|A T-38A from Edwards Air Force Base|
|National origin||United States|
|First flight||10 April 1959|
|Introduction||17 March 1961|
|Primary users||United States Air Force|
United States Navy
Turkish Air Force
|Developed from||Northrop N-156|
The Northrop T-38 Talon is a two-seat, twinjet supersonic jet trainer. It was the world's first, and the most produced, supersonic trainer. The T-38 remains in service as of 2023[update] in several air forces.
The United States Air Force (USAF) operates the most T-38s. In addition to training USAF pilots, the T-38 is used by NASA. The U.S. Naval Test Pilot School in Patuxent River, Maryland, is the principal US Navy operator (other T-38s were previously used by the USN for dissimilar air combat training until replaced by the similar Northrop F-5 Tiger II). Pilots of other NATO nations fly the T-38 in joint training programs with USAF pilots.
As of 2023[update], the T-38 has been in service for over 60 years with its original operator, the United States Air Force.
In September 2018, USAF announced the replacement of the Talon by the Boeing-Saab T-7 Red Hawk with phaseout to begin in 2023.
In 1952, Northrop began work on a fighter project, the N-102 Fang, with shoulder-mounted delta wing and a single engine. The proposed General Electric J79 engine, weighing nearly two tons, meant the resulting aircraft would be large and expensive. Then in 1953, representatives from General Electric Aviation's newly created Small Aircraft Engine Department showed Northrop a relatively tiny engine (around 400 lb installed weight) capable of 2,500 lb of thrust and Northrop VP-Engineering Edgar Schmued saw the possibility of reversing the trend toward the large fighters. Schmued and chief engineer Welko Gasich decided on a small, twin-engined "hot-rod" fighter, the N-156. Northrop began its N-156 project in 1954, aiming for a small, supersonic fighter jet capable of operating from the US Navy's escort carriers. When the Navy chose not to pursue equipping its fleets in that fashion, though, Northrop continued the N-156 design using in-house funding, recasting it as a lightweight fighter (dubbed N-156F) and aimed at the export market.
In the mid-1950s, the USAF issued a general operating requirement for a supersonic trainer, planning to retire its 1940s-era Lockheed T-33s. Northrop officials decided to adapt the N-156 to this competition. The only other candidate was the two-seat version of the North American F-100 Super Sabre. Although the F-100 was not considered the ideal candidate for a training aircraft (it is not capable of recovering from a spin), NAA was still considered the favorite in the competition due to that company's favored-contractor status with the USAF, but Northrop officials convincingly presented lifecycle cost comparisons that could not be ignored, and they were awarded the contract, receiving an order for three prototypes. The first (designated YT-38) flew on 10 April 1959. The type was quickly adopted and the first production examples were delivered in 1961, officially entering service on 17 March that year, complementing the T-37 primary jet trainer. When production ended in 1972, 1,187 T-38s had been built (plus two N-156T prototypes). Since its introduction, an estimated 50,000 military pilots have trained on this aircraft. The USAF remains one of the few armed flying forces using dedicated supersonic final trainers, as most, such as the US Navy, use high-subsonic trainers.
The T-38 is of conventional configuration, with a small, low, long-chord wing, a single vertical stabilizer, and tricycle undercarriage. The aircraft seats a student pilot and instructor in tandem, and has intakes for its two turbojet engines at the wing roots. Its nimble performance has earned it the nickname "white rocket". 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. (The F-4 Phantom beat the T-38's records less than a month later.)
The F-5B and F (which also derive from the N-156) can be distinguished from the T-38 by the wings; the wing of the T-38 meets the fuselage straight and ends square, while the F-5 has leading edge extensions near the wing roots and wingtip launch rails for air-to-air missiles. The wings of both the T-38 and the F-5 family use conventional skin over spar-rib structure.
Most T-38s built were of the T-38A variant, but the USAF also had a small number of aircraft converted for weapons training (designated AT-38B), which were fitted with a gunsight and could carry a gun pod, rockets, or bombs on a centerline pylon. As of September 30, 2017, 503 T-38s were still operational with the USAF, with many more in operation around the world. Most of the USAF-variant aircraft (T-38A and AT-38B) have been converted to the T-38C through an avionics upgrade program. Improvements include the addition of a head-up display, global satellite positioning, inertial navigation system, and traffic collision avoidance system. Most jets have also received a propulsion modification to improve low-altitude engine thrust. Around a third of the fleet (those that experience more severe usage) are currently undergoing structural replacements and upgrades, as well as receiving new wings, to extend their service life to 2029.
The fighter version of the N-156 was eventually selected for the US Military Assistance Program and produced as the F-5 Freedom Fighter. Many of these have since reverted to a weapons-training role, as various air forces have introduced newer types into service. The F-5G was an advanced single-engined variant later renamed the F-20 Tigershark. In 2018, the Iranian Air Force announced that an outwardly similar aircraft, named the Kowsar, had been constructed within Iran.
The USAF Strategic Air Command (SAC) had T-38s in service from 1978 until SAC's 1991 inactivation. These aircraft were used to enhance the career development of bomber and tanker copilots through the Accelerated Copilot Enrichment Program. They were later used as proficiency aircraft for all B-52, B-1, Lockheed SR-71, U-2, Boeing KC-135, and KC-10 pilots. SAC's successors, the Air Combat Command (ACC) and the Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC) continue to retain T-38s as proficiency aircraft for U-2 pilots and B-2 pilots, respectively.
The Air Training Command's successor, the Air Education and Training Command (AETC), uses the T-38C to prepare pilots for the F-15C Eagle and F-15E Strike Eagle, the F-16 Fighting Falcon, B-52 Stratofortress, B-1B Lancer, B-2 Spirit, A-10 Thunderbolt, F-22 Raptor, and F-35 Lightning II. The AETC received T-38Cs in 2001 as part of the Avionics Upgrade Program. The T-38Cs owned by the AETC have undergone propulsion modernization, which replaces major engine components to enhance reliability and maintainability, and an engine inlet/injector modification to increase available takeoff thrust. These upgrades and modifications, with the Pacer Classic program, were to extend the service life of T-38s past 2020. The T-38 has an availability goal of 75%, which it maintained in 2011, but in 2015 its availability was 60%.
Besides the USAF, USN, and NASA, other T-38 operators included the German Air Force, the Portuguese Air Force, the Republic of China Air Force, and the Turkish Air Force.
The USAF launched the T-X program in 2010 to replace the T-38. Bidders included a joint venture of BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce, offering the Hawk trainer, equipped with Rolls' Adour Mk951 engine with FADEC; Lockheed Martin and Korea Aerospace Industries, offering the T-50; and Raytheon and Alenia Aermacchi offering the T-100, an aircraft whose design originated with the M-346. Boeing and Saab offered a new-technology design powered by the General Electric F404 turbofan engine. The Boeing/Saab bid first flew on December 20, 2016, and on September 27, 2018, was declared the winner of the T-X competition.
NASA operates a fleet of 32 T-38 aircraft and uses the aircraft as a jet trainer for its astronauts, and as a chase plane. Its fleet is housed primarily at Ellington Field in Houston, Texas. NASA's internal projections showed the number of operational jet trainers falling to 16 by 2015. The agency spends $25–30 million annually to fly and maintain the T-38s.
During the Space Shuttle era, an established NASA tradition was for astronauts to arrive at the Kennedy Space Center in T-38 Talons.
Seven privately owned T-38s are in the U.S. Boeing owns two T-38s, which are used as chase planes. Thornton Corporation owns two T-38s, and the National Test Pilot School owns one T-38. In addition, two others are in private ownership.
More than 210 aircraft losses and ejections have been documented over the lifetime of the T-38. The USAF has recorded 149 fatalities since operations began in 1960.
Data from USAF factsheet