The Lockheed F-22 Raptor has been a very dominant plane for the United States. Combining high performance, effective stealth, and lethal weapons, the 183 Raptors currently in the U.S. fleet have been international game-changers. But on the road to dominating the skies, the Raptor first had to beat out a spider.
The YF-23 “Black Widow II” was McDonnell-Douglas and Northrop’s entry into the Advanced Tactical Fighter competition of the late 1980s and early 1990s. The plane was named in honor of the P-61 Black Widow, a night fighter that served in World War II, and competed with the Raptor for a place in the U.S. Air Force.
The two YF-23 prototypes were handed over to NASA after the F-22 was chosen as America’s fifth-generation fighter.
Only two YF-23s were ever produced — and each had a different set of engines. The ATF program wasn’t just a competition to decide which fighter the Air Force would buy, it also was to decide which engine, the Pratt and Whitney YF119 or the General Electric YF120, would be used.
The YF-23 had a top speed of 1,451 miles per hour, a maximum range of 2,796 miles, a ceiling of just under 65,000 feet, and could carry air-to-air missiles, like the AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile and the AIM-9 Sidewinder. It also has a M61 20mm cannon. The F-22, by comparison, has a top speed of 1,599 miles per hour, a maximum range of 2,000 miles, and a ceiling of 50,000 feet.
A YF-23 fills up on gas from a tanker. The YF-23 had a maximum range of almost 2,800 miles.
On paper, the two fighters are fairly comparable. One’s faster, but the other can go higher and further. So, what gave the Raptor the edge? Agility. To put it succinctly, the Raptor a better dogfighter than the Black Widow II. In an Air Force where many senior leaders were around during the Vietnam War, that made all the difference.
The two YF-23s have ended up in museums. Today, they serve as a reminder of what might have been.
Learn more about this lethal spider in the video below!