T-38 Talon Turns 50
EL SEGUNDO, Calif., April 16, 2009 -- The test pilot who flew the T-38 Talon on its maiden flight 50 years ago said April 10 that during the historic sortie he felt he was on the safest mission of his career.
Then something dawned on him.
"I hadn't landed it yet!," said Lew Nelson, one of the speakers at a celebration held on the grounds of the Northrop Grumman facility here to commemorate the golden anniversary of the Talon's first flight.
Mr. Nelson did end that April 10, 1959, flight by landing the Talon safely for the first time. Thus began five decades of the venerable supersonic jet trainer's service in developing 75,000 pilots -- and still counting -- who would strap into it to earn their wings.
"Every fighter and bomber pilot trained by the Air Force in the past 50 years has been trained in the T-38," said Maj. Gen. Greg Feest, 19th Air Force commander at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, who served as keynote speaker at the event attended by several hundred Northrop Grumman employees and invited guests. "The impact this aircraft has had on the Air Force has been profound. We have relied on the T-38 to ready our young aviators to meet the challenges of aerial combat to ensure air domination."
The Air Force received its first T-38 in January 1961 after its initial testing. It has proven a bargain at an initial cost of $756,000 per aircraft, despite recent upgrades to its avionics and propulsion systems, said Duke Dufresne, a Northrop Grumman senior vice president who hosted the El Segundo ceremony.
"When you couple the relatively low cost of this aircraft with its exceptional safety record and ease of maintenance, I think it's safe to say the T-38 has been one of the most cost-effective investments in pilot training the Air Force has ever made," Mr. Dufresne said.
Of the initial 1,187 Talons produced between 1959 and 1972 at Northrop's Hawthorne, Calif., facility, more than half are still in service. The Air Force operates most of the fleet, though Navy and NASA pilots also fly the T-38.
In its early years, the T-38 held several performance records. The Air Force Thunderbirds used the airframe from 1974 to 1982 because of its economic operation and high performance.
Maj. Gen. David Eichhorn, Air Force Flight Test Center commander at Edwards AFB, Calif., who also spoke at the ceremony, said he shares two significant milestones with the date of the T-38's maiden flight. April 10 is his birthday, and he began his own aviation career April 10, 1977, when he entered undergraduate pilot training at Vance AFB, Okla.
He said the T-38 provided the first real thrill of his pilot career.
"You run it up, plug in the afterburners and release the brake," he said of his initial T-38 experience. "Then you feel it push you back in the seat, and you go, 'Whoa! This is cool!' The first time you do it, that's a big, big thrill."
He said his training in the Talon provided the foundation for his military aviation career.
"I've had almost 1,000 hours in the jet, having flown it at four locations now," he said. "It has been a tremendous workhorse for the Air Force. It's very economical and very effective at what we have asked it to do."
The Talon is not likely to end its Air Force service anytime soon. A replacement trainer on the horizon would not likely see service for at least 8 to10 more years. With its upgrades, including a redesigned wing that will retrofit the entire fleet, the Talon is expected to fly past 2020 if needed, which would give the first supersonic jet trainer a service life of more than 60 years.
"Today, we say thank you to this amazing airplane for its service to our nation and the thousands of dedicated people who have worked tirelessly to create, modify, produce and maintain the T-38 over the years," General Feest said. "It has served its nation well in the past. It continues to serve its nation today, and the Air Force will rely on it for tomorrow."
(Report by Michael Briggs, 12th Flying Training Wing Public Affairs.)
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