White Rocket

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

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

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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.

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.

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