The US Air Force’s armada are among the most advanced aircraft on the planet. As such, the USAF isn’t going to let just any schmuck fresh out of basic training take to the skies in an F-35. Instead wannabe Top Guns must first prove their mettle in a less expensive plane that’s trained more than 50,000 pilots since the Eisenhower administration.
It’s the Northrop T-38 Talon, a twin-engine, high-altitude supersonic jet trainer — the first supersonic trainer ever built, in fact, and remains one of the longest serving aircraft in the USAF fleet. The T-38 was originally designed as a low-cost, high-performance aerial fighter in the late 1950s, however, the USAF had no need for such a plane at the time. What it did need was a replacement for the ageing T-33 Shooting Star. After a trio of successful prototype flights in 1959, the T-38 Talon officially entered service in March of 1961. The trainers lacked armament, targeting, and other combat capabilities so each only cost $US756,000 to make. Over its 11-year production run, nearly 1,200 T-38’s were made. It remains one of the few dedicated supersonic trainers in the USAF fleet.
The T-38 is utilised primarily by Air Education and Training Command (AETC) for undergraduate pilot training. The Talon is often used to simulate the F-15C Eagle, the F-15E Strike Eagle, the F-16 Fighting Falcon, B-52 Stratofortress, B-1B Lancer, B-2 Spirit, A-10 Thunderbolt, F-22 Raptor, and F-35 Lightning II. The AETC isn’t the only agency to employ Talon’s, though. NASA and Air Force Materiel Command also fly T-38’s in a variety of training missions as do the German, Portuguese, Turkish and Chinese Air Forces. The only T-38s to sport a black and red pain scheme, however, are those flown out of Beale Air Force Base near Sacramento, CA, and used to train U-2 pilots.
The T-38 Talon is just over 14m long with an 8m wingspan and weighs just under 5500kg. A pair of General Electric J85-5A afterburning turbojets sit under the base of each wing and provide over 900kg of thrust. The two pilots — a trainee and a flight instructor — sit tandem in the pressurised, air-conditioned cockpit. A later iteration, the T-38C, also incorporated a “glass cockpit” that introduced integrated avionics, a HUD, and a bombless scoring system (in that it didn’t need to drop dummies).
To say that the Talon is a nimble jet does not do the aircraft justice. It requires just 700m of runway for takeoff — roughly half that of, say, an F-18 — and can climb over 30,000 feet in one minute. In fact, during its first full year of service in 1962, the Talon set time-to-climb records for four altitudes: 3000m, 6000m, 9000m and 12,000m — beating the previous record holder, the F-104. In all, the T-38 has a top speed of Mach 1.3, a range of 1800km, and an operational ceiling of 50,000 feet.
A vast majority of the T-38s produced were of the original A variety, however a small number have been converted into the weaponised B variant for training purposes. The T-38B includes a gun sight and the ability to carry a weapon pod. In 2001, another small portion of T-38As underwent modernisation upgrades including the installation of GPS and inertial navigation systems (INS). These jets also had their engines overhauled to increase reliability as well as their performance — a thrust increase of 19 per cent while reducing takeoff distance by 9 per cent. These improvements should keep the T-38C flying until at least 2020.
Picture: NASA, USAF, Beal AFB