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Northrop T-38 Talon

Supersonic Jet-Powered Advanced Training Aircraft

Aviation / Aerospace

The Northrop T-38 Talon has managed for itself a storied career - primarily in service with the United States Air Force as a supersonic advanced trainer.

Authored By: Staff Writer | Last Edited: 2/5/2020 | Content ©www.MilitaryFactory.com
The Northrop T-38 "Talon" is a dedicated supersonic advanced trainer used by a handful of global air powers today - though its primary user remains the United States Air Force (USAF). The aircraft belongs to the same family of jets as the Northrop F-5 "Freedom Fighter", the "F-5 Tiger II" and the F-20 "Tigershark" and its general design shows the similarities. It fits a pair of turbofan engines in a side-by-side arrangement, showcases small wing surfaces, and sports a single vertical fin at the rear. Its identifying feature is its tandem-seat cockpit for two. The base T-38 flight model does not support munitions for the light attack role as seen in other modern advanced jet trainers though some variants were developed for weapons training. The T-38 series allows for the training of airmen cadets and veteran pilots alike where speeds over Mach 1 are required - such as in fighter and astronaut training. The T-38 is, therefore, also used by NASA both as a trainer and a chase plane.

When adopted, the T-38 became the world's first supersonic trainer.

Origins of the T-38 place it in the 1950s when an offshoot to the Northrop lightweight fighter line was developed as an in-house initiative against no formal specification with the USAF. At this time, the USAF was still relying on still relying on its fleet of subsonic Lockheed T-33 "Shooting Star" trainers which arrived in the late 1940s. In 1957, the Cessna T-37 "Tweet" would be adopted but this too remained a subsonic design in USAF service. Interested in the proposed supersonic Northrop design, the USAF moved on development which produced the "YT-38" designation. Three prototypes were eventually ordered and flown, the first on March 10th, 1959.

In short order, the aircraft was adopted and plans made for large-scale procurement. Manufacture spanned from 1961 to 1972 to which 1,146 units would be delivered to the USAF and others including the United States Navy (USN) (used for a time as aggressor aircraft). Deliveries began in 1961 under the formal production designation of "T-38 Talon". In Northrop nomenclature, the aircraft was company model "N-156T".

The T-38 was certainly a no-frills aircraft. It retained the same general form and function of the Northrop F-5/F-20 line of aircraft with their most notable quality being the small-area mainplanes that were low-mounted stubs along the fuselage sides. A short nosecone sat ahead of the two-seat, tandem cockpit which saw the student in front and the instructor in the back. Both positions offered excellent views of the surrounding area. The fuselage was well-contoured for aerodynamic efficiency and promoted a slim profile from all angles. The fuselage spine began the base of the single vertical tail fin which was of a tapering shape and clipped at its tip. The tailplanes were low mounted and small-area surfaces. The engines were installed side-by-side and aspirated through small individual intakes located to the sides of the fuselage, just aft of the cockpit placement. The undercarriage was of a tricycle arrangement and retractable, keeping the ventral side of the T-38 rather clean and noticeably flat.

From the YT-38 developmental models emerged the production-quality "T-38A" variant of which 1,139 were eventually produced - this making the A-models the definitive mark of the line. NASA took on the form as "T-38A(N)" - NASA eventually operating a fleet of some 32 Talon aircraft. A weapons trainer variant was developed from A-models that became the "AT-38A". The USN utilized modified T-38As as drone directors under the "DT-38A" designation and unmanned drone aircraft were then designated as "QY-38A". "NT-38A" were known test-related airframes and the "AT-38B" became a weapons trainer version. The improved "T-38C" appeared with new avionics and a revised structure in an effort to extend the useful service lives of the aircraft family. Head-Up Display (HUD), GPS navigation and revised engines were all introduced with C-models.

Several proposed experimental variants were championed for a time including a unique VTOL version (Vertical Take-Off and Landing), the Mach 3.2-capable "N-205" triple-rocket aircraft for fast vertical take-off and the "ST-38" based on the N-25 super-high-speed concept.

Turkey became a foreign operator of the T-38 line and its aircraft were designated as "T-38M", these based on the T-38A production model. Other operators went on to include Germany, Portugal, South Korea, and Taiwan - though none managed the numbers in inventory that the United States did. Portugal and South Korea are now former operators of T-38 Talons.

With its storied career now more written than not, the USAF has enacted the "T-X" program in an effort to find a modern advanced jet trainer to replace its stock of T-38 Talons. To the participants of the program, the T-X stands as a lucrative deal that would most likely net a contract for hundreds of aircraft. As it stands today (July 2014), the T-38 has enjoyed a service career spanning some 53 total years - an amazing tenure for any military aircraft. It is thought that the T-38 will remain a viable training entity until 2020.

Northrop states that some 72,000 USAF pilots were born from the T-38 Talon's faithful service.

February 2020 - The USAF has partnered with Israeli Aerospace Industries to re-wing its T-38C fleet with all new wing mainplanes, helping extend the service lives of these important training platforms for the service. The work is valued up to $240 million USD and will act as a bridge program until the arrival of all-modern Boeing-Saab T-7A "Red Hawk" - of which 351 units as planned with introduction set for sometime in 2023.


Active, In-Service
[ 1,146 Units ] :
Northrop Corporation - USA
National flag of Germany National flag of Israel National flag of Portugal National flag of South Korea National flag of Taiwan National flag of Turkey National flag of United States Germany; Israel; Portugal; South Korea; Taiwan; Turkey; United States
- Training
46.39 ft (14.14 m)
25.26 ft (7.7 m)
12.86 ft (3.92 m)
(Showcased structural dimension values pertain to the Northrop T-38A Talon production model)
Empty Weight:
7,209 lb (3,270 kg)
11,817 lb (5,360 kg)
(Diff: +4,608lb)
(Showcased weight values pertain to the Northrop T-38A Talon production model)
2 x General Electric J85-GE-5A afterburning turbojet engines developing 2,680 lb dry thrust and 3,850 lb thrust with afterburner.
(Showcased powerplant information pertains to the Northrop T-38A Talon production model)
Max Speed:
857 mph (1,380 kph; 745 kts)
Service Ceiling:
50,000 feet (15,240 m; 9.47 miles)
Max Range:
1,140 miles (1,835 km; 991 nm)
33,600 ft/min (10,241 m/min)
(Showcased performance values pertain to the Northrop T-38A Talon production model; Compare this aircraft entry against any other in our database)
None. Some variants feature provisions for practice bomb dispensers for weapons training.
(Showcased armament details pertain to the Northrop T-38A Talon production model)
T-38 "Talon" - Base Series Designation
N-165T - Northrop Company Designation
YT-38 - Developmental prototypes; three completed; joined by pre-production airframes.
T-38A - Initial and definitive production mark; 1,139 examples.
T-38A(N) - NASA A-models
T-38C - Mid-Life Upgrade (MLU) variant of A-model
T-38M - Turkish Air Force variant
AT-38A - Weapons Trainer
AT-38B - Weapons Trainer
DT-38A - USN drone directors from A-models
QT-38A - Unmanned drone aircraft from A-models
NT-38A - Converted research platforms
N-205 - Proposed triple-rocket powered vertical launch aircraft.
ST-38 (N-205B) - Revised, proposed rocket-assisted vertical launch model.
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