The Northrop T-38 Talon is one of the oldest aircraft still serving in the United States Air Force, functioning as an advanced jet trainer for future fighter pilots who’ll eventually make their way to the cockpit of an F-16 Fighting Falcon, F-15 Eagle, or F-22 Raptor. The Talon gives trainee pilots a feel for what it’s like to fly and fight in a supersonic aircraft that can mimic the handling characteristics of current 4th generation fighters to a fair degree. But with the impending advent of the Air Force’s brand new F-35A Lightning II, and the upcoming F-X Next Generation Tactical Air fighter, which will supersede the F-22 and F-15, it’s time for a new lead-in trainer. One that’s better suited to adapting future fighter pilots to the ultra-modern cockpits of the next level of fighter aviation.
Well, that, and the Talon is just plain old. Having taken to the skies for the first time in early 1959, and with full-rate production ceasing in 1972, the T-38 is due to be retired and replaced in the coming years with an aircraft that’ll be able to serve the needs of the Air Force going into 2020 and beyond. Though the formal program to replace the aging T-38 hasn’t yet started, Lockheed Martin has already taken the initiative to showcase its proposal for a prospective T-X trainer.
Working closely with Korea Aerospace Industries to redevelop their FA-50 Golden Eagle (which Lockheed Martin helped fund back in the 1990s), they came up with the T-50A. The Golden Eagle was actually built from the ground up as a supersonic light fighter, similar to the T-38’s fighter variant, the F-5 Freedom Fighter/Tiger II. Modifications that’ll meet T-X specifications include a new dorsal refueling receptacle, designed to mate with the typical boom/probe setup used by Air Force fighters, and a state-of-the-art glass cockpit similar to the one found in the F-35 Lightning II, featuring a large area display (LAD). The T-50A will also be equipped with the FA-50’s integrated EW (electronic warfare) suite, but will likely lack the 20mm .
The aircraft that eventually wins the T-X contract could also very well be used for the Air Force’s unique F-22 Raptor air combat training program as adversary “Red Air” fighters.