Chair Force Engineer

Monday, October 08, 2007

A Shiny New Talon?

For the fighter jocks of the world, the T-38 Talon represents a gateway between the world of being an undergrad flight student and being "Maverick" of "Top Gun" fame. Since the early 60's, it's been a reliable training aircraft that introduced its students to supersonic flight.

Due to attrition and fatigue issues, the Air Force must be considering what's next after the T-38. There's been some talk that the South Korean T-50 trainer will be adapted for US service, but that's a long ways off, and it's not really necessary.

The question in my mind is whether Northrop Grumman has preserved the industrial base required to produce more Talons. The airplane has been out of production since 1972, so this is no trivial matter. Then again, the computer-aided manufacturing revolution that has swept the industry since that time will make it possible to restart the assembly line much faster than the older tooling methods would have allowed.

One area of improvement for the T-38 is the engines. Many T-38's have recently undergone an intake modification which improves the plane's fuel economy, but prevents it from going supersonic in level flight. The T-38 is still flying with the creaky old J85's that were designed in the 50's. One possible upgrade area would be the engines. Utilizing propulsion advances that have been made for UAV and Very Light Jet engines, it might be possible to redesign the T-38 in a way that will restore its supersonic capabilities while still maintaining the range improvements that recently came about after the intake mods. New engines would probably necessitate a change to the T-38's engine bay, intakes, and perhaps a widening of the aft fuselage. As a more drastic measure, a new T-38 would use a single F404 turbofan, much like its brethren, the F-20 Tigershark. The single-engine design would really move, but the operating costs would likely be high, and the single-engine layout isn't desirable for flight instruction for safety concerns.

One characteristic of the T-38 is that it's pretty simple for being a supersonic aircraft. But the Air Force may want to revise its training syllabus to incorporate more advanced maneuvering. If so, the new T-38 could adopt the wing and shark nose of the F-20 and modified F-5E/F. The shark nose and leading-edge-root-extensions would make the plane much more maneuverable, as are the leading edge flaps which were left off the T-38 for simplicity.

The old Talon airframe has plenty of life left in the basic design, but more new-build airframes will be needed in the coming years. This will be a very important acquisition for the Air Force, and it's important that the specs for a T-38 replacement be well-thought-out so the service can get the correct planes for its needs.