Jordan has been trying to liquidate its retired F-5E Tiger II fleet for years now, and a quartet of these jets recently found themselves hitching a ride inside a chartered cargo jet. The aircraft are said to have been hauled from Jordan to Florida, with a stop-over in Germany, aboard an Atlas Air 747-400F. As you can see in the photos below, the F-5s, with their wings and tail sections detached, had plenty of room to spare in the jumbo jet's cargo hold.
When countries buy second or even third-hand aircraft, part of their acquisition plan often includes having the jets updated and overhauled. For the F-5, which at one time roared around the skies across the globe in great numbers, Northrop Grumman's St. Augustine facility is a prime choice for such work. The facility has been used to keep the Navy and the Marine Corps 41 adversary F-5N/Fs flying. It was also where a handful of F-5F "Franken-Tigers" were remanufactured due to an urgent Navy requirement for lower-time two-seat F-5s.
International F-5 operators also use the facility to enhance their own F-5 fleets. For instance, Tunisia has a contract with Northrop Grumman to upgrade 12 of its F-5s at the facility, a process which is slated to end in 2018. Other countries also have aerospace industries that are capable of upgrading the F-5 and have upgrade packages already designed to do so, such as Turkey and Brazil.
Even if the F-5s were airworthy, flying them across great distances—and especially large stretches of ocean—is problematic. Most F-5s were never fitted with aerial refueling capabilities, so "dragging" them across the ocean behind a tanker is not possible. The only other option would be to hop-scotch around from land base to land base. This increases risk, is expensive, and takes time. It also presents a huge logistical undertaking and some airports don't have start carts (huffers) needed to wake the F-5E's J85 turbojet engines.
With this in mind, removing the Tiger II's wings and tail and stuffing the jets in a transport ends up being the easier option. Even the Navy came to this conclusion when it acquired a large batch of low-time, late-build F-5Es from the Swiss Air Force to replace their aging F-5E adversary aircraft. Instead of attempting to fly them to the U.S., they just packed them in a KC-130T one at a time and flew them over the Pond as cargo.
Smaller aircraft are transported by larger aircraft all the time. The An-124 Condor is often chartered to move around helicopters—both military and civilian—and they can even cough up large tactical aircraft from time to time. In fact, Jordan's F-5s were originally delivered via USAF C-5 decades ago.
What remains unclear is who these F-5s are being transported for. Jordan sold a batch of 15 F-5s to Kenya in the last 2000s, maybe these were some of those aircraft that are just now getting restored to flyable condition, although to my knowledge these aircraft were upgraded by Brazil to F-5EM/FM standard. The jets could also be destined for a commercial adversary support provider.
We have contacted Northrop Grumman to see if they can add any information as to who their owner is and what is being done to them. We'll let you know if we hear anything back.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com