If the YF-23 Black Widow II was the superior prototype, did Northrup and McDonnell Douglas get robbed in the selection process?
The mission was to make the world’s fastest, smartest fighter plane and also make it invisible via stealth technology. All that makes it sound like the YF-23 woulda shoulda coulda become the world’s most lethal fighter jet.
So, what happened?
The YF-23 was in competition with the YF-22 that eventually became the F-22 Raptor. Northrop teamed with McDonnell Douglas to develop the YF-23 while Lockheed Martin was developing the competing prototype that eventually was chosen for production.
The Department of Defense was seeking next-generation fighters that could compete with the Soviets’ Su-27 and MiG-29 fighter prototypes that reconnaissance satellites had spotted in the late 1970s.
The U.S. Air Force wanted an Advanced Tactical Fighter that had the requirements of survivability, super cruise (prolonged supersonic flight without afterburners), stealth, and ease of maintenance.
The YF-23 is one of the more uniquely designed planes with a distinctive look. Diamond-shaped wings and a V-tail gave it angles rarely scene. It had incredible climbing and vertical speed and its stealth capabilities made it nearly undetectable.
The YF-23 never reached the weapons-testing stage but it was designed to carry at least a 20mm Vulcan cannon, four AMRAAM medium-range air-to-air missiles, and a pair of Sidewinder short-range air-to-air missiles.
After nearly a decade of development, the YF-23 and YF-22 went head to head in 1990. In April of 1991 – with the Cold War finished and the threat of Soviet fighter development lessened – Secretary of the Air Force Donald Rice announced that the YF-22 had won the competition. It was more agile than the YF-23 and that became the determining factor.
The engineers who worked on the YF-23, who were free to discuss the project after it was declassified, are convinced that their aircraft was the better choice. And considering the ongoing issues faced by the F-22 Raptor, their arguments would appear valid.
The two YF-23s had nicknames based on their paint schemes. One was charcoal gray and nicknamed “Black Widow II.” The other was painted in two shades of gray and called “Gray Ghost.” Both were transferred to NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base.