Story

Going Subsonic: Moving the T-38 Talon

Posted on Wed, March 27, 2019
favorite

In May 1953, Jacqueline “Jackie” Cochran became the first woman to fly faster than the speed of sound. During her career as a pilot, Cochran broke records left and right – in fact, at the time of her death in 1980, she probably held more speed, altitude, and distance records than any other male or female pilot in aviation history.

Jaqueline "Jackie" Cochran

Cochran flew a range of aircraft, including a Beech D-17W Staggerwing, a Lockheed Lodestar, and a Canadair F-86 Sabre jet (to break the sound barrier). She also flew many types of military aircraft during World War II as director of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), a group of women who participated in the war effort, ferrying aircraft and personnel, towing targets, and fulfilling other transport duties.

We have one aircraft Cochran used to set records in our collection: a Northrop T-38A Talon. In 1961, Cochran set eight world speed, altitude, and distance records flying our T-38.

Late last year, we transported the Northrop T-38 Talon fuselage from our Paul E. Garber Facility in Suitland, Maryland, to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. It is currently in the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar before it eventually goes on display at the conclusion of our project to transform the Museum in Washington, DC.

While the T-38 is known for its speed, that day in December, the supersonic jet trainer may have experienced one of its slowest missions as it was hauled down I-66 on the back of a flatbed.

The Northrop T-38 Talon loaded onto a trailer for transport. Photo: Mark Avino, National Air and Space Museum

Once an aircraft joins our collection, transporting it even 50 miles down the road is no small feat. We caught up with one of the team members who helped with the move, museum specialist Stephanie Stewart:

So how do you move an aircraft like Cochran’s T-38? And who moves it?

Stephanie Stewart: In the Museum’s Collections Processing Unit, we have a team of four who are the experts when it comes to moving the large artifacts in the collection. As with every project, moving this particular aircraft came with its own challenges.  The first challenge was that no one has ever moved it before. The T-38 arrived at the Garber Facility over 20 years ago and had remained in storage since. A plan had to be formulated that took into account the unique characteristics of this aircraft. Once a plan was formulated, it was time to load it onto the trailer.

The aircraft must be pretty heavy, right? How does that factor into the plan?

Stewart: It is heavy, yes, and it’s also quite large. The aircraft is over 46 feet long, 12 feet high, and has a wingspan of over 25 feet. Lucky for us, we were only moving the fuselage so width was not an issue. So, to get the aircraft onto the trailer, we had to use three forklifts, under the direction of one person on the ground, to simultaneously lift the aircraft along with its connected stand. Once airborne, the trailer is backed under the aircraft and lowered onto the deck. At this point in the move, we learned that the load was higher than we would like it to be. After a quick brainstorm with the team, we came up with a solution  that would lower the tail the couple of inches needed. After that, we secured the T-38 to the trailer and we were ready for transport the following day.

Staff from the Collections Processing Unit use forklifts to move the Northrop T-38 Talon. Photo: Mark Avino, National Air and Space Museum

What role do you play on the move team?

Stewart: I’m the driver! As part of the planning process, we determine the best route for the transport. Day-of the move, I already know exactly where to go, so I’m focused on carefully driving along the route, making sure to  avoid low hanging branches and other obstacles. I have to be really careful to ensure the aircraft arrived unscathed. Once at the Udvar-Hazy Center, I backed the truck into the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hanger, and the team off-loaded the aircraft with three forklifts in a similarly choreographed lift as it was loaded. Only this time, we had an audience of the  director, associate directors, curator, restoration staff, and the visitors who happened to be at the restoration hangar overlook at just the right time. No pressure. Back on the ground, the T-38 was move into place where it will begin its restoration process.

Museum specialist Stephanie Stewart and Museum director Ellen Stofan look at the T-38 Talon. Photo: Mark Avino, National Air and Space Museum.

Why was moving the T-38 an important experience to you?

Stewart: Jackie Cochran is an inspiration to me because she was not only an extremely accomplished aviator but also was an advocate for female pilots, breaking down gender barriers. The fact that I have a Class A Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) is often a shock to people and it is usually because there are not many female truck drivers. Of the truck drivers in the U.S., only a little over 5 percent of them are female. Here at the National Air and Space Museum, our drivers are currently 50% women. I was trained by a female driver and I am currently training another female driver. The T-38, to me, represents the incredible, daring things, that women can accomplish, and I thought it was really special that three of the four team members on this move were women.

The T-38 move team (from left to right: Stephanie Stewart, Kristen Horning, Jessica Bulger, and Lars McLamore) pose in front of the T-38 Talon. Photo: Mark Avino, National Air and Space Museum.