1960 Northrop T-38A Talon 60-0900

Northrop T-38 Talon

Test pilots and flight test engineers are trained in T-38A's at the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. (U.S. Air Force photo)

T-38A at the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The Northrop T-38 Talon is an American supersonic jet trainer. It was the world’s first supersonic trainer and to date, is also the most produced. It remains in service as of 2010 in air forces throughout the world.
The United States Air Force (USAF) is the largest user. In addition to USAF pilots, the T-38 is used in the United States by NASA astronauts, with the aircraft bailed to NASA from USAF. The U.S. Naval Test Pilot School is the principal U.S. Navy operator (other T-38s were previously used as USN aggressor aircraft until replaced by the similar F-5 Tiger II), as well as some NATO pilots participating in joint training programs, also fly the T-38. A few are also under civilian ownership.

Volunteers move the T-38 into the Main Hangar in Building 6

Design and development

The basic airframe was used for the light combat aircraft F-5 Freedom Fighter family. In the 1950s Northrop began studying lightweight and more affordable fighter designs. The company began with its single-engine N-102 “Fang” concept.
The N-102 was facing weight and cost growth, so the project was canceled and the company N-156 project was begun.

Although the United States Air Force had no need for a small fighter at the time, it became interested in the trainer as a replacement for the T-33 Shooting Star it used at the time in that role. The first of three prototypes (designated YT-38) flew on 10 March 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. 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.

A U.S. Air Force Northrop T-38A-65-NO Talon aircraft from 560th Flying Training Squadron. Photo by: SSGT Jeffrey Allen, USAF

The T-38 is of conventional configuration, with a small, low, long-chord wing, a single vertical stabilizer, and tricycle undercarriage. The instructor and student sit on a pair of rocket-powered ejection seats in a pressurized, air-conditioned cockpit. Critical components are waist high and can be easily reached by maintenance crews. Refueling and preflight inspections are easily performed. The T-38 needs only 2,300 feet of runway for takeoff and can climb from sea level to nearly 30,000 feet in one minute. In 1962, T-38s set four climb records. Student pilots fly the T-38A to learn supersonic techniques, aerobatics, formation, night and instrument flying and cross-country navigation. Its nimble performance has earned it the nickname white rocket.

Most T-38s built were of the T-38A variant, but the USAF also had a small number of aircraft that had been converted for weapons training. These aircraft (designated AT-38B) had been fitted with a gunsight and could carry a gunpod, rockets, or bombs on a centerline pylon. In 2003, 562 T-38s were still operational with the USAF and are currently undergoing structural and avionics programs (T-38C) to extend their service life to 2020. Improvements include the addition of a HUD, GPS, INS (Inertial Navigation System), and TCAS as well as PMP (a propulsion modification designed to improve low-altitude engine performance by significantly increasing thrust). Many USAF variants (T-38A and AT-38B) are being converted to the T-38C standard.

Two T-38 Talon chase planes follow Space Shuttle Columbia as it lands at Northrop Strip in White Sands, New Mexico, ending its mission STS-3.
The fighter version of the N-156 was eventually selected for the US Military Assistance Program (MAP) 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 engine variant later renamed the F-20 Tigershark.
Operational history

The United States Air Force Strategic Air Command (SAC) had T-38 Talons in service from 1978 until SAC’s deactivation 1991. These planes were used to enhance the career development of bomber co-pilots through the “Accelerated Copilot Enrichment (ACE) Program”. They were later used as proficiency aircraft for all B-52 and B-1 pilots, as well as SR-71, U-2, KC-135, and KC-10 pilots. SAC’s successor, the Air Combat Command (ACC), continues to retain T-38s as proficiency aircraft for U-2 pilots.

The Air Training Command’s (ATC) successor, the Air Education and Training Command (AETC), uses the T-38C to prepare pilots for aircraft such as the F-15E Strike Eagle, F-15C Eagle, F-16 Fighting Falcon, B-1B Lancer, A-10 Thunderbolt and F-22 Raptor. The AETC received T-38Cs in 2001 as part of the Avionics Upgrade Program. The T-38Cs owned by the AETC will undergo 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, should extend the service life of T-38s to 2020.

Besides the USAF, USN and NASA, other T-38 operators include the German Luftwaffe, the Portuguese Air Force, the Republic of China Air Force, and the Turkish Air Force.


NASA uses the plane as a jet trainer for its astronauts, as well as a chase plane. Its fleet is housed primarily at Ellington Field in Houston, Texas.

Boeing has also used the T-38 as a chase plane. A T-38 was used as a ‘lead’ plane for the first flight of the 787 Dreamliner, to check ahead on weather conditions.
In addition, there are a very small number in private civilian hands.

Specifications (T-38A)

General characteristics
Crew: 2: student and instructor
Length: 46 ft 4.5 in (14.14 m)
Wingspan: 25 ft 3 in (7.7 m)
Height: 12 ft 10.5 in (3.92 m)
Wing area: 170 ft² (16 m²)
Empty weight: 7,200 lb (3,270 kg)
Loaded weight: 11,820 lb (5,360 kg)
Max takeoff weight: 12,500 lb (5,670 kg)
Powerplant: 2× General Electric J85-5A (J85-5R after PMP modification) afterburning turbojets
Dry thrust: 2,050 lb (9.1 kN) each
Thrust with afterburner: 3,850 lbf (17.1 kN) each
Maximum speed: Mach 1.3 (858 mph, 1,381 km/h)
Range: 1,140 mi (1,835 km)
Service ceiling: 50,000 ft (15,240 m)
Rate of climb: 33,600 ft/min (170.7 m/s)
Wing loading: 70 lb/ft² (340 kg/m²)
Thrust/weight: 0.65