“Don’t touch anything painted yellow and black or we’ll all be in trouble,” cautioned my maintainer friend. He was referring to the ejection handgrips and canopy jettison T-handle. I nodded, barely able to contain my excitement as I climbed the ladder to the T-38C cockpit for the first time. I was a second lieutenant on casual status at Vance Air Force Base and had been dreaming of getting into the cockpit of a high performance jet for years. While awaiting Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT) I became friends with several of the aircraft maintainers, and managed to talk one of them into allowing me to sneak up into the cockpit for a quick look.
Little did I know that day would be the first in a long flying relationship with the Northrop T-38 Talon. Even now as an F-22 flight lead I still get to spend time in the Air Force’s oldest active trainer aircraft (but more on that later.) First, I’ll give you a little background on this beautiful aircraft that was once called the “white rocket” (from the days when the jet sported a white paint job with black lettering).
The T-38A first took to the skies in March of 1959 and was commissioned into service two years later. Yes, that’s 54 years of flying – so far. Two GE J-85 turbojet engines propel the aircraft to a takeoff speed of just over 160 KCAS. The J-85 engine was originally designed for the McDonnell ADM-20 air-launched decoy missile. I bet the engineers that originally designed the engine for the missile never thought it would be flying in a supersonic jet trainer over 50 years later with an impeccable safety and performance record!
The aircraft itself was originally designed and manufactured by Northrop as part of a project to build a lightweight, cost-effective fighter. 1,187 jets rolled off the line before production ceased in 1972. Since the original production run ended, the T-38 has seen several upgrades, the most notable of which was the installation of a “glass” cockpit in the T-38C as part of the Avionics Upgrade Program in 2001. The Propulsion Modernization Program (PMP) was undertaken a few years after the avionics upgrade to increase engine capabilities and give the jet improved takeoff performance.
The T-38C serves as the training platform for USAF pilots tracking towards flying fighter/bomber aircraft. In addition to the UPT jets there are several T-38 A-models (original steam-gauge cockpits and unmodified engines) flying today. These beauties, coated in glossy black paint, are flown by both U-2 and B-2 pilots to help maintain flying currency and proficiency.
There is, however, another group of pilots that has recently taken a renewed interest in the venerable T-38A. I’m talking about the pilots of the world’s premier air dominance fighter: the F-22 Raptor. The F-22 pilots at Holloman Air Force Base, NM inherited a handful of T-38As from the F-117 era and at first didn’t know what to do with them. The jets were quickly put to use as adversary “Red Air” to fight as a training platform against the Raptors.
How could a little jet like the T-38A even begin to challenge the might of the USAF’s latest and greatest aerial killer? The biggest benefit is just being there. Having low-cost adversaries makes it possible for the Raptor pilots to practice skills and mission sets such as Tactical Intercepts, and Offensive/Defensive Counter-Air on a regular basis. Since the majority of T-38A adversary pilots are seasoned F-22 pilots qualified in both jets, they know how to present the most challenging pictures and scenarios to those flying the Raptor.
Since the T-38A Adversary Program was kicked off at Holloman in 2008 it has gained popularity at higher Air Force levels. Similar programs have been stood up at Langley and Tyndall Air Force Bases with plans to broaden the program.
As one of the pilots qualified in both the F-22 and the T-38A, I can tell you the T-38 is not to be taken lightly. Pilots at Holloman refer to flying the T-38 as “riding the bull.” The jet, while easy to land, is difficult to land well. When making configuration changes (i.e. lowering/raising the landing gear or flaps) the jet tends to “buck” and requires constant control inputs and some serious trim work just to keep it level. The Raptor’s digital flight control system (which has auto-trim!) is much smoother and requires very little input to keep the jet in any given attitude. When practicing no-flap landings in the T-38, final approach speeds of 175 KCAS or greater are not uncommon.
Also of note are the stall characteristics of the T-38. Due to the symmetrically cambered wing you don’t get the standard roll off and nose drop you do in civilian aircraft. Instead you get a heavy buffet accompanied by mild wing rock – while the nose essentially stays where it is – and a VVI similar to that of a rock being dropped off the Empire State Building. Perhaps the most disconcerting thing about flying the T-38 is the constant buffet in a well-flown final turn, as you are within just a few knots of stall speed.
In spite of its age, the T-38 remains a viable, even vital, part of the Air Force’s inventory. Several generations of pilots earned their wings at the controls of this beautiful jet, with many more generations to come. As for me, there will always be a special place in my heart for this wonderful old bird.