In what may be my favorite installment in The War Zone ’s ongoing series on Northrop's YF-23 Black Widow, we hear directly from famed test pilot Paul Metz. Metz started his career as an F-105G Wild Weasel pilot in Vietnam and went on to become one of America's preeminent test pilots. He flew Northrop's YF-23 on its first flight during the Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF) competition that pitted the jet against Lockheed's YF-22 and also went on to do the same for the F-22A. In the video below, he describes what the ATF program was like from the inside and just how good the YF-23 actually was. In addition, we get extra color on the accelerated flight test program Northrop executed for the competition from test pilot Jim Sandburg. Their testimony combined gives us an unprecedented look into the YF-23 program and paints a clear picture that YF-23 was indeed equal if not superior to its competition.
The lecture was put on at the Western Museum Of Flight—where one of the YF-23 is on display—to a seniors group. This gem of historical reference has been largely overlooked even as the YF-23 has risen to near legendary status, becoming one of the most enigmatic and fascinating modern aircraft in history. What's so important to underline is that Metz worked for both Northrop and Lockheed and is not known for hyperbole. Yet even after flying the pre-production F-22, a far more mature machine than the YF-23 ever was, he makes it quite clear that Northrop's offering was on par with Lockheed's, if not superior.
The hardest hitting quote comes at the end of the lecture by the two test pilots, where Metz states:
"Never hang your head in shame about what we did. We built a tremendous product that would stand side-by-side with anything else, and in many cases exceed the capabilities of anything else. And we can always be proud of that."
Sandberg and Metz also note that both aircraft met the ATF requirements and that Lockheed was chosen because the Air Force had greater confidence they could better manage the program.
Metz makes another incredibly valuable point about how Lockheed knew how to present and market their airframe far better than Northrop did. He notes that not everyone who would be in a position to select a fighter aircraft would be an engineer and that they may not even be technically astute. So leaving 'lasting impressions' on a conceptual level, even if they don't tell the whole story technically, can give one side an advantage over the other.
Northrop's team was made up of brilliant engineers—Metz says they were beyond compare—but they thought and spoke almost exclusively in engineering terms. Meanwhile, Lockheed infused far more marketing, salesmanship, and pizazz—'lasting impressions' as Metz eloquently puts it—into their YF-22 flight demonstration program. They fundamentally understood how to sell their aircraft and how 'showmanship' heavily impacts the acquisition decision-making process. Northrop didn't and that fact may have proven fatal for the YF-23.
There is so much else in this video of importance to the Advanced Tactical Fighter competition story. Sandburg talks about how the YF-23's massive tailerons were so powerful that they largely mitigated the perceived advantages of the YF-22's thrust vectoring. There are many other details about the genesis of the ATF program overall, in-flight emergencies during the flight demonstration phase, how the YF-23's radar cross-section helped influence its unofficial Black Widow moniker, and even how that famous picture of the B-2 landing with the YF-23 in the foreground came to be.