The T-38 Talon is a twin-engine, high-altitude, supersonic jet used by NASA to train pilot astronauts. The world's only supersonic trainer, it is among the most versatile of modern aircraft, and is known for its ease of maintenance, high performance, and exceptional safety record. It is still used widely by the U.S. Air Force as well; more than 60,000 pilots have earned their wings in the T-38 since it was deployed in early 1961.
Space shuttle commanders and pilots receive much of their training aboard the T-38 for many reasons, not the least of which is to prepare for the physical stresses of spaceflight. The Talon can reach an altitude of 9,000 meters and its maximum speed of Mach 1.08 within one minute of takeoff. Such acceleration exerts over 5 Gs * on its two-person crew, making the T-38 useful for training astronauts for the intense G forces encountered during a mission.
The T-38 also accustoms pilots to flying and landing a relatively cumbersome aircraft. Both the Talon and the space shuttle orbiter have a low lift-to-drag ratio, meaning they glide a comparatively short distance for every meter they fall. For example, a sailplane might have a lift-to-drag ratio of 40:1, but a Talon's is around 9:1, making it fall much more rapidly. This makes flying the Talon an effective training tool for handling the orbiter's steep ratio of 4:1 or 5:1, which makes many of its pilots feel like they are "flying a rock."
Practice time required in a T-38 varies with a shuttle crew member's position. While pilot astronauts maintain flying proficiency by flying fifteen hours per month, mission specialists (who do not ordinarily fly the orbiter) require only four hours. Shuttle pilots must fly at least 1,000 approaches and landings in the T-38 and other training craft before they are qualified to fly as shuttle mission commander.
NASA's Talons are based at Ellington Field Airport in Houston, Texas, just a short distance from the Johnson Space Center (JSC) where shuttle astronauts do part of their mission training. Astronauts often use the T-38s to travel back and forth between the JSC and the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, a flight of about 2.5 hours.
Aside from its role as an astronaut trainer, the Talon is also employed by NASA for observation and as a chase plane when the space shuttle lands. The U.S. Air Force has used the Talon in numerous training capacities for over four decades, including basic jet training, bombing practice, and for U-2/SR-71 squadrons. Pilots still use the plane when preparing to fly aircraft such as the F-15, F-16, A-10, and F-117.
The Talon first flew in 1959. It has a ceiling of more than 16,760 meters and a range of 1,760 kilometers. Its manufacturer, Northrop, delivered more than 1,100 to the U.S. Air Force during production years 1961 to 1972. About 500 Talons remain in use and modifications are expected to extend their structural life until 2020.
see also Astronauts, Types of (volume 3); Hypersonic Programs (volume 3).
Swanborough, Gordon, and Peter M. Powers. Military Aircraft Since 1909. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989.
"T-38 Talon." Fact Sheet. Air Force Link. <http://www.af.mil/news/factsheets/T_38_Talon.html>.
Astronaut Selection and Training. NASA Human Spaceflight. <http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/shuttle/reference/factsheets/asseltrn.html>.
*A pilot subjected to five Gs would feel as though he or she weighed five times as much as normal.