For more than 50 years, the Northrop T-38 Talon has been the principal supersonic jet trainer used by the U.S. Air Force. The twin jet-powered aircraft, which has tandem-seats for the instructor and student pilot, is the world’s first supersonic trainer.

Standing in the shadow of America’s premier 5th generation fighter aircraft would make any other aircraft pale in comparison, but one T-38 Talon at Tyndall Air Force Base hides a historical legacy.
Retired Lt. Col. Dale Cooke, a former United States Air Force Thunderbird pilot, traveled to Tyndall Air Force Base to reunite with the aircraft that served with him as a Thunderbird. Video // Staff Sgt. William Jackson

Air Education and Training Command is the primary user of the T-38 for joint specialized undergraduate pilot training. Air Combat Command and the Air Force Materiel Command also use the T-38A in various roles.

Its design features swept wings, a streamlined fuselage and tricycle landing gear with a steerable nose wheel. Critical components can be easily accessed for maintenance and the aircraft boasts an exceptional safety record.

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A plane silhouetted by the sun in the sky
A student pilot from the 80th Flying Training Wing, assigned to the Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot training program, takes off at sunrise in a T-38 Talon, Oct. 30, 2014, at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas. The ENJJPT program is a challenging and rigorous 55-week course that tests pilotsÕ nerves and produces some of the best pilots in the world.

Photo // Danny Webb

More T-38s have been produced than any other jet trainer and have been used by the U.S. Navy, NASA and many foreign air forces in addition to the Air Force.

More than 1,100 were delivered to the Air Force between 1961 and 1972 when production ended.

Development

In 1953, Northrop Corporation engineers envisioned developing a small twin-engine “hot-rod” fighter. It would be decidedly different from the majority of early jet designs, which tended towards large, single and heavy engines.

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A Northrop YT-38-5-NO 58-1191 in flight over Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., 10 April 1959. (Photo // U.S. Air Force)

The N-156 project began in 1954 with the goal of producing small, agile fighters that could operate from the decks of the Navy’s smallest escort carriers. That market disappeared as the Navy focused on large carriers. However, Northrop continued development with the goal of selling the lightweight fighter to allied air forces.

Then, in the mid-1950s the Air Force issued a General Operating Requirement for a supersonic trainer. Northrop entered a modified N-156 and won the competition, receiving an order for three prototypes, the first of which, designated YT-38, flew in April 1959. The first production T-38 Talons were delivered to the Air Force in 1961. By the time production ended in 1972, 1,187 T-38s had been built.

Deployment

AETC utilized the T-38A to train Air Force pilots that would eventually fly diverse operational aircraft, such as the F-4 Phantom II, the SR-71, the KC-135 and the B-52 in the 1960’s and 70’s. At the same time, the AT-38B variant was equipped with a gun sight and practice bomb dispenser specifically for weapons training.

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Two planes fly in the sky
A T-38 Talon flies in formation, with the B-2 Spirit of South Carolina, during a training mission over Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., Feb. 20, 2014.

Photo // Staff Sgt. Jonathan Snyder

In 2001, most T-38As and T-38Bs were being converted to the T-38C, with its “glass cockpit” of integrated avionics, head-up display and electronic “no drop bomb” scoring system, which has prepared student pilots for flying everything from the A-10 to the B-2 to the F-22.

Advanced JSUPT students fly the T-38C in aerobatics, formation, night, instrument and cross-country navigation training.
Test pilots and flight test engineers are trained in T-38s at the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, California.

AFMC uses the T-38 to test experimental equipment, such as electrical and weapon systems.

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Two T-38 chase planes follow Space Shuttle Columbia as it lands at Northrop Strip in White Sands, NM, ending its mission STS-3. (Photo // NASA)

Pilots from most NATO countries train in the T-38 at Sheppard AFB, Texas, through the Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training Program.

NASA uses T-38 aircraft as trainers for astronauts and as observation and chase planes on programs such as the Space Shuttle.

Did You Know?

  • In 1962, the T-38 set absolute time-to-climb records for 3,000, 6,000, 9,000 and 12,000 meters, beating the records for those altitudes set by the F-104 in December 1958.
  • A fighter version of the N-156 was eventually selected for the U.S. Military Assistance Program for deployment in allied air forces. It was produced as the F-5 Freedom Fighter, with the F-5G advanced single-engine variant later renamed the F-20 Tigershark.
  • Although upgrades are expected to extend the T-38C’s service life past 2020, the Air Force has launched the T-X Program and is engaged in a prototype competition to replace it.
  • In response to the 1973 OPEC oil embargo, from 1974 to 1983, the U.S. Air Force flight demonstration team, the Thunderbirds, adopted the T-38 Talon, which used far less fuel than the F-4 Phantom.

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planes fly in formation
The USAF Thunderbirds, T-38A "Talon" aircraft, fly in formation in this autographed picture dating back to 1977.

Photo // U.S. Air Force

See more of ‘The T-38 Talon’ on Flickr

General Characteristics

  • Primary Function: Advanced jet pilot trainer
  • Builder: Northrop Corp.
  • Power Plant: Two General Electric J85-GE-5 turbojet engines with afterburners
  • Thrust: 2,050 pounds dry thrust; 2,900 with afterburners
  • Thrust (with PMP): 2,200 pounds dry thrust; 3,300 with afterburners
  • Length: 46 feet, 4 inches (14 meters)
  • Height: 12 feet, 10 inches (3.8 meters)
  • Wingspan: 25 feet, 3 inches (7.6 meters)
  • Speed: 812 mph (Mach 1.08 at sea level)
  • Ceiling: Above 55,000 feet (16,764 meters)
  • Maximum Takeoff Weight: 12,093 pounds (5,485 kilograms)
  • Range: 1,093 miles
  • Armament: T-38A/C: none; AT-38B: provisions for practice bomb dispenser
  • Unit Cost: $756,000 (1961 constant dollars)
  • Crew: Two, student and instructor
  • Date Deployed: March 1961
  • Inventory: Active force, 546; ANG, 0; Reserve 0

Source: AF.mil