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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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Sidebar: Test Drive

“You're low! You're low!” Chuck Thornton’s voice in my headset is uncharacteristically brusque. We’re approaching the long runway at Mojave, California, and I’m making the classic T-38 mistake of getting low and slow on the turn to final approach. After 20 minutes of rolls and 4-G turns, I can barely tell up from down. “My airplane,” he says, and I feel the stick tugged from my grasp.

 

We've been at 14,000 feet in the airspace of Edwards Air Force Base. It's a beautiful desert spring day with tall cumulus buildups, and we've screeched around the columns of cloud in near-vertical banks and rolled inverted to skim their tops. I'm in the back seat, but I'm still so far out in front of the rest of the airplane that the only way I know it has wings is by peering in the rear-view mirrors on the canopy bow. Being in the front seat must be like floating in the sky without any airplane at all.

A few flight characteristics stand out. One is the buffeting during maneuvering, the result of having the stabilizer low in the wake of the wing. The T-38’s pre-stall buffet starts long before the actual stall, unpacking a rich vocabulary of rattles and rumbles that turn to rapid thuds as you get slow—“slow” being 160 mph or so. Another is the T-38’s extreme smoothness and stability in cruise; hands off, you’d think it was on autopilot. There’s the disorienting roll rate—I made only small inputs to the control stick for rolls because a maximum-per-formance roll is over practically as soon as it starts. There’s also the not-too-shabby (at least to a civilian pilot like me) rate of climb, which I can’t quantify because at 345 mph the vertical speed indicator simply pegged at its maximum indication, 6,000 feet per minute. And there was the long rollout after landing, using all 8,000 feet of a Van Nuys, California runway.

Thornton Aircraft specializes in restoring T-38s and F-5s for civilian use. In 1985, the first T-38 the company restored took Grand Champion Warbird honors at the annual Oshkosh, Wisconsin fly-in, beating the usual formidable competition. Three and a half million bucks buys you just about the hottest airplane, short of the occasional MiG-25, that can be found out of uniform. It cruises at Mach 0.9 with a range of about 1,000 miles. No supercar on earth can match the impression you make taking your date to Vegas in a supersonic jet—but keep in mind that the total baggage allowance for the two of you is one cubic foot.

—Peter Garrison

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