The Freedoms fought in the Vietnam War from about 1966, serving in the 3rd Tactical Fighter Wing.

The F-5 is a twin-engine supersonic light fighter designed and built by Northrop beginning in the 1960s. The Freedoms fought in the Vietnam War from about 1966, serving in the 3rd Tactical Fighter Wing. During the war she made about 3,500 sorties from Bien Hoa airfield, South Vietnam.

Northrop F-5 in the Vietnam War
Northrop F-5 in the Vietnam War

The F-5 is renowned for its highly aerodynamic design, featuring two compact and high-thrust General Electric J85 engines, focusing on performance and a low cost of maintenance. Nicknamed the Freedom Fighter, it first flew in 1959 and still flies in 18 countries in limited service. The F-5 can fly at Mach 1.6 and has a service ceiling over 50,000 feet. Armed with two 20mm cannons, it has seven hardpoints for weapons and extra fuel.

The Freedom Fighter has a unique combat operations history. It fought in the jungles of South Vietnam conducting dangerous Close Air Support missions. Initially, under Project Sparrow Hawk, the F-5’s crew and ground support personnel trained for its operational capabilities at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. After completing its initial operational test, a few modifications were completed which included the addition of an air-to-air refueling probe and 90kg of the cockpit and engine armor, which would prove valuable for survival during CAS in Vietnam.

The improved F-5 was designated F-5C/D and sent to South Vietnam for combat evaluation in July 1965 under Project Skoshi Tiger. During its combat evaluation phase, F-5s conducted thousands of CAS missions, delivering bombs, rockets, napalm, and 1.5 million rounds from its 20mm cannon. Its ability to fly fast and low, along with its small size, made it a hard target for anti-aircraft artillery to hit, making the plane an excellent choice in the CAS role.

The Skoshi Tigers, after combat evaluation by the U.S. Air Force, were passed on to South Vietnam’s air force and fought in the Vietnam War until 1975. When South Vietnam was overrun by NVA forces on 30 April 1975, approximately 877 aircraft were captured by the communists. Of that number, 87 were reported as F-5As and 27 were F-5Es.

In November 1975, the Vietnamese government gave the Soviet military an opportunity to select captured US equipment for research and intelligence purposes. A complete F-5, along with two complete spare engines, spare parts, and ground support equipment, were loaded onto a Soviet cargo ship. Several other F-5s were later transferred by Vietnam to the USSR, Poland and Czechoslovakia.

The Vietnam People’s Air Force (VPAF) reportedly used 41 F-5s operationally. Others were decommissioned and put on display at museums in Vietnam. Gradually, a lack of critical spare parts in Vietnam caused initially by a US embargo and later by termination of manufacturing and dwindling stocks – grounded the remaining F-5s. However, in May 2017 it was reported that the VNAF was considering upgrading particular systems in some retired aircraft, in order to put them back into service.

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