GEAR & TECH

This is the program that could transform the way fighter pilots train

The Northrop T-38 Talon supersonic trainer is a legendary airplane. Any plane that has served for over fifty years in not just its intended role, but in other roles (notably as an occasional aggressor) has a very valid claim to the title of legend. But let's face it, the T-38's not only getting up there in years, it's also behind the times.


At a Lockheed Martin media briefing on the T-50 program held during the AirSpaceCyber expo at National Harbor, Maryland, retired Air Force General Bill Looney, a former commander of Air Education and Training Command, noted that in 1958, his father was a lead pilot for the T-38 program. The top planes in service then were the "Century" series of jet fighters – second-generation planes like the F-100 Super Sabre and the F-102 Delta Dagger.

The T-38 Talon is a twin-engine, high-altitude, supersonic jet trainer used in a variety of roles because of its design, economy of operations, ease of maintenance, high performance, and exceptional safety record. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Steve Thurow)

But today, the planes in service are the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II – and both are very different planes. As the T-38 has soldiered on, transitioning to those fighters, and even fourth-generation fighters like the F-15 Eagle, F-16 Fighting Falcon, and F/A-18 Hornet has become more and more difficult.

A joint project between Lockheed and Korean Aerospace Industries could be the answer. The T-50A, based on KAI's FA-50 Golden Eagle, is one of three competitors that could offer the chance to not only replace the old T-38, but to radically restructure pilot training. Lockheed representatives at the briefing expressed the belief that a fair bit of lead-in fighter training, or LIFT, could be done on the T-50A, cutting the time a pilot would train in a F-16 Fighting Falcon from nine months to as little as four months.

A Lockheed/KAI T-50A banks to the left a little. (Photo from Lockheed)

This is a big freaking deal, to paraphrase a former Vice President. By shifting training time from the F-16 to the T-50A, this will not only reduce the flight hours on the F-16 airframes, allowing them to last longer, it would also reduce the maintenance costs for the F-16s at the 56th Fighter Wing at Luke Air Force Base. Similar reductions can also happen with training for the F-35 and F-22.

More savings could be possible because the T-50A program includes ground-based systems. Looney noted that when he learned to fly the F-15 Eagle, he had to fly eight radar intercept training sorties. With the T-50 program, that number could be reduced by doing some of the training in simulators.

Two Lockheed/KAI T-50As in formation. (Photo from Lockheed)

The winner of this competition, whether it is the Lockheed/KAI T-50, the Leonardo/Raytheon T-100, or the Boeing/Saab T-X, could not only get sales from the United States Air Force, but would also have a leg up in replacing the Navy's T-45 Goshawk and the T-38 used by a number of other American allies. So pay attention to this competition, folks, it will change a lot more than just the planes on the flightline. Check out this video from Lockheed on the T-50A below.

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