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The World’s First Supersonic Jet Trainer Ages Towards Senior Citizen Status

Photo by Jim Mumaw

It’s a mighty plane with a great story but starting to get long in the tooth.

On March 17th 1959, the first T-38 Talon trainer was placed in service with the United States Air Force. Updated and improved over its lifetime, now in continuous service for more than 50 years, the Talon has trained several generations of jet pilots. The T-38 was the world’s first and most-produced supersonic jet trainer.

The Talon actually began as a delta-winged fighter to be powered by the massive General Electric J79 engine. Realizing that any J79-powered fighter would be both large and costly, Northrop went in a different direction. In 1953, Northrop designed a small lightweight fighter with area-ruled fuselage, conventional wings, and powered by two of the new, and much smaller and lighter, GE J85 engines. Northrop designated this design N-156.

When the United States Air Force issued a General Operating Requirement (GOR) for a supersonic advanced trainer in the mid-1950s to replace their Lockheed T-33s, Northrop adapted their N-156 lightweight fighter design for the competition. Northrop won the competition in July of 1956 and received an order for three prototypes. The first of them (designated YT-38) flew for the first time on March 10th 1959.

The new T-38 went into production quickly and the first aircraft were delivered to the Air Force in 1961. Entering operational service on March 17th 1961, the T-38 would provide advanced training to pilots having already mastered the Cessna T-37 Tweet primary jet trainer.

The fighter version of the original Northrop N-156 lightweight fighter design was produced as the F-5A Freedom Fighter. Operated by the United States Air Force but also by 35 foreign countries, single-seat F-5 variants still operate for many countries.

The two-seat F-5B and F-5F Tiger IIs, both also developed from the same original Northrop N-156 design, look very similar to the T-38. However, the F-5 variants sport distinctive leading edge extensions at the wing roots. T-38 wing roots lack the leading edge extensions. The F-5s also have missile launch rails mounted on the wing tips.

The majority of T-38s built are the T-38A variant. The Air Force has also operated AT-38Bs modified to make them capable of weapons delivery as weapons trainers. Beginning in 2001 the majority of T-38s used by the Air Force received avionics upgrades that include a head-up display (HUD), GPS, “glass” cockpit instrumentation, and other modern “black boxes.” These updated Talons carry the T-38C designation.

Air Education and Training Command (AETC) utilizes T-38Cs to train pilots to fly a variety of advanced jet aircraft, including the A-10 Thunderbolt II, F-15C Eagle, and F-15E Strike Eagle, the F-16 Fighting Falcon, B-52 Stratofortress, B-1B Lancer, B-2 Spirit, F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II.

Strategic Air Command (SAC) used T-38s between 1978 and 1991 when SAC was inactivated. While AETC trains pilots, SAC used the Talon primarily to maintain B-52, B-1, SR-71, U-2, KC-135, and KC-10 pilot flight proficiency. Today Air Combat Command (ACC) uses T-38s to maintain U-2 pilot proficiency. Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC) flies T-38s to maintain B-2 pilot proficiency.

AETC-owned T-38Cs have been further modified to improve reliability and maintainability, as well as an increase in available takeoff thrust. Referred to as the Pacer Classic Program, these upgrades and modifications are intended to extend the service life of T-38s past the year 2020. Destined to be replaced by an all-new design during the next decade, by the time all of the more than 500 currently operational Talons are retired many of them will have continuously served for more than 60 years.

1,187 T-38s had been built (plus two N-156T prototypes) when T-38 production came to a close in January of 1972. Approximately 50,000 military pilots have trained in the Talon. In addition to the United States Air Force, the United States Navy, and NASA, Germany, Portugal, South Korea, Taiwan, and Turkey have operated or still operate the T-38. North Atlantic Treaty Association (NATO) countries are hosted at Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas and fly T-38Cs as part of the Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training Program. Seven privately-owned T-38s operate in the United States.

NASA has used T-38s as spaceflight trainers since the 1960s. Astronauts fly Talons between NASA headquarters in Houston Texas and NASA launch facilities at Cape Kennedy in Florida. NASA proficiency flight time requirements are 15 hours per month. NASA also uses their T-38s as chase aircraft for the test flights of various research aircraft. During the space shuttle flights T-38s were used to simulate shuttle landings, scout approach weather for returning shuttle missions, and report spacecraft condition and attitude to the pilots on approach.

The Air Force flight demonstration team, the Thunderbirds, operated the T-38 from the 1974 show season through the 1981 show season replacing the F-4E Phantom II. The “Talon Era” was brought about primarily by economics. During a performance, five T-38s could fly their shows using the same amount of fuel as a single F-4E. After all, these were the days of oil embargoes and gasoline shortages. A tragic accident during training for the 1982 show season brought an end to the use of T-38s by the Thunderbirds. When reorganized for the 1983 show season, the team was equipped with F-16 Fighting Falcons.

The aircraft is scheduled to be replaced in the next decade by the Air Force’s T-X program.

 

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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.