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Ace Maker: Lockheed’s T-33 Trainer Produced Top-Notch Aviators

The T-Bird Served For Almost 70 Years And They’re Still Turning Heads And Looking Great Today

Official US Air Force Photograph

When Lockheed developed the T-33A Shooting Star jet trainer from their P-80 fighter it was first referred to as the TP-80C. Lockheed stretched the P-80’s fuselage more than three feet in order to fit a second seat and the other equipment necessary to create a two-place version of the company’s first jet-powered fighter. First flown in 1948 by famed Lockheed test pilot Tony LeVier, the “T-Bird” served with the United States Air Force (USAF) as an advanced trainer and later as a proficiency trainer, threat simulator, and target drone for nearly 50 years. Here’s a nice HD video of a T-33 warbird showing off uploaded by our friends at AirshowStuffVideos

Official US Air Force Photograph

In United States Air Force (USAF) service the “Ace Maker” was used primarily as an advanced trainer until it began to be replaced by the Cessna T-37 Tweet and the Northrop T-38 Talon. The last T-33A used in advanced training was replaced during February of 1967 at Craig Air Force Base (AFB) in Alabama. USAF T-33As trained thousands of the jet fighter pilots who fought in the skies over Vietnam during the 1960s and 1970s. Their memories of the T-Bird are fond indeed.

Official US Air Force Photograph

Still able to earn their keep as drone controllers and target tugs, USAF T-33As kept right on serving after they were replaced as trainers. Assigned to Air Defense Command (ADC), Tactical Air Command (TAC), and National Guard squadrons then flying jets such as the McDonnell F-101 Voodoo, Convair F-102 Delta Dagger and Convair F-106 Delta Dart and later the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, the Ace Makers just wouldn’t go away. The last operational USAF T-Bird was an NT-33 variant used for flight control research and retired in April of 1997.

Official US Air Force Photograph

In United States Navy (USN) and United States Marine Corps (USMC) use the T-33 was first designated TO-2 (The P-80 was the TO-1/TV-1), then as TV-2, and finally as T-33B. The USN and USMC T-Bird trainers were common sights along the Gulf Coast near the Naval Air Stations (NASs) like NAS Kingsville and NAS Corpus Christi during the 1950s and early 1960s. The Navy also procured 150 of the T2V-1 (later designated  T-1A) Seastar, a highly-modified version of the T-33 equipped and strengthened for use aboard aircraft carriers.

Official US Navy Photograph

Navy TV-2s were some of the first aircraft to wear the large RESCUE arrow markings to assist crash crews with extrication of crew members from wrecked aircraft, the life-saving markings having been pioneered by Navy Advanced Training Squadrons TWO ZERO ZERO (ATU-200) and ATU-202 at NAS Kingsville during the late 1950s. TV-2s served as Navy and Marine Corps Station proficiency training aircraft even after Naval Air Training Command (NATC) replaced them with Rockwell T-2 Buckeyes and Douglas TA-4J Skyhawks.

Photo From Author’s Collection

T-33As were also developed for foreign allies under the Military Assistance Program (MAP). Variants were created such as the AT-33A (equipped with underwing pylons and hardpoints for carrying ordnance) and RT-33A (with nose-mounted cameras and one seat occupied by reconnaissance equipment). These joined the DT-33A (drone controllers), NT-33A (test aircraft), QT-33A (drones), and even more specialized variants used by the USAF. T-33s often retained two .50 caliber machine guns for gunnery training but could mount six .50s. Cuba actually used them in combat- the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias scored kills with them during the Bay of Pigs Invasion.

Official US Air Force Photograph

First designated as T-33AN, the Canadair CT-133 Silver Star differed primarily from the T-33 in the propulsion department. T-33As were powered by the Allison J33 turbojet engine. CT-133s utilized the Rolls-Royce Nene 10 turbojet engine. The Canuck CT-133s too were modified to enable particular capabilities. The CE-133 was and upgraded electronic warfare training aircraft variant. CX-133s served as ejection seat testbeds. The ET-133 was a dedicated aerial threat simulator variant, while the TE-133 simulated anti-ship threats.

Official US Air Force Photograph

There were 6.557 T-33s (all variants) built, including the 656 built under license by Canadair in Canada and 210 built by Kawasaki in Japan. Foreign operators of the T-33 (all variants) include Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, Burma, Canada, Republic of China (Taiwan), Colombia, Cuba, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, France, Germany,  Greece, Guatemala, Honduras, Indonesia, Iran, Italy, Japan, Libya, Mexico, the Netherlands, Nicaragua, Norway, Pakistan, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Portugal, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Thailand, Turkey, Uruguay, and Yugoslavia.

Photo From Author’s Collection

Today there are no longer any operational military T-33s. Canada retired the last of their CT-133s in 2005 and many were sold off in 2008. Bolivia retired their last examples in July of 2017. Boeing operates two smartly-painted and pristine examples of the mark as chase aircraft out of their facility at Renton near Seattle in Washington. T-33s are more popular as warbirds than ever before, with several of the recently retired and nicely updated and equipped CT-133s having been acquired by private owners. There are about 65 T-33s (all variants) flying in private hands today.

Official US Air Force Photograph

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Written by Bill Walton

Bill Walton

Bill Walton is a life-long aviation enthusiast and expert in aircraft recognition. As a teenager Bill helped his engineer father build an award-winning T-18 homebuilt airplane in their Wisconsin basement. Bill is a freelance writer, an avid sailor, engineer, announcer, husband, father, uncle, mentor, coach, and Navy veteran. Bill lives north of Houston TX with his wife and son under the approach path to KDWH runway 17R, which means they get to look up at a lot of airplanes. A very good thing.

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