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 4 of 5)
Nevertheless, the T-38 is, and always has been, one of the safest jets in the Air Force. Its serious mishap rate, originally projected to be 7 per 100,000 hours, has, for the past decade, hovered at or below 0.4 per 100,000 hours. Lewis Shaw attributes the safety record at least in part to the Air Force’s having “gotten rid of the dark alleys” in the flight training syllabus: low-level single-engine work, formation flights with three solo pilots, and unstabilized approaches during simulated emergencies—flaps inoperative, one engine out, and so forth. Also eliminated were rolling pull-ups from air combat training, which overstressed the wings. Now, he says, “the T-38 is more like a simulator than an airplane.” Only 150 of the 1,187 T-38s built between 1961 and 1972 have been lost through attrition, with 45 deaths, while the fleet has logged 25 million hours in the air. Sixty percent of the losses occurred in the first 10 years, when the Air Force was still adjusting the syllabus to the new airplane; only four percent occurred in the last 10 years. Says Northrop historian Ron Gibb, “It’s like having a squadron of 16 airplanes fly for 70 years before losing one of them.”
T-38 wings were originally designed for 7.33-G loads and a fatigue life of 4,000 hours. The airplanes held up well until the Air Force began using them for dogfight training. “We were very aggressive with the jet,” recalls David Rothenanger, who taught at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico from 1984 to 1987. “A dogfight by nature gets you that way. During one mission a very high roll rate was executed under almost maximum G, and sprooooongggg, bye-bye wingtip. It took almost full aileron to keep the wings level, but they were able to land the airplane.” The failure occurred along a structural seam just outboard of the end of the aileron. The area was strengthened, and a new rule was added to the training syllabus: First roll to a desired heading, then level out and pull. Northrop produced new wings with thickened skins, improvements that the T-38 inherited from the parallel production of the heavier but structurally similar F-5 fighter, which Northrop had been selling in large numbers overseas, including, at one time, to the South Vietnam air force. A well-used T-38 today has 18,000 hours; many airplanes have had their wings replaced twice.
Remarkable for having gone through 2,000 hours of initial flight testing without modifications, the Talon has required few modifications in 44 years of active service. There have been only three versions: the original T-38A; an AT-38B, with wing and fuselage hard points, used for ordnance delivery training; and the latest, the T-38C.
The Air Force’s entire fleet of more than 500 trainers will eventually be converted to the C model under a service life extension program called Pacer Classic. They will receive new, stronger wings, built of a high-strength alloy that will provide more fatigue resistance and an 8,000-hour life. Fatigue-prone parts of the cockpit structure will be replaced. A more bird-proof polycarbonate windscreen will replace the original, and the airplanes will receive propulsion mods, including larger engine air inlets, originally designed for NASA’s fleet, to improve takeoff thrust and engine durability. Most important, under a $750 million contract that Northrop hoped to win but that went to Boeing instead, the original steam-gauge instrument panel is being replaced with a computer-based glass cockpit, complete with a head-up display. The T-38 is now expected to remain the Air Force’s intermediate-level trainer until 2040. When the last student in the last T-38 takes to the air, he will be flying a design nearly 90 years old—almost as though today’s pilots had trained in SPADs or Sopwith Camels.
On the wall of Howard Morland’s Arlington, Virginia living room is a framed photograph of a pair of T-38s. He acquired it, along with a recurring dream of joyriding in a stolen T-38 that haunted him for years, when he graduated from flight training in 1967. A couple of years ago, at an airshow at nearby Andrews Air Force Base, a T-38 was on display, guarded by a young instructor pilot. “The airplane was at least a dozen years older than he was,” Morland recounts. “I climbed the platform and looked down into the cockpit. It seemed like yesterday. I had a hard time shaking the idea that I was suddenly 40 years younger, with my life ahead of me.”
Not so the T-38. At 40, half its life is still ahead.
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.