Northrop T-38 Talon

The Northrop T-38 Talon is a two-seat, twinjet supersonic jet trainer. It was the world's first, and the most produced, supersonic trainer. The T-38 remains in service as of 2023 in several air forces.

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 1,189
Developed from Northrop N-156
Variants Northrop F-5

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.[citation needed]

As of 2022, the T-38 has been in service for over 60 years with its original operator, the United States Air Force.

In September 2018, USAF announced the replacement of the Talon by the Boeing-Saab T-7 Red Hawk with phaseout to begin in 2023.[1]

Design and developmentEdit

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
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)
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.[2] The proposed General Electric J79 engine, weighing nearly two tons, meant the resulting aircraft would be large and expensive.[3] 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-engined "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. When the Navy chose not to pursue equipping its fleets in that fashion, though, 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),[4] NAA was still considered the favorite in the competition due to that company's favored-contractor status with the USAF, but Northrop officials convincingly presented lifecycle cost comparisons that 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.[5] 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, an estimated 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.[6]

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.[7]

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 gun pod, rockets, or bombs on a centerline pylon. As of September 30, 2017, 503 T-38s were still operational with the USAF,[8] 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 head-up display, global satellite positioning, inertial navigation system, and traffic collision avoidance system. Most jets have also received a propulsion modification to improve low-altitude engine thrust. Around 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.[9][10][11]

Operational historyEdit


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.[6]

The Air Training Command's 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.[6] These upgrades and modifications, with the Pacer Classic program, were to extend the service life of T-38s past 2020. The T-38 has an availability goal of 75%, which it maintained in 2011, but in 2015 its availability was 60%.[12]

Besides the USAF, USN, and NASA, other T-38 operators included the German Air Force, the Portuguese Air Force, the Republic of China Air Force, and the Turkish Air Force.[6]


The USAF launched the T-X program in 2010 to replace the T-38.[13] 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.[14] 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.[15]


NASA operates a fleet of 32 T-38 aircraft[16] and uses the aircraft as a jet trainer for its astronauts, and as a chase plane. Its fleet is housed primarily at Ellington Field in Houston, Texas. NASA's internal projections showed 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.[17]

During the Space Shuttle era, an established NASA tradition was for astronauts to arrive at the Kennedy Space Center in T-38 Talons.[18]


Seven privately owned T-38s are in the U.S.[16] Boeing owns two T-38s, which are used as chase planes.[16] Thornton Corporation owns two T-38s, and the National Test Pilot School owns one T-38.[16] In addition, two others are in private ownership.[16]


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.[19]
  • T-38A: Two-seat advanced training aircraft, production model, 1,139 built.[19]
  • 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.[6]
  • 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).[20]
  • 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.[21]
  • N-205: "Space trainer" variant proposed in May 1958, with triple rocket engines for vertical launch,[22][23] 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]


T-38 Talon in Thunderbirds livery at the Alliance Air Show in 2014
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.[24]
  United States


  South Korea
  Taiwan (Republic of China)

Accidents and incidentsEdit

More than 210 aircraft losses and ejections have been documented over the lifetime of the T-38.[31] The USAF has recorded 149 fatalities since operations began in 1960.[32]

  • February 1962 - The first crash of a T-38 occurred, near Webb AFB, Texas. One pilot was killed.[citation needed]
  • 31 October 1964 - Astronaut Theodore Freeman was killed as a result of a bird strike on a NASA operated T-38.[33][34]
  • 28 February 1966 (1966 NASA T-38 crash) - Astronauts Elliot See and Charles Bassett were killed when they struck a building in fog.[35][36]
  • 5 October 1967 - Astronaut Clifton "C.C." Williams was killed in a crash of a NASA operated T-38 due to an aileron jam.[37][38]
  • 18 January 1982 - Diamond Crash - Four T-38As of the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds crashed while practicing for an airshow. After this crash, the T-38 was replaced in this role by the front line F-16A Fighting Falcon.
  • 21 May 2009 - One pilot was killed and the other ejected with serious injuries after a rudder malfunction caused the crash of a USAF T38A.[39]
  • 21 November 2019 - Two pilots killed during a collision while landing.[40]
  • 19 February 2021 - The two-person USAF crew of a T-38 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. The crash was later attributed to pilot error.[41]
  • 19 November 2021 - Two aircraft collided on approach to Laughlin Air Force base, resulting in the death of one student.[42]
  • 7 November 2022 - A T-38C crashed near Columbus AFB, Mississippi, with one pilot safely ejecting.[43]

Aircraft on displayEdit

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

Data from USAF factsheet[6]

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 (13 kN) with afterburner
J85-5A upgraded with PMP modification to J85-5R: 2,200 lbf (9.8 kN)dry / 3,300 lbf (15 kN) afterburner[77]


  • 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) [78]
  • Wing loading: 69.53 lb/sq ft (339.5 kg/m2)
  • Thrust/weight: 0.65

See alsoEdit

Related development

Related lists



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  78. ^ 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 linksEdit