The T-38 Talon is the world’s first supersonic trainer, first flown in 1959. Tens of thousands of pilots learned to fly in T-38s. The US Air Force is the primary user of the T-38, but Talons are also used by the US Navy and several NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) member nations. NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) also maintains a fleet of T-38s, flown by astronauts to maintain their flight proficiency and used as chase planes. T-38s have also served as test beds for a variety of new technologies, equipment, and weapons systems. The US Air Force Thunderbirds flight demonstration team flew T-38s from 1974 to 1983. Flying this T-38A in 1961, Jacqueline “Jackie” Cochran set eight world records for speed, altitude, and distance, including a record for speed over a 15km closed course, at 844.2 miles per hour (1,358.6 km/hr) on August 24, 1961. This aircraft was flown by US Navy Captain and NASA astronaut Wally Schirra in 1963.
The Northrop T-38 Talon was the world’s first supersonic jet trainer and has provided a foundational training experience for tens of thousands of pilots. The Talon’s high performance, versatility, ease of maintenance, and affordability make it well-suited to serve as a trainer to prepare pilots for front-line fighter and bomber aircraft such as the F-15E Strike Eagle, F-15C Eagle, F-16 Fighting Falcon, B-1B Lancer, A-10 Warthog and F/A-22 Raptor.
First flown in 1959, the T-38 entered service in 1961 and remains operational into the twenty-first century. Production ended in 1972, by which time nearly 1,200 Talons had been produced. The US Air Force is the primary user of the T-38, but Talons are also used by the US Navy and several NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) member nations. NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) also maintains a fleet of T-38s, flown by astronauts to maintain their flight proficiency and used as chase planes. T-38s have also served as test beds for a variety of new technologies, equipment, and weapons systems. The US Air Force Thunderbirds flight demonstration team flew T-38s from 1974 to 1983. Variants of the plane went on to achieve their own fame, most notably the F-5 Freedom Fighter and Tiger II.
Development on the aircraft that became the T-38 began in 1954, as Northrop believed a lightweight supersonic fighter might perform well in international sales. The early concepts were loosely influenced by a previous project, the N-102 Fang. However, jet engines of the early 1950s were generally larger and heavier than was suitable for what the company had in mind. That changed in 1954, when General Electric (GE) showed Northrop a new engine they had developed, which became the J85. It was small, light, and powerful. The initial model weighed only 500 pounds and produced 2,500 pounds of thrust, and with an afterburner system added, it could generate over 3,600 pounds of thrust. Using two GE J85 engines, Northrop developed plans for an aircraft called the N-156 in spring of 1955, drawn by Joe Talley and George Gluyas, with influence from Welko Gasich and Edgar Schmued, famous for his previous work on the North American P-51 Mustang and F-86 Sabre.
The N-156 was planned for use by the US Navy, as a lightweight supersonic fighter that could operate from smaller escort carriers. At around the same time, the US Air Force issued a request for a supersonic trainer. Northrop thus developed two versions of the aircraft for each service. However, the Navy soon began efforts to mothball their escort carrier fleet, cancelling the need for a lightweight supersonic fighter. Northrop continued work on the N-156 anyway, and submitted the aircraft to the Air Force’s trainer competition. In June 1956, the Air Force declared Northrop the winner, issuing the company a contract for the newly designated T-38. The first prototype, the YT-38 had its first flight on April 10, 1959. The first operational T-38 entered service on March 17, 1961, at Randolph Air Force Base in Texas.
The T-38 can fly at Mach 1.3 (858 mph, 1,382 km/h). It has an altitude ceiling of over 55,000 feet and can pull seven Gs. The T-38 can take off with as little as 2,300 feet (696.2 meters) of runway and climb to almost 30,000 feet (9,068 meters) in one minute. The T-38A has swept wings, a streamlined fuselage with a “coke bottle” shape derived from the “area rule” developed by Richard Whitcomb, and tricycle landing gear with a steerable nose wheel. The flight control surfaces are powered by two independent hydraulic systems. The Talon is designed for ease of maintenance, with core components easy to access at a waist-high level. The T-38 wings are a single unit made from aluminum alloys, using internal honeycomb to reinforce the control surfaces. As a trainer, the Talon uses tandem seats for instructor and student, both equipped with rocket-powered ejection seats. The cockpit is pressurized and air-conditioned.
The Talon, as a trainer, carries no weapons, but some T-38s were modified for weapons training and designated AT-38B. These were equipped with a gunsight and were capable of carrying a gun pod, rockets, or bombs. The later T-38C model, introduced in 2001, included upgrades to the avionics systems as well as the modernization of major engine components. These upgrades included the incorporation of a "glass cockpit" with integrated avionics displays, and head-up display. Later variants and derivatives of the T-38 were designed for combat use, including the F-5A/B Freedom Fighter and the F-5E/F Tiger II.
The Museum’s T-38 was flown by Jacqueline “Jackie” Cochran in a series of flights in 1961, in an attempt to set several world records. During that time, she succeeded in setting eight world records for speed, altitude, and distance, including a record for speed over a 15km closed course, at 844.2 miles per hour (1,358.6 km/hr) on August 24, 1961. All eight records are pained on the left side of the aircraft’s fuselage, under the canopy. She was 55 years old at the time.
Cochran had earned a pilot’s license in the early 1930s and began an air racing career, gaining attention and the nickname “Speed Queen” for her frequent record-setting flights and trophies. She earned the 1938 Bendix Trophy, and had become the first woman to break the sound barrier in 1953 while flying a Canadair Sabre Mk.3 (a variant of the North American F-86 Sabre). In addition to her work with the women pilots’ organization the Ninety-Nines, Cochran was an important contributor to the Civil Air Patrol and during World War II was the head of the Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASP). Although blocked from flying combat missions, the WASP were a key contribution to the Allied effort in World War II, primarily by ferrying aircraft from production facilities to their designated units throughout the United States, or by towing aerial targets for gunnery training. Cochran’s final record was set in an F-104 Starfighter, which she piloted at 1,429.297 mph (2,300.23 km/hr) in 1964 at age 58.
The T-38 that she flew stayed in the Air Force inventory after Cochran’s flights. It was flown by USN Navy Captain and NASA astronaut Wally Schirra in 1963. It then went on to be used in engineering flight tests at McClellan Air Force Base near Sacramento, California. The aircraft is currently displayed in these flight test markings. It was part of the McClellan AFB 2874 Test Squadron conducting developmental test and evaluation (DT&E) for the F-111 fleet. This T-38's role was to support flight test for other fleets as a chase ship or perform other operational support. The US Air Force transferred the plane to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in 2004.
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 propulsion modification): 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
Storage: 29cm (11 3/8 in.)