The T-38 was driven by the fact that 1950s fighter planes had some scary handling quirks. Pilots trained in subsonic T-33s were taking F-100s and F-104s and drilling holes in the desert at an alarming rate. They needed a trainer that handled similarly to the fighters of the day but with a greater safety factor. Oh, and please make it cheap to fly and maintain.
So what makes the '38 so special? I'd say it was Northrop's minimalist approach to design. They kept the plane small, lightweight, clean and simple. It has just enough to do the job and nothing extra. No radar, no autopilot, no weapons pylons, just the basics. Less weight means we can get by with smaller engines, which means we don't have to carry as much fuel which means less weight......
So what was it like to fly?
It's 1986, the big defense buildup is in full swing, Top Gun is playing at the theaters and I'm a young Lieutenant about to take an even younger Lieutenant up for a training sortie. Cue the Kenny Loggins music.
First off, this thing is small. Not even 12,000 pounds. Even a small fighter like an F-16 weighs twice as much. Only 25 feet of wingspan. You pretty much put it on and wear it.
The rear cockpit, where the instructor (me) sits is fairly comfortable. Headroom is tight for taller people but I'm closer to Tom Cruise in height (not in looks) so it's not a problem. My parachute fits into the back of the ejection seat. I climb up a ladder into the cockpit and strap into the parachute and the seat, with the help of the crew chief. My G-suit, oxygen mask and comm cord plug into the aircraft.
I can talk to the student through a microphone in the oxygen mask and headphones inside my helmet. All in all it's pretty snug, but we only have just over an hour's worth of fuel so we won't be sitting here all that long.
A quick word about my student. Before he or she was assigned to me they'd already made it through six months of training in the T-37 basic trainer. They know how to fly, they just don't know how to fly a high performance airplane. I'll have them for six months and take them all the way to earning their pilot's wings.
In front of me is a basic "round dial" instrument panel. Standard flight instruments, one comm radio and two navigation radios. Just the basics. The pilot of any 1950s or 1960s vintage fighter would feel at home here.
This plane is so stripped down we can't even start our own engines - we need a ground air cart for that.
We taxi out quickly, pre-flight checks are minimal. The air conditioning doesn't do much on the ground, so we taxi out with the canopies open.
Once cleared for takeoff we close up and take the runway. Run the engines up to "military" power, make sure they're happy and then go to afterburner. Acceleration is brisk but this is no drag-racer. Your Corvette will easily beat us to 100. Except the faster the jet goes, the faster it accelerates. Those stubby little wings don't produce much lift - we need 160 knots before we become airborne.
Now we really start to move. Get the gear and flaps up quick, come out of afterburner and by the end of the runway we're going 300.
Rate of climb even in military power is very impressive. An afterburner climb will really water your eyes.
We're assigned a block of airspace near the base and I have the student go through their maneuvers for this sortie. Early in the program they would concentrate on aerobatics while later in the program the emphasis is on formation flying and navigation.
How's it handle? The controls are hydraulic powered and very responsive. You pretty much flew it with your fingertips. A ham-fisted student could almost make you sick in the back seat. Roll response was very impressive - sufficient to bang your head on the canopy rail if you went full throw on the stick. They claimed it would roll 720 degrees per second but that might be a slight exaggeration.
Turn rate was not very good. It looks like a dart and it turns like one. It took 10,000 feet of altitude to do a loop. You could pull a 6 G turn but you didn't have the thrust to sustain it. It's more of a "zoom and boom" airplane than a tight turning one. Its best turning airspeed was around 420. At faster speeds it would get pitch-sensitive so you had to be careful not to over-G it at high speed.
Out in the practice area I'm mainly critiquing the student on their aerobatics and watching to make sure they stay in their assigned airspace. In addition to basic maneuvers I'm trying to teach situational awareness (know where you are and what's going on around you) and energy management (we only have so much gas, make it count). I'm also making sure they don't do anything really stupid, like run us out of airspeed going straight up - learned that one the hard way.
If we have a little extra time I might take the stick and practice a little myself. I have to stay proficient, and sometimes a good demo is worth a thousand words. Or if the student is doing well we might just take a few minutes off to chase clouds. All work, no play etc. etc.
Note that we don't go supersonic. Sounds silly, I mean, we've got a supersonic trainer so why not? Mainly because it takes a lot of airspace to do it and we'd be almost out of fuel afterwords. The student gets to go supersonic exactly once during the program.
What's it like to go supersonic? Pretty boring actually. Take it up to around 40,000 feet, plug it into afterburner and it would go through the mach fairly easily. You wouldn't even know it except for the gauge telling you. Mach 1.3 is as fast as I ever saw. Once you've seen it, there's no real reason to do it again.
The main point is that the plane flies and lands like a supersonic fighter. Actually being able to go that fast is just a bonus.
After we get done in the practice area we head back to the base for some landings. This is where I earn my pay as an instructor. New students find the T-38 difficult to land, and the plane will kill you in the landing pattern if you screw up. Most T-38 accidents have happened while landing. Statistically we expected to lose one per base per year as normal cost of doing business.
Fighter-type airplanes fly a different traffic pattern than "heavies". We fly straight overhead the runway at 300 knots and "pitch out" 180 degrees. We use the turn to bleed off some airspeed and then we put the gear and flaps down and slow to around 180 knots. As we see the approach end of the runway over our shoulder we start a descending turn.
If we get this right, we'll roll out on a short final approach and let our speed come back to around 160 knots (still quite fast). It's a little trickier than that, however. That tiny little wing is working pretty hard to keep us flying at this speed. We're kind of "mushing" through the air. If we try to make too tight of a turn, we'll start to drop like a rock. I saw it happen to someone once, fortunately they recovered (just) in time.
Note to light airplane pilots - this isn't a stall. We'd be killed well before we actually stalled the wing. This type of wing generates tremendous drag in low speed flight. The slower you get the worse it gets and you start to sink - rapidly.
The other weird thing about landing a T-38 is we aim short of the runway. Our landing flare is so long that we're actually aiming 500 feet out in the dirt. We also come down a bit steeper than a normal airplane.
Sitting in the back seat through all this, my forward visibility is limited. I can see over the student's head, but his helmet and shoulders block my view of the runway. A practice no-flap landing is even tougher because the approach speed is over 175 (smokin!) and the plane comes in nose-high so I can see that much less.
So while this is going on I'm sitting back there very calmly and coolly giving words of quiet encouragement to the student -
Maybe it's time for a demo. Plus I can always use the practice. Watch the airspeed and angle-of-attack gauge, cross the overrun, pull the power to idle, now flare, flare, flare, flare can't see a thing ahead of me with the nose up and touch down. Lower the nose and bring the power up for a touch-and-go.
Easy enough except I have to narrate what I'm doing. Much of instructor school was learning to fly and talk at the same time.
The only difference for a full-stop landing is keep the nose up to "aerobrake" the airplane. The skinny wings only have room for skinny tires with little brakes so it takes some effort to stop this thing. I once had one of my students, flying solo, actually pass me on landing roll - headed for the overrun. I could see him literally standing on the brakes.
Normally I would fly three of these training sorties in a 12 hour work day. The schedule was pretty compressed. I'd often be debriefing the student I just flew with while briefing the one I was about to walk out the door with. No lunch break. Grab a Coke and some crackers and go try to keep myself alive while someone hurls my body at the ground at high speed.
Hopefully I can get a nice, safe, boring combat tour after this assignment.*
*I did, but that's another story.
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