In the 1960s, Canada unilaterally gave up its nuclear capability, and cut down its European presence to only three Starfighter squadrons. Because of fiscal restraints, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) had been unable to procure CF-104 Starfighters and CF-101 Voodoos in sufficient numbers to replace all the Avro CF-100s and Canadair Sabres in service, and the RCAF had a need for a more affordable supersonic fighter.
In search of a more affordable fighter, Canada launched a competition for a lightweight fighter contract. The list of competitors was sort of bizarre, many of the entries being far from lightweight. They included the Fiat G-91, Douglas A-4 Skyhawk, McDonnell F-4 Phantom, Rockwell A-5A Vigilante, Grumman A-6A Intruder, LTV A-7A Corsair II, Republic F-105 Thunderchief, North American F-100S (a derivative of the Super Sabre), the North American F-107A, the General Dynamics F-111, and the Northrop F-5 Freedom Fighter. The RCAF had a strong preference for the F-4 Phantom, but in July of 1965, the Canadian government announced that the Northrop F-5 Freedom Fighter had been chosen as the winner. The reason for the selection was primarily on the grounds of cost, the F-5 being considerable cheaper than any of the alternatives.
As part of the agreement, the Canadian government had insisted on a license production arrangement. In July of 1965, Canadair Ltd. of Cartierville (near Montreal), Canada was named as the primary Freedom Fighter contractor. The Canadian-built Freedom Fighter was referred to as CF-5A to distinguish it from Northrop-built machines. The aircraft was given the company designation of CL-219. The two-seat version was known as CF-5D (D standing for "dual") rather than B.
The aircraft was to be powered by J85 engines built by Orenda. The Orenda-built J85s were of greater thrust than their US-built counterparts. Orenda had considerable experience with the J85, having supplied these engines for the CT-114 Tutor two-seat trainer. The Canadian-built Orenda J85-CAN-15 engines were rated at 4300 lb.s.t. with afterburning, as compared to only 4080 lb.s.t. for the J85-GE-13s which powered most F-5As and Bs. The increased thrust enabled the CF-5 to have a better speed and climb rate than that of the Northrop F-5A. Notably, initial climb rate was increased from 28,000 to 33,000 feet per minute.
The initial agreement with Northrop covered 115 aircraft, with about 80 percent of the aircraft to be of Canadian origin. At the same time, Canada received an order from the Netherlands to build 105 basically similar aircraft for the Royal Netherlands Air Force.
On February 1, 1968, Canada's Army, Navy and Air Force were united into a single force, known as the Canadian Armed Forces/Forces Armees Canadiennes. This unification move was less than completely popular, since it was motivated more by a need for cost savings than by any strategic or tactical considerations.
The Canadair-built CF-5A introduced several refinements that resulted from USAF experience in Vietnam with the Skoshi Tiger program. The CF-5As manufactured for the Canadian Armed Forces were equipped with a detachable inflight refuelling probe as standard equipment. The removable refuelling probe was attached on the starboard side of Canadian aircraft, whereas it was on the port side on USAF F-5s. The lengthy takeoff distances that were required at high weights were reduced by 25 percent by introducing a two-position extendable nosewheel leg, which increased the angle of attack during initial rollout by three degrees. The Canadian-built Freedom Fighter also had auxiliary louvered air intake doors on each side of the rear fuselage for increased airflow during takeoff, retractable air intake screens, additional armor, a strengthened windshield for added protection against birdstrikes, jettisonable underwing pylons, improved navigation and communication equipment, a tailhook for engaging wires at the end of the runway in case of an overshoot, and additional provisions for windshield and engine intake de-icing and rain removal. The CF-5A was provided with an 87-percent increase in electrical generating capacity, and a lead-computing Ferranti ISIS gyro-optical gunsight was provided.
Provisions were made for interchangeable gun or camera noses. For reconnaissance missions, the CF-5As were equipped with quick-change reconnaissance nose units housing up to three 70-mm Vinten Model 547 cameras. This new nose was known as the CCS-1 (Camera Contro System 1) and was externally identical to the nose of the dedicated RF-5A, but seems to have had internal differences which made it easier to install. During the course of the Edwards flight testing, the second production CF-5A (116702) was fitted with a 40-inch reconnaissance nose. Reconnaissance-configured aircraft were identified as CF-5A(R), and usually only on "tech" sheets at squadron engineering level. However, these conversion kits saw relatively little operational use.
Although built in Canada, the first few CF-5As were transported to Edwards AFB in California by Canadian Forces Hercules aircraft for their initial test flights. The first Canadair-built CF-5A (serial number 14701, in the old-style sequential RCAF serial system) rolled off the line at Cartierville on February 6, 1968. It made its maiden flight on May 6, 1968 from Edwards, piloted by Northrop test pilot Hank Chouteau. By that time, it had been reserialed 116701. 116701 crashed at Edwards on December 3, 1969. The second CF-5 aircraft was also flown to California for flight testing by Northrop.
The third CF-5 built was the first one to fly from Montreal, this being 116801, the first CF-5D two-seater. This took place on August 28, 1968.
Up until 1976, the Canadian Forces operated a rather confusing system of aircraft names and designations. Each aircraft had a Chief of Technical Services Designation plus a Type Designator or popular name. Single-seaters built for the Canadian Armed Forces were designated CF-5A by Northrop and CL-219-1A10 by Canadair. The official CAF designation for the single seater was CF-116, with CF-5 being the official popular name, so the aircraft is formally known by the CAF as Canadar CF-116 CF-5, which sounds rather strange. The construction numbers were 1001 through 1089, and CAF serial numbers for the CF-5A were 116701 through 116789 (initially 14701 through 14789 under the previous RCAF serial numbering system with only the first actually receiving its RCAF number of 14701).
In Canadian Forces service, the two-seater is designated CF-116D, with CF-5D being the name. The Canadair designation is CL-219-1A17, with construction numbers being 2001 through 2046. The CAF serials were 116801 through 116846 (with the first 26 initially being numbered RCAF 14801 through 14826). The last 18 CF-5Ds on the list (116829 through 116846) were part of a supplemental order to replace CF-5s that had been taken out of storage and delivered to Venezuela.
Shortly after the first production deliveries of the CF-5, a new Canadian government was elected, headed by Liberal Party Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. The new government ushered in a series of cutbacks in armed forces funding and manpower procurement. In particular, it was decided to reduce the number of CF-5s scheduled for operational service to 54 from the 118 originally planned. Although all 118 planned CF-5s were indeed built by Canadair, nearly half the airframes had to be placed in storage at any one time and were flown on a rotational basis. As a result, only two of the six intended CF-5 squadrons were actually equipped with aircraft.
The first deliveries to Canadian units were to the Aerospace Engineering and Test Establishment at Cold Lake, Alberta. The first squadron to form was No. 434 "Bluenose" at Cold Lake in 1968, their pilots initially going to Williams AFB in Arizona for training while their planes were being built. No 434 Squadron was assigned the responsibilities of CF-5 operational training. The first CF-116D (116802) was flown to 434 Squadron at Cold Lake on November 5, 1968. The second squadron (No. 433 "Porcupine") formed at Cold Lake shortly thereafter. It received its first CF-116 on August 25, 1969.
After initial training, Nos. 433 and 434 Squadron moved to their permanent base at Bagotville, Quebec. Nos. 434 and 433 Squadrons were assigned the mission of reinforcing Norway should trouble ever break out in Europe. The first European deployment (with the aid of air-to-air refuelling) took place in 1973.
The training role was undertaken by No. 1 Canadian Forces Flying Training Squadron based at Cold Lake. This outfit was later designated No. 419 ("Moose") Squadron, and replaced 434 Squadron as the operational CF-5 training unit, with No. 434 Squadron being assigned regular combat duties in 1970.
Although it was in operational service with only two squadrons, the CF-5As had an active service life, with frequent overseas deployments. The aircraft could carry a wide range of weapons, including the XRV7 rocket, the British BL755 cluster bomb unit, and the US Mk 20 Rockeye.
Canadair built a total of 240 F-5s, including 135 CF-5s for Canada, plus 75 single seat NF-5As and 30 two seat NF-5Bs for Holland. The last Canadian-built F-5, a CF-116D, was completed in January of 1975.
Following the type's entry into service, the Canadian Armed Forces concluded that the CF-5 would not be a very effective combat aircraft under conditions that could be expected to prevail in a central European conflict between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. It would not make an effective air superiority fighter since it lacked a radar installation, and it would not make a good attack aircraft because its range was too small and the warload was too light. Moreover, budgetary constraints had forced initial deployments to be limited to only two squadrons (No. 433 and 434 Squadrons), and many brand-new aircraft had to be shipped directly to storage.
In the Canadian forces, the CF-5 was gradually withdrawn from any combat capacity, that mission being assigned to the McDonnell Douglas CF-188. No. 433 Squadron converted over to the CF-188 in January of 1988, and No. 434 Squadron moved briefly to Chatham, Ontario before disbanding in June of 1988. Most of the CF-5s were withdrawn from service and placed in storage. The remaining CF-5s were relegated to the training role, the sole operator being No. 419 Squadron based at Cold Lake. The CF-5 was used there to train pilots for the CF-188, serving as an advanced trainer for armament, lead-in fighter, adversary/dissimilar aircraft, and inflight refueling roles.
In 1988, a major upgrade program was initiated, under which 23 CF-5As and 33 CF-5Ds were provided with new wings, fins, control surfaces, and undercarriages to extend their service lives. The upgrading contract was given to Bristol Aerospace Ltd of Winnipeg, Manitoba. The structural strengthening consisted of repair, overhaul, and re- skinning of the wings and vertical fin, the substitution of a steel dorsal longeron for the original aluminum unit, replacement of rear fuselage formers and landing gear, and the reinforcement of the tunnel brackets. The horizontal tailplanes were entirely replaced, as were the windshield, fuel tanks, flexible hydraulic hoses, and the brake chute springs and cables. The aircraft was completely rewired and repainted. The aircraft were given provision for a MIL STD 1553B digital databus, and a radar altimeter was installed. It was hoped that these structural modifications would extend the service life by another 4000 hours, possibly extending their service lives to the year 2005 and beyond.
In November 1990, as second phase was authorized in which 11 CF-5As and 33 of the CF-5Ds were to receive an avionics upgrade. The goal was to transform the CF-5 into an airborne CF-188 Hornet simulator, and the program was known as Avionics Upgrade Program , or AUP. This included the installation of a GEC-Ferranti 4510 HUD/weapons-aiming system, a Litton LN-93 laser inertial navigation system, a GEC Avionics air data computer, HOTAS controls, a Honeywell radar altimeter, and a Magnavox AN/ARC-164 VHF radio. A Ferranti video camera was to view through the HUD. All this equipment was to communicate via a MIL STD 1553B digital databus.
The first AUP CF-116 was rolled out in August 1989 but did not make its maiden flight until June 14, 1991.
In 1995, the Department of National Defence initiated a 25 percent cut in the strength of Fighter Group, forcing a substantial portion of the active CF-188 fleet to be put into storage. To prevent further cuts in the CF-188 fleet, the Canadian Armed Forces agreed to eliminate all its CF-116s from the active inventory. By this time, Bristol had finished work on 37 upgrades. The upgrade program was suspended and no further upgrades were made. On March 31, 1995, No. 419 Squadron finally ceased CF-5 operations at Cold Lake, and on June 25, 1995 No 419 Squadron itself was disbanded. Shortly before, prototypes of strengthened and upgraded CF-5 and CF-5D aircraft were withdrawn from use by the Aerospace Engineering Test Establishment, also based at Cold Lake. However, AETE continued doing tests on upgraded CF-5s until the end of 1995 before sending these aircraft off to storage at Trenton, Ontario. This brought the era of CF-5 service in Canada to an end. They are now awaiting resale to foreign customers.
The following CF-116As received the full AUP upgrade:
116705, 116707, 116716, 116719, 116723, 116727, 116732, 116734, 116754 116764, 116756, 116768, 116774. (116754 replaced 116704 and 116764 replaced 116715)
The following CF-116Ds received the full AUP upgrade:
116801, 116802, 116805, 116807, 116811, 116812, 116818, 116820, 116821, 116823, 116824, 116829,116830, 116831, 116833, 116835, 116836, 116837, 116839, 116840, 116841, 116843, 116845, 116846.
The following CF-116Ds got only the structural part of the upgrade:
116809, 116810, 116813, 116814, 116815, 116819, 116823, 116834, 116838.
All the CF-116s are now in storage, with two being allocated to Bristol for test and demonstration purposes.