U.S. Air Force, Northrop Grumman Celebrate 60 Years with T-38 Talon Trainer Aircraft

On April 10, 1959 at Edwards Air Force Base, Lew Nelson took to the skies for the very first time in a Northrop Grumman built T-38 Talon, the U.S. Air Force’s first supersonic jet trainer.

Serving critical missions for six decades, the venerable T-38 has consistently performed and has assisted in flight training exercises for 80,000 pilots. And, with various modernizations, the aircraft has maintained low operating costs, is maintenance-friendly and has a great safety record.

Used primarily by USAF’s Air Education and Training Command (AETC) for undergraduate pilot and pilot instructor training, the T-38 endures because of its initial design, a thorough maintenance regimen and a sustainment program known as Pacer Classic that has been responsible for essential modifications to the aircraft.

One of the safest supersonic airplanes ever built, the twin-engine, high-altitude, jet trainer can fly at a maximum speed of 858 mph and can climb from sea-level to 33,600 feet in 60 seconds.

The T-38 made its first appearance at Randolph Air Force Base March 17, 1961. The aircraft was met with “applause and exclamations of admiration from the hundreds of persons who witnessed its delivery,” according to the March 22 edition of the Wingspread newspaper.

A scanned image from the Wingspread published in 1961 with a photo of the first T-38 to arrive at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas. (Courtesy photo)
A scanned image from the Wingspread published in 1961 with a photo of the first T-38 to arrive at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas. (Courtesy photo)

On the 50th anniversary of the T-38, Lane Bourgeois, 12th Flying Training Wing historian, focused on the aircraft’s development and innovations. He cited the lightweight J-85 engine, the afterburner version of an engine developed by General Electric for a drone that fit into the bomb bay of a B-36.

“Northrop realized the higher thrust-to-weight ratio of two J-85s together would be greater than the thrust-to-weight ratios of other engines,” Bourgeois said. “For example, two J-85s together produced just as much thrust as one J-57 engine, but the two J-85s weighed about 500 pounds less. Lighter engines meant designers didn’t need as much wing area, less wing area meant less engine thrust required to push the airplane, and so on.”

Northrop designed a lightweight frame around two J-85s weighing about 10,000 pounds, which was half the weight of an F-100F and with better performance, Bourgeois noted.

Another innovation was Northrop’s development of a fuselage based on the “Whitcomb theory” attributed to Richard Whitcomb, an American aeronautical engineer known for his contributions to the science of aerodynamics.

“Richard Whitcomb had calculated that necking the fuselage just before the wings reduces drag at supersonic speeds,” Bourgeois said. “The next time you see a T-38 up close, take note of the tapering hourglass shape of the fuselage. That’s Whitcomb’s theory at work, and it helps to make the T-38 supersonic.”

The T38 have been used for over half a century, mainly by the U.S. Air Force, for specialized undergraduate pilot training. In addition, Air Combat Command uses the jet as companion training for their B-2, TR-1 and F-22 pilots. The U.S. Navy and NASA also use the T-38 for flight test and research missions.

More than 1,100 T-38s were delivered to the Air Force before production ended in 1972; more than 500 are still in service. Now known as the T-38C, the aircraft boasts a variety of Pacer Classic modifications.

Two weeks ago, the U.S. Air Force Life Cycle Management Center awarded Northrop Grumman a $22 million contract for T-38 and F-5 for the system’s sustainment and engineering.

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