T-38 Talon

T-38 Talon

Northrop Grumman has built 1,187 T-38 twin-jet trainer aircraft and more than 60,000 USAF pilots have trained in the T-38 since it entered service in 1961, when it was the world’s first supersonic trainer. More than 500 remained in service with the US Air Force and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) and it is also in service with the armed forces of Germany (40 aircraft), South Korea (30), Taiwan (40) and Turkey (69).


USAF T-38 trainers are primarily used by the Air Education and Training Command for joint specialised undergraduate pilot training (JSUPT), but the aircraft are also used by the Air Combat Command for its companion training programme and by the Air Force Materiel Command to test experimental equipment.

Nasa uses T-38 aircraft as trainers for astronauts and as observers and chase planes on programmes, such as the space shuttle. Pilots from Nato countries are also trained on the T-38 at the Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, through the Euro-Nato joint jet pilot training programme.

The T-38A is a basic supersonic trainer aircraft and the AT-38B is the lead-in fighter trainer fitted with a centreline weapons station for practice bomb dispenser. A programme to upgrade the T-38A and extend the service life of the aircraft until 2020 is underway. The programme includes new avionics and propulsion and new structural elements including the wings.

The upgraded aircraft is designated T-38C. The USAF T-38As were upgraded to T-38C by upgrading the avionics and support systems. In May 2008, the USAF temporarily grounded its fleet of the T-38C aircraft, following two fatal crashes in May and April 2008. The crashes were found to be unrelated.

Design of the twin-jet trainer aircraft

The aircraft is a low wing monoplane with a fuselage of semi-monocoque design constructed mainly of aluminum with steel and titanium. The cantilever all-metal tail has a hydraulically powered rudder and single piece all moving tail plane. The aluminum alloy multispar wings are fitted with heavy metal plate machined skins.

USAF Pacer Classic programme

As part of the US Air Force’s Pacer Classic programme, initiated in 1984, the structural integrity work on the T-38 includes replacement of the ejection seats, longerons, landing gear and brakes, flight controls and an impact resistant canopy.

In May 2011, Pacer Classic III was proposed to enhance the service life of T-38 aircraft up to 2020. A total of 125 aircraft were chosen in this phase.

The air force initiated a T-38 wing life improvement programme in 1997 and in 2001 Northrop Grumman was awarded a $3.2m contract to develop a newly designed wing incorporating fatigue resistant aluminum alloys. Northrop Grumman has developed the new wing to augment the aircraft’s service span up to 2020.

Cockpit of the T-38 Talon

“Nasa uses T-38 aircraft as trainers for astronauts and as observers and chase planes on programmes, such as the space shuttle.”

The tandem cockpits are air conditioned and pressurised. The cockpits have separate manually operated canopies, both jettisonable and rearward hinged. The cockpits, separated by a windshield, are equipped with rocket-powered ejection seats. The instructor’s seat in the rear cockpit is raised by 25cm to give a clear forward view.

The instructor and student pilot have a Magnavox (now Raytheon) AN/ARC-34X radio communications set operating at UHF and an Andrea AN/AIC-18 internal communications system.

The navigation suite includes a Hoffman AN/ARN-65 TACAN (tactical air navigation) system and a Bendix compass unit. The aircraft is fitted with a Hazeltine AN/AP-64 IFF information friend or foe transponder and a Rockwell Collins AN/ARN-58 ILS instrument landing system.

Avionics systems upgrades

Boeing was awarded a $45.6m contract in 1996 and a $9.4m contract in 2002 to design, develop and implement the T-38 avionics upgrade for the United States Air Force under the USAF propulsion modernisation programme. Israel Aircraft Industries was selected as a major subcontractor.

“The United States Air Force awarded a ten-year contract worth $601m to General Electric Aircraft Engines to modify the J85-5 turbojet engines.”

The first T-38C aircraft upgraded as part of the avionics upgrade programme (AUP) was delivered in July 2002 and more than 200 aircraft of the 500 contracted have been delivered. In February 2010, Advanced Simulation Technology (ASTi) supplied 39 Telestra 4 systems to Boeing for upgrading the T-38 avionics.

The aircraft are being fitted with an avionics suite by Honeywell Military Avionics and are also being equipped with head-down displays, electronic displays, control panels and instruments in both cockpits and a head-up display in the forward cockpit.

The navigation system has been upgraded with the installation of an H-764G integrated global positioning system and inertial navigation system (GPS/INS), L-3 Avionics Systems RT-1634(V) TACAN (tactical airborne navigation systems), radar altimeter, yaw damping stability augmentation, an air data computer and a traffic collision avoidance system (TCAS).

Engines on Northrop Grumman’s aircraft

The aircraft is equipped with two General Electric J85-GE-5 turbojet engines, each rated at 2,680lb without afterburn and 3,850lb with afterburn. There are three fuselage bladder tanks and a dorsal bladder tank, with a total capacity of 2,206l of usable fuel.

A single refuelling point is located on the lower fuselage. Each engine is fed by a separate and independent fuel system, with the centre and aft fuselage tanks for the port engine and the forward fuselage tank and dorsal tank for the starboard engine.

USAF’s engine upgrade programme

The USAF has undertaken a propulsion modernisation programme which supports the T-38 Talon advanced trainer to 2040. The major elements of the modernisation are an engine modification programme and an avionics upgrade programme.

The United States Air Force awarded a ten-year contract worth $601m to General Electric Aircraft Engines to modify the J85-5 turbojet engines on the fleet of 509 aircraft. The contract included the delivery of 1,202 J85-5 modification kits and 509 engine ejector nozzles. The first aircraft, with the engine upgrade, was delivered in November 2002.

Operational history


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-52B-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.

The Air Training Command’s (ATC) 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 FalconB-52 StratofortressB-1B LancerB-2 SpiritA-10 ThunderboltF-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. These upgrades and modifications, with the Pacer Classic program, should extend the service life of T-38s past 2020. The T-38 has an availability goal of 75% which it maintained in 2011, however in 2015 availability is 60%.

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


The USAF launched the T-X Program in 2010 to replace the T-38. 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. 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.


NASA operates a fleet of thirty-two T-38 aircraft and uses the aircraft as a jet trainer for its astronauts, as well as a chase plane. Its fleet is housed primarily at Ellington Field in Houston, Texas. NASA’s internal projections show 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.

During the Space Shuttle era it was established NASA tradition for astronauts to arrive at the Kennedy Space Center in T-38 Talons.


There are seven privately owned T-38s in the U.S. Boeing owns two T-38s, which are used as chase planes. Thornton Corporation owns two T-38s and three F-5s and the National Test Pilot School owns one T-38. In addition, two others are in private ownership.


  • 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.
  • T-38A: Two-seat advanced training aircraft, production model, 1,139 built.
  • 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.
  • 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).
  • 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.
  • N-205: “Space trainer” variant proposed in May 1958, with triple rocket engines for vertical launch, 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.
  • T-38 VTOL Proposed vertical takeoff variant with four lift nozzles behind the pilot.

Specifications (T-38A)

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)
Loaded weight
11,820 lb (5,361 kg)
Max take off weight 12,093 lb (5,485 kg)
Power plant (Dry thrust)
2 × General Electric J85-5A afterburning turbojet engines, 2,050 lbf (9.1 kN) thrust each dry
Power plant (Thrust with afterburner) 
2 x 2,900 lbf (12,899.84 N) with afterburner
Maximum speed (Sea level)
Maximum speed (High altitude) Mach 1.3 (858 mph, 1,382 km/h)
Combat radius
Ferry 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)
Wing loading 69.53 lb/sq ft (339.5 kg/m2)
Thrust/weight 0.65


  • 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.
  • Turkish Air Force – 33 T-38M in service.
  • United States Air Force – 505 T-38 trainers in service as of September 2018.

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