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I flew the White Rocket: My T-38 Experience

The T-38 is a beautiful machine that is nearing the end of its service life over the next 5-7 years.  A T-X competition is underway to determine its replacement.  Our resident aviator, shares his fascinating memories of T-38 training.

In 1970, Air Force flight training was divided into three phases, primary flight in the Cessna T-41 (Cessna 172), primary jet in the Cessna T-37, and advanced jet in the Northrop T-38 Talon. I survived—actually passed—the first two phases. With six months to graduation, we transitioned to the T-38.

The T-38: A White Rocket

The T-38 Talon is a two-seat fast-jet trainer capable of supersonic flight. (USAF Photo)
The T-38 Talon is a two-seat fast-jet trainer capable of supersonic flight. (USAF Photo)

The T-38, or “White Rocket,” was an entirely new flying experience. It is a tandem two-seat, twin-jet, advanced “fast-jet” (supersonic) trainer with a top speed of 1.3 Mach (speed of sound) and maximum G-load of plus 9.0, i.e., the airframe could withstand load forces equal to nine times the force of gravity.

Our training program called for approximately 90 hours in the T-38, including initial aircraft training, two-and-four-ship formation flying, instrument flying, supersonic flight, night flying, and low-level high-speed navigation.  Basic flight included all of the maneuvers that we had learned in the T-37, but the responsiveness of the T-38 and the physical sensations were entirely different.

Powered by a G-Suit

For one thing, a “G-suit” was added to our gear. The G-suit, worn over our flight suit, looked like a cross between cowboy chaps, and tight-fitting jeans with holes cut in the knees and the seat. It had an 18-inch hose sprouting from the waistband. Once in the aircraft, the hose was plugged into a port in the aircraft. When maneuvering the aircraft at forces above 1.0 G, compressed air was pumped into the G-suit so that it squeezed on the legs and around the waist to force blood back up into the upper part of the body—i.e., head—to prevent the pilot from blacking out during high the G-forces.

In addition to the G-suit, pilots can perform an “M-1” maneuver that will provide some relief from G-forces. The M-1 maneuver requires tightening all of the muscles of the abdomen and legs—and usually involves a specific type of breathing that sounds kind of like grunting.

 There is nothing like flying 600 knots while only three feet away from another aircraft. (USAF Photo)

There is nothing like flying 600 knots while only three feet away from another aircraft. (USAF Photo)

T

This is a typical G-meter.
This is a typical G-meter.

his also requires that I explain what “blacking out” means—it does not mean becoming unconscious. The most oxygen sensitive organs of the body are the eyes. If the eyes are deprived of oxygen even briefly, color vision is the first capability lost—everything becomes black and white. Increase the G-force, and the field of vision shrinks inward from the outer edges creating, in effect, tunnel vision. Continue increasing the forces, and vision is lost—at this point the pilot is fully conscious, just cannot see, i.e., blacked out. Further increase the G-force can lead to unconsciousness. Interestingly, if the pilot releases some of the G-force, the field of vision increases again. Therefore, it is possible to control the G-force to permit some control of vision.

In the G-meter shown above, the needle pointing to “1” (between 0 and 2) is the current G-force on the aircraft. In straight and level flight, the G-force is “1,” i.e., on time the force of gravity (zero would be weightless). The upper needle indicates the maximum positive g-force the aircraft has experienced on the current flight. The lower needle indicates highest negative G-force (imagine going over a hill fast and being “lifted” out of your seat—that is negative G)

g-envelope
T-38 G Envelope from Jeff’s archives.

In basic flight, the average pilot can withstand up to 3 Gs before blacking out. Performing the M-1 maneuver will increase the pilot’s tolerance to about 4 Gs. The G-suit can extend tolerance another two Gs. So, a properly trained pilot in an aircraft equipped with a G-suit system can function through six Gs. Keep in mind that the T-38 is engineered to operationally withstand +7.33 sustained Gs.  While more modern jets like the F-16 have reclined seats along with G-suits, the T-38 didn’t have that luxury.  So famous 9 G turns in a T-38 weren’t possible and because of structural limits weren’t ever attempted.

Time for the Pre Check Flight

Jeff's notes from his T-38 training flights back in 1970.
Jeff’s notes from his T-38 training flights back in 1970.

After the first 20 hours of flying the T-38, I had qualified to fly solo. That meant I could takeoff, fly around a little, and come back and land—these were the easiest skills required for the T-38. For example, to take off, you simply pulled onto the runway, pushed the throttles (two) to full forward, that is maximum thrust. The aircraft practically leaped forward, and in about 2000 feet the speed was 250 knots (about 280 mph) and the aircraft was climbing at 2000 feet per minute.

Landing was not much harder (although it took a few flights to begin to believe that). Once the jet was lined up with the runway, you simply flew the aircraft at the prescribed speed and attitude and waited for the runway. Eventually, you learned just when to raise the nose a bit and touchdown smoothly.

Instructor flights consisted of reviewing and honing our skills on all of the maneuvers we had learned, as well as demonstrating we knew the steps—by memory—to respond to any emergency that might occur. Our maneuvers included level flight, turns, steep turns, rolls, and loops, and combinations of these. These were called confidence maneuvers, i.e., instill confidence in the student pilot that he was in control!

 

I actually enjoyed all of the maneuvers, especially loops and rolls. In the T-38, the loop was supposed to be a 5-G maneuver. I was not really comfortable with the G-forces, and tended to fly the loop at a more relaxed 4-Gs. This makes the maneuver a big, lazy vertical circle in the sky—it is great for looking out and seeing the world from upside down at the top of the loop. Not good for dogfighting—good way to get shot down.

Once we soloed, we would fly one lesson with our instructor and one solo to practice what we had learned. At some point in this initial training we would have a proficiency check ride with one of the check pilots from the evaluation group.

Prior to our check rides, the commander or one of the senior officers in our training group would conduct a pre-check flight to ensure we were ready for the check ride.

maneuver-entry-speedsOur class commander (we’ll call him Major Paladin to protect—me) was my pre-check flight pilot. He was a no-nonsense major, about five feet five inches tall, with a dark, rough complexion, a thin dark moustache, and a perpetually fresh crew cut. He had been an F-100 Super Sabre (fighter) jock (fighter pilots like to be called “jocks”) in Viet Nam before coming to the flight training command. He spoke little, and expected me to conduct the flight with him as an “interested passenger.” Recall that the T-38 is tandem seating—he sat in the back—in a separate cockpit. He could see the top of my helmet; I could not see him at all.

We collected our gear and went out to the assigned aircraft. I completed the usual preflight inspection. He was already strapped in as I climbed in the front cockpit. I started the aircraft, got the needed clearances and taxied out to the runway and took off. Occasionally, Major Paladin would ask a question—something about the aircraft such as a maximum speed, procedures, etc., all the while I cruised out to the practice area. I checked in with our command post (area confirmation) and began my routine.

A student and his instructor preparing for their next flight. (USAF Photo)
A student and his instructor preparing for their next flight. (USAF Photo)

Somewhere in the routine—I think it was when I was upside down in a roll, he closed one of the throttles to idle and announced that I had a simulated engine failure. I was supposed to recite and perform the emergency procedures for an engine failure and demonstrate that I could control the aircraft on one engine (the other at idle speed was useless). When that was completed he simply said, “Continue.” I set up for a loop, eased the throttles forward, and raised the nose powering up the firsts half of the loop. It was my typical 4-G loop. We came across the top, inverted, enjoying the view and then more back pressure on the stick, ease the throttles back, and dive down the back side of the maneuver.

As I returned to level flight, the intercom cracked open. “Lieutenant Richmond, you’re such a wimp, I don’t even plug in my G-suit when I fly with you! The loop is supposed to be a 5-G maneuver. Minimum.” There was some emphasis on the last word.

There I was…

“Yes, Sir” I responded. I could feel my face flush inside my helmet.

“You have got to make the airplane do what you want it to do!” He added. “Fly it or yourself to the limit.”

Now I was really fuming. But of course, I could not say anything but, “Yes, Sir.” I paused, thinking. “Ah, Sir, may I try that again, Sir?”

“Yeah, go ahead, we have plenty of time.” He sounded bored.

Once again I set up for the loop. Entry speed was supposed to be 500 knots minimum. I eased the speed up to 540 knots. Then I pushed the throttles forward to full military power and pulled—firmly, but steadily—back on the control stick and immediately pegged the G-meter at “5.” The airplane bolted up in a tight arc. I continue to pull back on the control stick. The G-meter edged up toward 6 as I came across the top of the loop inverted. My G-suit was pumping away and I was squeezing my abdomen (without grunting!—I did not want to make it sound like it was any effort for me). As the nose started down the back of the loop, I pulled a little more. I lost color vision; then as I pulled a bit more, the field of view got smaller and smaller until all I could see was the big round attitude indicator in the middle of the instrument panel. I held that pressure.

By now I figured I was going to be in real trouble, but the deed was done. There was no comment from the back seat. I regained some composure and finished the rest of my routine and was getting set up to return to the base. About that time, he came on the intercom, “Okay, Lieutenant, take us back to the base.”

“Yes, Sir.”

He instructed me to make two touch-and-go landings and then a full stop. I acknowledged his instructions and heard nothing more from him. The ground crew guided me into the parking spot, I shut down the engines and we got out of the aircraft.

As we walked to the crew bus I was preparing to be told I was “out of the program.”

Finally, he spoke, “Well, Lt Richmond, you might make it after all. You blacked me out you son-of-bitch!” And he smiled.

What he wanted was to see me exercise positive, firm, aggressive control over the aircraft. He did not care about smooth, or comfort. He wanted the airplane put where it was supposed to be—now!

Also, I got over being uncomfortable with high-G maneuvers.

Author’s Note: Today, the Air Force has restructured it flight training program, using the T-6 Texan II turboprop trainer for initial jet training (see: http://www.avgeekery.com/?s=Texan+II ). The T-38 is still the advanced flighter/bomber jet trainer, but it is expected that the Air Force will replace it with a more advanced trainer in the early 2020s (see: http://www.avgeekery.com/take-look-jets-competing-replace-t-38/ ). Transport pilots use the T-1 Jayhawk.   Do you have a story to share?  Send us an e-mail at avgeekeryblog@gmail.com

Editors note:  The original post had incorrect G limits and loop parameters.  We’re impressed that Jeff can remember most of this 45 years later.  I can’t even remember what I ate for breakfast. And he still has his UPT checklists! 

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  1. “Editors note” at bottom says that original post had incorrect G limits. Currently it says the T-38 can pull 9Gs. My recollection (UPT at Willie 1973-74) was 7G limit but looking at the “Operating Flight Strength” page in the article it looks like the magic number is 7.33Gs.

    Some things you don’t forget: I distinctly remember 500K and 5G pullup and that a loop in the T-38 takes 10,000 feet! At Willie (same as all UPT bases?) we had altitude blocks for the flight training areas. I’m sure they were more than 10,000′ high but not much more. (Why a restriction on top? We had “High” and “Low” areas in the same space so a guy in the low block had to stay below the top of his block.) So, you had to have a plan for how you do a loop. I’m sure every T-38 student had a profile to do all of the acro maneuvers and it all started at a particular altitude in the block at a particular speed. 300K for best climb (?), at the “begin profile” altitude, lower the nose 10 degrees (?), mil power, pickup 50K per 1000 feet (?), reach 500K at planned altitude (above bottom of block and more than 10,000 feet from top of block), and pull back to 5Gs to start the fun. Some things you don’t forget.

    I was a serious note taker in UPT: I had drawings of entire profile: altitudes, airspeeds, etc, etc. etc. As I recall I loaned it to an Air Force Academy classmate who started UPT a year late (don’t remember why) and I never got it back. Sure wish I had it now to recall the good old days.

    In 1974, the top 10% of a UPT class got their pick of airplanes. Everyone after that…I’m not sure how it was handled. The idea was to get other than bottom of the class into tankers and B-52s. We had 50 in my class…and I was #5. Whew! No F-4s in airplanes for our class. I got my second choice: A-7D. Then A-10 five years later. Love every minute of it.

    Thanks for the memories, Jeff.

    Don Ramm
    San Diego CA

  2. About the “t34gib” handle: My wife and I were part owners of a T-34 for 10 years. Once she got checked out in the T-34 when we flew together my place was in the back seat. Hence “t3gib”. The license plate on her car: “T-34 PIC”. Mine? “T-34 GIB”…and proud of it.

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Written by Jeff Richmond

Jeff Richmond

Jeff has been flying and writing for more than thirty-five years. He flew in the Air Force and later taught college-level aeronautics. He has worked as professional photographer and a business and technical writer for both Pratt and Whitney and Lockheed Martin. Now retired, Jeff is on a mission to visit, photograph and write about aerospace museums—especially the smaller, lesser known museums.