Growing up, I was a Lockheed kid. My grandfather, who took a hand in raising me, was a Skunk Works engineer through the golden age of black spy planes and stealth technology. I was born in Marietta, Georgia, just up the road from the historic Lockheed plant. I was not yet five years old when I’d formed the biased opinion that Lockheed’s YF-22 prototypes were the coolest, most fantastic thing in the sky, and the Northrop YF-23 prototypes were lumpy, funny looking attempts at fighter jets, the likes of which could surely never compete with the product of my grandpa’s company. I knew that the two aircraft had battled it out in a prototyping competition flyoff. Lockheed’s YF-22 had won, which was no surprise to me, in my young mind. One morning, my parents informed me that our Lockheed Marietta Plant had won the contract to build the F-22 production model right there in my hometown. We drove by the plant and saw local news media crews enthusiastically broadcasting live, surely proud that so much work was coming to the area. On September 7, 1997, I stood on the flightline with my grandfather at Dobbins Air Reserve Base, and watched the first flight of the first F-22 production model. I was in awe, so proud of my grandpa’s company, and happy that they’d beat Northrop.
Decades later, I’m now able to face the world armed with more equanimity, and I’ve formed a more objective opinion of the Northrop YF-23. Only now, can I understand what an incredible aircraft the YF-23 is, and how close we were to losing that contract. This opinion was reinforced when I finally saw a Northrop YF-23 in person. My first experience with the bird happened on September 9, 2014, at the Western Museum of Flight in Torrance, California. To see her, I had to be escorted across the Torrance Airport flight line, to an area cordoned off for restoration work, where this bird is half way through with receiving a new coat of paint. When I rounded a corner and I first laid eyes on the her, I was awestruck. The stealthy, triolithic profile of the aircraft was distinctly Northrop, reminiscent of their B-2. The aircraft seemed to change shape as you walked around it.
Photographing up close was thrilling because there were only two ever built, and they were bathed in secrecy for so long. This was the second prototype built, called 87-0801 PAV-II. Many performance aspects of the aircraft are unknown, but we do know that this prototype, with the GE YF120 engine, was the fastest of the four aircraft that competed in the Advanced Tactical Fighter Flyoff. Her top speed is still classified, but it is widely speculated that she could fly faster than Mach two. She was the stealthiest aircraft involved in the prototyping program, but not quite as agile as the YF-22, which may have led to her downfall.
To truly understand the world of aviation, you must look at things objectively. I certainly found a new respect for the YF-23, even with my Lockheed roots. The YF-23 is one of the most incredible flying machines ever conceived.