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Excellent visibility helps T-38 pilots fly tight formations. (Northrop Grumman Corporation (NASM SI NEG. #00079050))

White Rocket

How all U.S. Air Force pilots since 1968 have met their Mach.

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TWENTY-THREE YEARS OLD, FRESH OUT OF COLLEGE, and a newly minted Air Force lieutenant, Howard Morland reported to Reese Air Force Base in Lubbock, Texas, for flight training in January 1966. In place of the fleet of Lockheed T-33s in which the previous generation of pilots had trained were precise rows of brand-new Northrop T-38 Talons blazing chalk-white under the winter sun. “There was nothing bird-like about them,” Morland remembers. “Their wings were so far back and so small and thin that some of the new students believed that they functioned more like the feathers on an arrow, and that most of the lift came from the fuselage.” Another rumor, likewise false, was that the airplane accelerated so rapidly on takeoff that the hydraulics couldn’t get the wheels up before the aircraft exceeded the speed for wheels-down flight; little wings had to be added to the landing gear to hurry it along.

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This was heady stuff, but shortly after Morland arrived, a student pilot who had recently soloed died in the crash of a T-38. “We all made a pilgrimage to the wreckage, a mile beyond the end of the runway,” Morland recalls. “The ribs of the burned-out fuselage reminded me of the rotting carcass of a beached whale.” Overhead, the number of T-38s practicing landings was unusually large. “Everybody had to go aloft and shake it off.”

Morland spent a few months of flight training in the Cessna T-37, a fat, sluggish tadpole of a jet trainer. T-38s worked out on a parallel runway. “During every touch-and-go landing in the T-37, I would see a T-38 flash by at nearly twice my speed,” he recalls. “It looked like a comic book superhero.”

In those days, the very first lesson in the T-38 syllabus was supersonic flight at 40,000 feet. “In a matter of minutes we were going faster and higher than anyone outside the military aviation fraternity had ever gone,” Morland says. Flying in supersonic formation, the wing kept bumping into an invisible but seemingly solid object: the lead airplane’s shock wave.

The supersonic component is gone today, but much of the training syllabus is unchanged: formation, blind flying, slow flight, approaches to stalls, single-engine procedures, and landing…and landing…and landing.

Now, as then, landing is the great challenge of flying the T-38. “Instructors always did it right,” Morland says, “but they seemed to be in conspiracy not to tell students the secret.” The underlying aerodynamic problem was the tiny wing; it offered little forgiveness to a student who didn’t have the proper attitude, height, and power as the runway threshold flashed beneath the tires.

The T-38 began life in 1954 as the N-156, Northrop Aircraft’s 156th design project. Originally, it was supposed to be a small supersonic fighter capable of operating from the Navy’s short-deck “jeep” escort carriers. But in the mid-1950s, Navy doctrine changed: Little carriers were out, big ones were in, and the small supersonic carrier-based fighter was no longer needed. Northrop, an independent-minded company, went ahead with the project on its own, recasting it as a lightweight fighter, tagged N-156F, for export. At about the same time, the Air Force issued a General Operating Requirement for a supersonic trainer to replace its obsolescent straight-wing T-33s and prepare pilots for the faster, heavier fighters of the Century Series, the F-100 through F-106. Thus the N-156T was born.

The N-156 story had really begun even earlier. In 1952 Northrop had been working on a fighter project, the N-102, called the Fang. It had a shoulder-mounted delta wing, an F-16-like underbelly airscoop, and a single General Electric J79 turbojet engine. At the time, there were two standard fighter engines: the Pratt & Whitney J57, 14 feet long, weighing 4,000 pounds, and developing 18,000 pounds of thrust with afterburning; and General Electric’s larger and more powerful J79. These two engines were the principal reason jet fighters looked as big as locomotives alongside the more human-scale single-seaters of World War II.

One day a couple of engineers from General Electric’s newly formed Small Aircraft Engine Department—in those days engineers were also salesmen—turned up at Northrop with a tiny engine they had brought along as baggage on an airline flight from the East Coast. They claimed it would develop 2,500 pounds of thrust. “What scale is this model?” the Northrop people asked. “This isn’t a model,” replied the GE men. “This is the engine!”

Northrop’s vice president for engineering, Edgar Schmued, saw in the tiny engines the possibility of reversing what he believed to be a pernicious trend toward ever larger, heavier, and costlier fighters. Engine weight was critical because, by a rule of thumb, each extra pound of engine weight would require six additional pounds of airframe. The J85—the brainchild of Ed Woll, one of GE’s most gifted and influential engineers—was 22 inches in diameter and weighed less than 600 pounds, and in the form in which it would be used in the T-38, it developed 3,850 pounds of static thrust. Its thrust-to-weight ratio was superior to that of any other jet engine of its time. It sounded the death knell of the Fang project, from the ashes of which the N-156 arose.

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