This colorized image released by NASA on March 5, 2019 shows two T-38 aircrafts flying in formation at supersonic speeds producing shockwaves that are typically heard on the ground as a sonic boom. Photo: NASA

The T-38 Talon is still the number one lead-in fighter training aircraft for the US Air Force.  But, like its Navy counterpart, the T45 Goshawk (based on the British Hawk advanced trainer aircraft), it is old.

In the case of the T-38 the first one was produced in 1961 and the last rolled off the Northrop assembly line in 1972. The large number of mishaps, crashes and accidents suggest the aircraft may be too old to continue in operation. Yet the US Air Force has no plan to retire them now.

In 1976 I got to fly in one that was part of one of the US Aggressor Squadrons.  An Aggressor Squadron simulates adversary aircraft (actual and potential) and helps pilots understand combat tactics they are likely to face.

Author Stephen Bryen climbing into a T-38. Photo: USAF

Shortly after I flew in the T-38 it was replaced with the Northrop F-5E, a more capable aircraft than the Talon.

On the same day I was there I flew in the F-4E Phantom, a terrific and powerful fighter bomber.  Today, except for some F-5s that belong to NASA and second-hand F-5s that came from Switzerland and ended up in a Navy Aggressor Squadron, most of these planes are retired. 

But the T-38 is a notable exception. While it will be replaced with a new advanced trainer from Boeing, the T-7 Red Hawk, until that time the Air Force is continuing to fly these 49- to 60-year-old aircraft.

In some ways, the T-38 story resembles the story of the B-52 bomber.  The B-52s were built between 1952 and 1962 and while they have been modernized many times, they still fulfill an important role.  The B-52 is expected to fly into the 2050s or beyond, meaning that the great-grandsons and daughters of the original B-52 pilots will be sitting in the cockpit of the same aircraft.

The difference is the B-52 has been more reliable and suffered fewer accidents than the T-38. Not counting collisions, there have been only around 15 B-52 crashes aside from aircraft shot down in combat. The T-38 by contrast has had at least 211 crashes and ejections in the United States, including the latest one on February 19 in Montgomery, Alabama that killed a US instructor pilot and a Japan Self Defense Force pilot, and one crash that killed two US astronauts, Elliot See and Charles Bassett. In the US approximately 72,000 USAF pilots trained on the T-38, with more scheduled to train until the T-38 starts to be replaced by the T-7. The T-7 is supposed to reach its initial operating capability in 2024 and full operating capability by 2034.

Not all T-38 crashes were due to mechanical issues – some, like the crash that took the lives of the two astronauts, were caused by pilot error. However, families of those lost in crashes often have argued that crash investigations have downplayed or hidden mechanical faults and blamed crashes on pilots. One controversial USAF practice, now suspended, was to practice side by side simultaneous landings as part of lead-in fighter training, even though the Air Force had earlier stopped simultaneous landings for fighter planes. These landings led to crashes which Air Force investigators blamed on the pilots. But mechanical errors continue: the day before the Alabama T-38 crash, another T-38 operating at Beale AFB in California crashed on landing when the landing gear failed.  The pilots at Beale were not injured. In 2018 another T-38 crash-landed, this one at Newport News, Virginia when it appears the landing gear also failed. In 2018 there were six T-38 crashes.

The T-38 is not a particularly easy plane for the pilot to control.  It has stubby wings which can create problems for students in slow flight and landings, and unlike heavier and more modern jets, the T-38 is a noisy and rather slow aircraft.  

A number of countries are producing their own lead-in training aircraft. Italy has the tremendously successful M-346; Israel is using a modified version of the M-346 called Lavi, which is combat-capable. The Greek Air Force is acquiring 10 M-346 aircraft in the Lavi format. Israel’s Elbit Systems is establishing a flight school for Hellenic Air Force pilots. Israel is also producing simulators, training and logistical support as part of the 20-year deal.

The UK has continued to develop and evolve the Hawk lead-in jet trainer and has supplied them or licensed them to South Africa, Australia, India and Saudi Arabia as well as in smaller lots to other countries.

Russia is producing a lead-in jet trainer, the Yak-130. Originally the Yak trainer was a joint Russian-Italian project, pairing Yakovlev with Italy’s Aermacchi (later Alenia). The airframe design came primarily from Russia and began in 1993.  In order to be able to use US components, including engines made by Honeywell, for the Italian version, the joint project was canceled and Russia went ahead with the Yak-130 while Italy went ahead with what became the M-346. Both aircraft can be used solely for training or can be weaponized.  Both have at least six hardpoints for mounting smart bombs, sensors, jammers and air to air missiles.  The trainer version of the M-346 does not have radar but simulates radar for pilot training (the same approach in the Boeing T-7A). However, both planes can be fitted with active radars and weapons. The YAK-130 is somewhat larger than the M-346 and uses different engines.

Taiwan is developing the T-5 Brave Eagle an all-composite supersonic lead-in trainer and light fighter, due to start entering service in 2023. Reportedly, the T-5 will have an advanced gallium-nitride AESA radar from Tron Future Tech, based in Hsinchu City, Taiwan. From the ground up the T-5 is configured for weapons as well as flight training, and will serve in a dual role in Taiwan’s Air Force, just as the M-346 is serving in a dual role in Israel’s Air Force (IDFAF).

China has two lead-in trainers, the Hongdu JL-10 Falcon which is based on the YAK-130, and the Guizhou JL-9 Mountain Eagle, based on the MIG-21. The JL-9 is capable of carrier-based take-off and landing. Both trainers have pulse doppler radars.

Korea is manufacturing the T-50A Golden Eagle in a partnership between Korea Aerospace Industries and Lockheed Martin. It was a competitor for the US TX program that ended up being awarded to Boeing. Korea also competed in Israel for Israel’s trainer program, which was awarded to Alenia for the M-346.  The T-50 has been exported to Iraq, Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia.

The problem the US Air Force faces is that it does not have training aircraft in hand that can be used as a substitute until the T-7 reaches operational capability, meaning that the USAF will have to limp along on an airplane that is becoming increasingly risky to fly. One of the reasons others – specifically Italy, Korea, Taiwan decided to develop their own training aircraft was the long wait for the US to produce trainers it could sell abroad (and in Taiwan’s case the often experienced difficulty in getting the US to support arms sales, even for trainers). Israel urgently needed to retire its long-serving CM.170 Fouga Magisters, built in France starting in the 1950s.

Clearly, the US Air Force waited too long to build a new trainer and is now in a trap. It seems that until recently training aircraft just weren’t sexy enough to get the attention needed, at least in the US Air Force.