling probe, and an On-Board Oxygen Generation System.

These upgrades essentially rebuild the entire interior of the aircraft, and it is expected to add another 15 years onto the life span of the Brazilian F-5 Tiger II fleet, ensuring that Northrop’s design will remain a relevant and lethal fighter into the 2020s.

(featured image: Jonathan Derden)