The F-5 was the enabler of this amazing flying club. It was a link between the pure era of fighting machines to the modern age of digital combat. The plane was essentially a jet-powered P-51 Mustang, and those days if you flew it well, you were really flying well.

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Cables linked the stick to the ailerons and elevator. Dancing on the pedals directly affected the movement of the rudders. When you flew it well you felt the plane speak to you through the whisper of the wind over the canopy and the Bernoullis nibbling at the wing. It was a plane with a reputation for biting the unwary, often with disastrous consequences. But if you respected it, and knew it well, and listened when it spoke, it was a plane that would reward the pilot by exceeding its expectations.

I once matched an F-14D through a double-Immelman, though at the top I was desperately stirring the pot clawing for purchase. But the Tomcat driver was so unnerved that he was off his game for the rest of the fight. It was in this way that the F-5 actualized its mission. It was a pilot’s machine that rewarded its devotees, and it was a perfect foil for testing the overconfidence of Blue pilots in their advanced platforms.

A four-ship formation of Bandits from VFC-13 over San Diego Bay.
A four-ship formation of Bandits from VFC-13 over San Diego Bay.

The F-5N carries forward that tradition today and for the foreseeable future with some significant enhancements. It sports RWR and chaff dispensers and it has the capability to carry a jamming pod.

But the newer lot Rhino is no Classic Hornet or Tomcat. The ability of the F-5 to continue to provide a credible opposition in the face of AESA and AIM-9X is diminishing. The challenge in the future for VFC-13 will be to match the evolving ‘Percentage Threat’ in the world.

Over 11,000 Mig-21s alone have been produced. There are three companies which specialize in upgrading the airframe to modern capabilities. A radar, HUD, data link, active-missiles, high off-boresight IR missiles and effective RWR can all be strapped into a Fishbed for a fraction of the cost of a new fighter and provide almost all of the capabilities. If the Saints hope to continue flying the F-5 and providing realistic training, efforts in this direction will have to be made.

"Paco" straps in for a training mission in the venerable F-5N Tiger.
“Paco” straps in for a training mission in the venerable F-5N Tiger.

As for me, I will always be grateful for my years as a member of the Bandits. They were (and are) a badass bunch of dogfighting ninjas. It was an honor to walk with them and learn from them, and to share a drink and a laugh.

Likewise, the F-5 will forever be under my skin, an integral part of the story of that time. It infected my dreams and dominated my imagination. I obsessed over perfecting it. Of absorbing from my peers how to cajole every last knot and degree-per-second. I will miss flying it, with them, every day, for as long as I live.