Memories of Reese T-38's
by Howard Morland
In January of 1966, Reese Air Force Base, near Lubbock, Texas, had just completed
the retirement of its straight-winged, subsonic T-33 jet trainers. In their places
on the ramp (nobody said tarmac in those days) were rows of brand, spanking-new
supersonic T-38 Talons. There was nothing bird-like about these airplanes. Their
stubby wings were so far behind the cockpit that a persistent rumor among new
student pilots had most of the lift coming from the fuselage. The wings were
mere stabilizers, like dart feathers (not true, of course).
There were no T-38 joy rides for new students like myself. To ride that
white broomstick, a young Air Force lieutenant needed to complete six months
of training in the T-37 tweety bird. No uglier jet warplane had ever been
built. With side-by-side seating, it looked like a tadpole with barn-door
wings. Sounded like a screech owl. The shame of washing out during the first
six months was heightened by the sheer homeliness of the T-37.
Actually, it was the tweety bird that taught us to fly. It was as much as any
new birdman could handle.
I knocked myself out pulling seven G’s entering a loop, solo. When I came to,
I interpreted my altimeter as the face of my bedside clock. The time I read
indicated I could go back to sleep, but my bed was shaking. The plane was in
a stall, unable to complete the loop without my help. As I dived to reestablish
wing lift, the cobwebs disappeared, and sheer terror set in. I could no longer
trust myself to be in control. At any minute, I could just pass out and die.
I kept quiet for fear of washing out, but a week later I was developing a
serious fear of altitude. I confessed. It was ok. We weren’t supposed to
pull more than five G’s anyway, so I was judged to be physiologically adequate.
In the T-38, we would wear G suits, which would help. In the meantime, lose the
macho. I stayed in the program.
The upperclassmen, six months ahead of us, seemed to walk on air. They looked
like us, but they flew those rocket ships. The tweeties and the Talons made
practice landings on parallel runways. During every touch-and-go landing in
the T-37, I would see a T-38 flash by at nearly twice my speed, like a comic
book superhero heading for the scene of a crime. We picked up astounding
pieces of Talon trivia. To get the wheels up faster, little wings had been
added to the landing gear struts. The hydraulic mechanism alone could not
raise the wheels fast enough after takeoff to avoid exceeding the speed limit
for wheels-down flight.
Everyone in my class had arrived at Lubbock in time to experience the untimely
demise of a T-38 student pilot who had recently soloed for the first time.
We didn’t see the crash, but we all made a pilgrimage to the wreckage, a mile
beyond the end of the runway. The body was under some kind of tarp, and the
burned-out wreckage was largely intact nearby, minus wings and tail. The
fuselage ribs suggested a beached, rotted whale carcass. Every T-38 at Reese
was in the air, doing touch-and-go landings, climbing out over the spot of the
tragedy. Warriors cannot be spooked by death; everybody had to go aloft and
shake it out.
When our turn came to fly the Talon, we studied the accident report. The
lesson was simple: fly the airplane. A minor malfunction had distracted the
pilot, and he flew the plane into the ground while he was explaining his problem
to the control tower. These days, it happens to people who talk on cell phones
while driving cars.
For those of us who made the transition, lesson one in the T-38 syllabus was
“supersonic flight at 40,000 feet.” In a matter of minutes we were going
faster and higher than anyone outside the military aviation fraternity had
ever gone. The strange thing was how familiar it all seemed. Jets are jets.
The tabletop terrain of the Texas panhandle looked the same from twice as high up, a
nd it slid by at about the same rate owing to the higher altitude.
But speed is the enemy of maneuverability. At cruising speed, a two-G,
sixty-degree-banked turn seemed to take forever. A five-G loop took two miles
of altitude. If you jerk a fast plane around, the G forces will kill you.
And the T-38 wouldn’t go slow. We were not allowed to practice stalls, because
the plane wouldn’t recover.
As I recall, final approach speed is 150 knots, and touchdown is 135. With no
thrust reversers, spoilers or drag chutes, getting it stopped on a 10,000 foot
runway is tricky. Aerodynamic braking is the trick. When the main wheels touch,
you slowly raise the nose to increase drag. Too fast and the plane will go
airborne again. Hold it up until the tail begins to lose effectiveness. Too
long and a tail stall will drop the nose hard. Don’t touch the brakes until
the nose is down. The end of the runway is always in your face by the time the
plane gets to taxi speed. I once forgot to raise the nose and had to ride the
brakes all the way down the runway. It was never fun to screw up.
The first vanity license plate I ever saw was on a classmate’s Corvette:
JET JOK. But we didn’t have any hot-shot T-38 pilots. With 120 hours of
flying time, only 30 hours solo, nobody had enough time-in-type to get cocky.
A successful flight was called “cheating death.” The astronauts flew T-38s.
They were, by definition, the best pilots in the world. Two of them were killed
trying to land one in a snowstorm. We took notice.
The highlight of my training career was supersonic solo formation flight.
(Formation flights had been limited to two planes after a four-plane formation
had come to mid-air grief.) An instructor was in my lead plane, with another
student. I was alone on the wing. The leader announced supersonic flight and
we both lit the afterburners. Nothing seemed to change. When you are flying
wing you don’t look at your instruments. You keep the leader’s wingtip
superimposed over the star on his engine nacelle and fly by the seat of your
pants. There is no time to look around.
I was holding formation pretty well, but as I drifted in and out of the
optimal position, I seemed to be bumping into the lead plane. Nothing was
touching, but somehow there was contact. Then it dawned on me. I was surfing
his supersonic shock wave, like a porpoise riding the bow wave of a ship. Damn.
There are very few surprises in Air Force pilot training. They prepare the
student for everything. But this was something they missed. When I mentioned
it, I was told, “Yeah, that’s true, but you don’t feel it if you stay in position.”
For loops and rolls we flew in trail formation, with the wingman directly behind
and below the leader. It was subsonic, of course. Supersonic formation flight
was straight and level only. Supersonic flight is pretty pointless, anyway,
it burns fuel ten times faster than subsonic flight.
To enter a loop, the pilot pulls back on the stick until the accelerometer
reads five G’s. The G-suit inflates immediately, but the plane seems to hesitate
a moment to see if the pilot is serious. Then the nose starts to rise. The
trailing pilot in a formation flight detects the stick movement immediately, as
the lead plane’s horizontal tail noses down. The thin, short wings bend up like
an archer’s bow when the string is pulled. The trailing pilot follows suit and
the horizon drops away. Soon the sky is below and the earth above. The leader’s
wings straighten out as the speed and G forces decrease at the top of the loop.
When the earth is directly ahead, indicating a vertical dive, both begin to return.
The leader’s wings bend up, the G suit reinflates.
If little green men were walking around the cockpit during the loop, the trailing
pilot would not notice. Keeping that big, white airplane butt directly ahead is
all that matters.
We lost a couple more T-38s that year but no more student pilots. Both planes
suffered double engine failure when ice formed in the engine air intakes and then
broke away and destroyed the engines. The pilots ejected. In the second case,
the pilotless, powerless plane landed itself in a cotton field, wheels up, with
very little damage. We know from the aerodynamics of the plane that it must have
touched down at 135 knots and slid to a stop. I doubt the airframe was ever put
back into service, but there must have been a million dollars worth of useable
That miracle was actually evidence of less than optimal technique on the part of
the instructor pilot, who took over when the engines quit. Ideally, he should
have left the plane in full nose-down and full bank trim before he bailed out,
so the plane would spiral quickly into the ground, minimizing the danger to bystanders
(of which there aren’t many in west Texas).
A T-37 instructor pilot was decapitated when a sand hill crane came through his
windshield at 320 knots, but no student was on board. The other pilot, also an
instructor, flew the headless body home.
A solo student in a T-38 hit a flock of cranes and lost one engine and his windshield,
but not his head. He landed the plane, barely able to see through the bird blood
on his helmet visor. Instead of a hero’s welcome, he was reprimanded for not
“Hey, guys. These planes are all paid for. The assembly line is still running.
We expect you to land the plane with one engine out, but not with the windshield
out and a 150 knot wind in your face. The paperwork for a lost plane is nothing
compared to the paperwork for a dead pilot. If he had lost control on final he
could have taken out part of the base.” Or something like that. I looked at
the plane in the hanger. There was no sign of the damaged engine. The air intake
was clean as a whistle all the way back to the exhaust nozzle, an empty pipe with
daylight at the other end.
Sand hill cranes migrate at fifteen hundred feet, our traffic pattern altitude,
and they were almost impossible to see dead ahead. Bird strikes were my greatest
fear. To my knowledge, the training planes are the only ones in the Air Force
fast enough to make a bird strike lethal, and with a windshield too flimsy to
deflect one. I think they still haven’t fixed that problem.
Speaking of traffic patterns, the T-38 turn to final was the only test for which
we were not adequately trained. All fighter-type planes land with an overhead,
pitchout traffic pattern. The pilot flies directly over the runway, in the
landing direction, at fifteen hundred feet, and abruptly makes a sixty-degree-banked,
180 degree turn to downwind leg. If planes are in formation, they peel out
one at a time, starting with the leader, so they arrive on downwind leg with
proper spacing for landing.
The 180 degree turn from downwind to final must be done at no more than
forty-five degrees bank. How do you make the final turn have the same radius
as the pitchout turn, when the bank angle is less?
Speed is the biggest factor. The final turn is slower. The flaps and wheels
are down, but that’s not enough. Beginning T-38 students often overshot the
runway and ran the risk of colliding with T-37s on final approach to the
parallel runway. Instructors always did it right, but they seemed to be in
conspiracy not to tell students the secret.
The obvious remedies were all forbidden. If the entry to, and exit from,
the pitchout turn was made at a slower rate of roll, less of the turn would
be at full bank, and the downwind leg would be placed farther out. “Way too
wide; you should be over there, not here.” Exceeding forty-five degrees of
bank in the final turn was easy to detect on the artificial horizon -- points
off for the ride. Pulling back on the stick to tighten the final turn without
increasing the bank angle would prevent overshoot, but it stopped the descent
and made the final approach too steep. Angling the downwind leg out was
sometimes overlooked, but one couldn’t count on that.
My roommate came up with a solution his instructor didn’t catch. Gentle pressure
on the rudder pedal would increase the rate of turn. Hell, no, I said, don’t do
that. A low-speed slip is way more dangerous than overbanking or overshooting.
The T-38 wings are so short the common cross-controlled crosswind landing, with
one wing low, is forbidden. In a crosswind, the T-38 lands in a wings-level crab.
Any kind of rudder action at low speed can produce a fatal snap roll when the
fuselage blocks the wind to one wing.
I had a better idea. I pushed the stick forward as I rolled into the final turn.
By the time bank was established the plane was descending fast enough for me to
pull back on the stick without killing my descent. The turn was tight, and the
height was correct at the end of the turn. It worked for everybody I coached,
but the instructors never admitted it was what they were doing.
The closest I came to being killed in a T-38 was the time I started a takeoff
roll with nosewheel steering engaged. A button on the control stick engages
nosewheel steering, which is essential for taxiing, but lethal for takeoff.
The last checklist before takeoff calls for removal of the finger from the button.
But I had re-engaged it to adjust my position on the runway after completing the
checklist. I was solo. One tends to grip the control stick pretty firmly during
takeoff, so if the finger is over the button, it gets depressed. Once the
afterburners are lit, it’s all hang on and fly. I was just starting to notice
instability in yaw, a few yards down the runway, when a calm voice in my
headphones said, “Nosewheel steering.” I released the button, and the rest of
the flight was uneventful.
I never learned the identity of the observer -- an instructor or another student,
in the control booth or in a plane behind me waiting for takeoff – who spotted
the telltale signs and made the call. Thanks, whoever you are.
I had time later, four decades so far, to ponder the wisdom of allowing the
combination of nosewheel steering and afterburner to be possible. A fail-safe
design would place an override switch in the throttle quadrant, so that
whenever the throttles went past full power and into afterburner range, the
nosewheel steering would be disengaged. Sure, it’s a training plane, but would
my death have been a sufficiently valuable lesson to justify exposing every
pilot to that risk?
For the one-time, overnight cross country trip, two planes flew in formation
from Lubbock to San Francisco. Looking down on the Golden Gate Bridge was a
treat. When we got back, a student who had gone someplace else asked if I
took a picture and wondered aloud if anyone else had ever seen the bridge from
the air. I’m not making this up. He really said that. Aviation in San Francisco
is decades older than the bridge, and Richard I. Bong, the soon-to-be ace fighter
pilot got in trouble for looping it with a P-38 in 1942.
The student pilot who made the trip with me told people back in Lubbock that on
our return flight over Los Angeles we were so high he could see Hawaii. I’m not
making that up, either. What he saw was Catalina, famously twenty-six miles across
the sea, one percent of the distance to Hawaii. Man. I was reminded, uncharitably,
that birds manage to fly pretty well with remarkably small brains.
At least half the graduating pilots left Reese Air Force Base with a wall plaque
of “High Flight,” the aviator’s anthem about slipping the surly bonds of earth
and touching the face of God. Its poet, John Gillespie Magee, Jr, was killed in
a midair collision in over Britain in 1941, three months after he wrote it. It
seemed like bad luck to me, so I opted for a pair of framed black-and-white photographs,
one showing two dark-silver T-37s in formation against white clouds and the other
showing two white T-38s in formation against a black sky. They grace my living
room wall today, more than a quarter century after my last flight log entry.
A couple of years ago, I attended the annual air show at Andrews Air Force Base
near Washington, DC. A T-38 was on display, guarded by its young instructor pilot.
The plane was at least a dozen years older than he was. I climbed the platform
and looked down into the cockpit. It seemed like yesterday. I had a hard time
shaking the idea that I was suddenly 40 years younger, with my life ahead of me.
I told him that for thirty years after I quit flying these airplanes I had a
recurring dream, every year or so. I would steal a T-38 and take it for a joy
ride. He didn’t know whether to be flattered or alarmed, but he allowed as how
he might have the same dreams some day.