How all U.S. Air Force pilots since 1968 have met their Mach.
- By Peter Garrison
- Air & Space magazine, September 2005
Northrop Grumman Corporation (NASM SI NEG. #00079050)
(Page 3 of 5)
Despite its radical appearance, the T-38 is a gentle airplane in the air, straightforward in character, almost viceless, and thoroughly conventional in handling. An unmistakable buffet gives ample notice of an impending stall. For a long time the aircraft refused to spin at all. The Air Force’s training command initially complained that the T-38 was too easy to fly, compared with the fighters for which it was supposed to be preparing new pilots. Gasich retorted that the Air Force ought to demand fighters that flew better—and that’s what eventually happened. Today’s fighters are so docile and forgiving that the T-38 is now, according to former instructor pilot Lewis Shaw, “the hardest airplane to fly in the Air Force’s fleet.”
It trains not only Air Force cadets, but test pilots as well. Says Northrop test pilot Roy Martin, “It replicates theory great; that’s what makes it such a marvelous teaching tool.” It flies just as textbooks say airplanes should. Lockheed Martin test pilot Dan Canin agrees with Martin up to a point, but adds that as far as test pilot training goes, the T-38’s main defect is that it’s too good an airplane—it doesn’t give students enough faults to identify. Canin’s favorite test pilot trainer was the de Havilland Beaver—“It had so many things wrong with it.”
Since Lee Begin first shaped it, the T-38 has continually inspired affection. Lewis Shaw still calls it “the 36-24-36 blonde on the beach.” Dan Canin raves: “I absolutely love the airplane. The T-38 and its siblings [F-5/F-20] are absolutely beautiful things…iconic, really…designed, it always seems to me, exactly as one would sculpt a fighter if he didn’t have to worry about anything practical…like fuel, weapon systems, etc. As we go exclusively with stealth designs, which are inherently fat to incorporate weapons internally, I doubt we’ll ever see fighters this good-looking again.”
Like all objects of infatuation, however, the T-38 has become encrusted with legend and exaggeration. It’s commonly said to roll at 720 degrees a second; the truth is 280 to 300, and in any case research suggests that anything above 220 merely serves to disorient the pilot. Another oft-repeated claim is that the T-38 climbs 33,000 feet a minute, even though the aircraft’s time-to-climb record, set by Walt Daniel in 1962, is three minutes to 30,000 feet. According to Northrop’s Roy Martin, a normal climb at military power—that is, maximum power without afterburner—is around 6,000 feet per minute.
Four decades have passed since the T-38 joined the Air Force. Its lines are no longer jaw-dropping; other airplanes have come to resemble it. It still clings to its old nickname “the white rocket,” but today’s pilots, comparing it with the F-15 and F-16, find the Talon underpowered. The thrust of present-day fighters is almost equal to their weight, and their maneuverability is superior to that of the T-38, which needs 10,000 feet to execute a loop and can’t maintain both airspeed and altitude in a 5-G turn. (Nevertheless, T-38s were good enough for the Air Force precision aerobatic team, the Thunderbirds, which flew them from 1974 to 1982.) A-10 and B-1 pilots are kinder to it. Beth Makros, a former B-1 pilot now instructing at Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma, was surprised to find that she felt right at home when she first transitioned from the tiny T-38 to the nearly half-million-pound B-1. “It handled similarly,” she says. “Roll was similar, speeds are the same, it lands the same. They’re surprisingly alike.”
The T-38 does have faults. The J85 engines are temperamental at high altitude, and were prone to damage from ingested ice—the inlets are unheated—until the Air Force stopped flying Talons in icing conditions. The brakes, proportioned to fit into skinny wheels that are sized, in turn, to retract into the paper-thin wing, are barely adequate to stop it on a mile and a half of runway, even with a good deal of help from nose-high aerodynamic braking. Its original engine air intakes, optimized for supersonic performance, were too small to deliver sufficient takeoff thrust at high altitudes and summer temperatures.
The small, thin wing, only 25 feet in span, is responsible for the Talon’s most troublesome characteristic: its lack of lift response at low speed. Dan Canin explains that in a significant portion of the low-speed flight regime, the so-called “back side of the power curve,” the only way to gain speed is to lose altitude. “If you get slow with a big rate of descent near the runway, pulling the nose up will only result in the airplane hitting the ground in a more nose-up attitude—it won’t stop the rate of descent at all.” Landing the T-38 reliably requires precise speed and power control on final approach, and in particular not reducing power or raising the nose too early. The wing digs in like a shovel in mud, and once that happens, even the afterburners might not be able to pull it out.
That characteristic was tragically illustrated in 1966, when two NASA astronauts got into trouble at low speed while circling to land under a low overcast (NASA operates a large fleet of T-38s as trainers, space shuttle approach simulators, and astronaut runabouts). Pilot Elliot See kicked in the afterburners, but it was too late. The banking Talon hit the roof of a building and crashed into a courtyard, killing both pilots.