Northrop T-38 Talon

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T-38 Talon
T-38 Talon over Edwards AFB.jpg
A T-38A from Edwards Air Force Base
Role Advanced trainer
National origin United States
Manufacturer Northrop Corporation
First flight 10 April 1959
Introduction 17 March 1961
Status Operational
Primary users United States Air Force
United States Navy
Turkish Air Force
Produced 1961–1972
Number built 1,146
Developed from Northrop N-156
Variants Northrop F-5

The Northrop T-38 Talon is a two-seat, twinjet supersonic jet trainer. It was the world's first supersonic trainer and is also the most produced. The T-38 remains in service as of 2021 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 as 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 2020, the T-38 has been in service for over 50 years with its original operator, the United States Air Force.

In September of 2018, USAF announced the replacement of the Talon by the Boeing T-7 Red Hawk with phaseout to begin in 2023.

Design and development[edit]

Air-to-air right side view of a USAF T-38 Talon aircraft from 560th Flying Training Squadron, Randolph AFB, Texas as his lead performs a left pitchout
T-38C cockpit
Two T-38 chase planes follow Space Shuttle Columbia as it lands at Northrop Strip in White Sands, New Mexico, ending its mission STS-3.
NASA Dryden's T-38 in flight over Cuddeback Dry Lake in Southern California
Picture of the formation leader, taken from the backseat of a T38C, of the 479th Fighter Training Group, Moody AFB, Georgia, 2006
A U.S. Air Force 25th Flying Training Squadron instructor pilot and his student walk to a T-38A to begin flight training at Vance Air Force Base, Oklahoma, on 23 November 1997.
X-15 in flight attached to B-52 mother ship, with T-38 chase plane (1961)
A T-38 takes off from Edwards Air Force Base with only one engine during single-engine takeoff testing to evaluate recommended speeds for takeoff if an engine fails.

In 1952 Northrop began work on a fighter project, the N-102 Fang, with shoulder-mounted delta wing and a single engine.[1] The proposed General Electric J79 engine, weighing nearly two tons, meant the resulting aircraft would be large and expensive.[2] 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-engine "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. However, when the Navy chose not to pursue equipping its fleets in that fashion, 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),[3] NAA was still considered the favorite in the competition due to that company's favored-contractor status with the Air Force. However, Northrop officials convincingly presented life-cycle cost comparisons which 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.[4] 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, it is estimated that some 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.[5]

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.[6]

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 gunpod, rockets, or bombs on a centerline pylon. As of September 30, 2017, 503 T-38s were still operational with the USAF,[7] 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 HUD, GPS, INS (Inertial Navigation System), and TCAS. Most jets have also received PMP (a propulsion modification to improve low-altitude engine thrust). Approximately 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.[8][9][10]

Operational history[edit]


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.[5]

The Air Training Command's (ATC) 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.[5] These upgrades and modifications, with the Pacer Classic program, should extend the service life of T-38s past 2020. The T-38 has an availability goal of 75% which it maintained in 2011, however in 2015 availability is 60%.[11]

Besides the USAF, USN and NASA, other T-38 operators included the German Air Force (Luftwaffe), the Portuguese Air Force, the Republic of China Air Force, and the Turkish Air Force.[5]


The USAF launched the T-X Program in 2010 to replace the T-38.[12] 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.[13] 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.[14]


NASA operates a fleet of thirty-two T-38 aircraft[15] and uses the aircraft as a jet trainer for its astronauts, as well as a chase plane. Its fleet is housed primarily at Ellington Field in Houston, Texas. NASA's internal projections show 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.[16]

During the Space Shuttle era it was established NASA tradition for astronauts to arrive at the Kennedy Space Center in T-38 Talons.[17]


There are seven privately owned T-38s in the U.S.[15] Boeing owns two T-38s, which are used as chase planes.[15] Thornton Corporation owns two T-38s and three F-5s and the National Test Pilot School owns one T-38.[15] In addition, two others are in private ownership.[15]

Accidents and incidents[edit]

More than 210 aircraft losses and ejections have been documented over the lifetime of the T-38.[18]

  • 1962 Feb: The first crash of a T-38 occurred, near Webb AFB, Texas. One pilot was killed.
  • 1964 Oct 31: Astronaut Theodore Freeman was killed as a result of a bird strike on a NASA operated T-38.[19][20]
  • 1966 February 28 (1966 NASA T-38 crash): Astronauts Elliot See and Charles Bassett were killed when they struck a building in fog.[21][22]
  • 1967 October 5: Astronaut Clifton "C.C." Williams was killed in a crash of a NASA operated T-38 due to an aileron jam.[23][24]
  • 2021 February 19 - the two-person USAF crew was killed in a landing crash near Montgomery Regional Airport in Alabama. The aircraft was assigned to the USAF 14th Flying Training Wing at Columbus AFB, Mississippi.

In response to the 1973 oil crisis, from 1974 to 1983, the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds aerobatic display team adopted the T-38 Talon, which used far less fuel than the F-4 Phantom. The Blue Angels downsized to the Douglas A-4 Skyhawk at roughly the same time. After the 1982 "Diamond Crash" incident that killed four of the Thunderbirds' six demonstration pilots, the T-38 was replaced in this role by the front line F-16A Fighting Falcon.


US Navy DT-38A at United States Navy Fighter Weapons School „Top Gun“ (1974)
  • N-156T: Northrop company designation.
  • YT-38: Prototypes, two built with YJ85-GE-1 engines, later designated YT-38A and four pre-production aircraft with YJ-85-GE-5 engines, later designated T-38A.[25]
  • T-38A: Two-seat advanced training aircraft, production model, 1,139 built.[25]
  • T-38A(N): Two-seat astronaut training version for NASA. See T-38N below.
  • AT-38A: A small number of T-38As were converted into weapons training aircraft.
  • DT-38A: A number of US Navy T-38As were converted into drone directors.
  • GT-38A: Permanently grounded aircraft, often due to flight or ground mishap, converted into ground procedural trainers or aircraft maintenance trainers.
  • NT-38A: A small number of T-38As were converted into research and test aircraft.
  • QT-38A: Unmanned target drone aircraft.
  • AT-38B: Two-seat weapons training aircraft.
  • T-38C: A T-38A with structural and avionics upgrades.[5]
  • T-38M: Modernized Turkish Air Force T-38As with full glass cockpit and avionics, upgraded by Turkish Aerospace Industries under the project codename "ARI" (Turkish: Arı, for Bee).[26]
  • T-38N: Former USAF T-38As bailed to NASA and T-38As directly assigned to NASA that received an Avionics Upgrade Program (AUP), modernizing communications and navigation systems, replacing outdated avionics, and adding a weather radar, flight management system, altitude alert systems, and modern controls and displays.[27]
  • N-205: "Space trainer" variant proposed in May 1958, with triple rocket engines for vertical launch,[28][29] and capable of Mach 3.2 and a maximum altitude of 200,000 feet (61,000 m).
  • ST-38 or N-205B: Revised proposal in April 1963 for the new Aerospace Research Pilot School, with a rolling takeoff, top speed of Mach 3.3 and a ceiling of 285,000 feet (87,000 m), high enough to qualify its pilots for astronaut wings.[citation needed]
  • T-38 VTOL Proposed vertical takeoff variant with four lift nozzles behind the pilot.[citation needed]


A T-38 Talon in Thunderbirds livery at the Alliance Air Show in 2014
A T-38 Talon at the Fort Worth Alliance Air Show in 2019
  • German Air Force - 46 T-38A in 1968, now upgraded to T-38C. All aircraft are stationed at Sheppard AFB, Texas and are painted in US markings.[30]
 South Korea
 Taiwan (Republic of China)
 United States
71st Fighter Training Squadron
1st Reconnaissance Squadron
2d Fighter Training Squadron
435th Flying Training Squadron
560th Flying Training Squadron
49th Flying Training Squadron
50th Flying Training Squadron
87th Flying Training Squadron
25th Flying Training Squadron
88th Flying Training Squadron
90th Flying Training Squadron
469th Flying Training Squadron
586th Flight Test Squadron
2d Fighter Training Squadron
43d Flying Training Squadron (Columbus AFB)
96th Flying Training Squadron (Laughlin AFB)
97th Flying Training Squadron (Sheppard AFB)
445th Flight Test Squadron
415th Flight Test Flight
13th Bomb Squadron[36]

United States Navy - 10 aircraft in use as November 2008.[37]

NASA - approximately 32 aircraft bailed[clarification needed] from USAF[citation needed]

Aircraft on display[edit]

A T-38 Talon on display at the Frontiers of Flight Museum
A T-38 Talon on display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex
T-38 Serial Numbers 60-0573, 60-0589, and 61-0828 at Owatonna Degner Regional Airport, Minnesota

Specifications (T-38A)[edit]

Northrop T-38A Talon 3-side view.png

Data from USAF factsheet[5]

General characteristics

  • Crew: 2
  • Length: 46 ft 4.5 in (14.135 m)
  • Wingspan: 25 ft 3 in (7.70 m)
  • Height: 12 ft 10.5 in (3.924 m)
  • Wing area: 170 sq ft (16 m2)
  • Empty weight: 7,200 lb (3,266 kg)
  • Gross weight: 11,820 lb (5,361 kg)
  • Max takeoff weight: 12,093 lb (5,485 kg)
  • Powerplant: 2 × General Electric J85-5A afterburning turbojet engines, 2,050 lbf (9.1 kN) thrust each dry, 2,900 lbf (12,899.84 N) with afterburner
(J85-5R after PMP modification)[71]


  • Maximum speed: 746 kn (858 mph, 1,382 km/h)
  • Maximum speed: Mach 1.3
  • Range: 991 nmi (1,140 mi, 1,835 km)
  • Service ceiling: 50,000 ft (15,000 m)
  • Rate of climb: 33,600 ft/min (171 m/s) [72]
  • Wing loading: 69.53 lb/sq ft (339.5 kg/m2)
  • Thrust/weight: 0.65

See also[edit]

Related development

Related lists



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  2. ^ Eden 2004, p. 344
  3. ^ Due to its elongated fuselage - the pilot's operating handbook for the two-seat version contains an instruction to avoid spins.
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  12. ^ "USAF Braces For Fiscal Bombardment." AW & ST, 20 September 2010
  13. ^ Power play, The World column, AW & ST, 16 September 2013, p. 12
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  71. ^ "T-38s modified by the propulsion modernization program have approximately 19 percent more thrust, reducing takeoff distance by 9 percent." (T-38 Talon USAF Fact Sheet)
  72. ^ Even though this value has been printed in USAF outlets for many years, it is probably incorrect. The T-38 time-to-climb record, set in 1962, was 3 minutes to 30,000 feet. According to Northrop's Roy Martin (quoted on p. 64 of Air & Space/Smithsonian, Vol. 20, No. 3 (August/September 2005)), a normal climb at military power - that is, maximum power without afterburner - is around 6,000 feet/minute.


  • Andrade, John U.S. Military Aircraft Designations and Serials since 1909 Midland Counties Publications, 1979, ISBN 0 904597 22 9
  • Eden, Paul, ed. "Northrop F-5 family". Encyclopedia of Modern Military Aircraft. London: Amber Books, 2004. ISBN 1-904687-84-9
  • Johnsen, Frederick A. Northrop F-5/F-20/T-38. North Branch, Minnesota: Specialty Press, 2006. ISBN 1-58007-094-9
  • Shaw, Robbie. F-5: Warplane for the World. St. Paul, Minnesota: Motorbooks International, 1990. ISBN 0-87938-487-5

External links[edit]