Northrop T-38 Talon History

The Northrop T-38 "Talon" is a dedicated supersonic advanced trainer used by a handful of global air powers today - though its primary user remains the United States Air Force (USAF). The aircraft belongs to the same family of jets as the Northrop F-5 "Freedom Fighter", the "F-5 Tiger II" and the F-20 "Tigershark" and its general design shows the similarities. It fits a pair of turbofan engines in a side-by-side arrangement, showcases small wing surfaces, and sports a single vertical fin at the rear. Its identifying feature is its tandem-seat cockpit for two. The base T-38 flight model does not support munitions for the light attack role as seen in other modern advanced jet trainers though some variants were developed for weapons training. The T-38 series allows for the training of airmen cadets and veteran pilots alike where speeds over Mach 1 are required - such as in fighter and astronaut training. The T-38 is, therefore, also used by NASA both as a trainer and a chase plane.

When adopted, the T-38 became the world's first supersonic trainer.

Origins of the T-38 place it in the 1950s when an offshoot to the Northrop lightweight fighter line was developed as an in-house initiative against no formal specification with the USAF. At this time, the USAF was still relying on still relying on its fleet of subsonic Lockheed T-33 "Shooting Star" trainers which arrived in the late 1940s. In 1957, the Cessna T-37 "Tweet" would be adopted but this too remained a subsonic design in USAF service. Interested in the proposed supersonic Northrop design, the USAF moved on development which produced the "YT-38" designation. Three prototypes were eventually ordered and flown, the first on March 10th, 1959.

In short order, the aircraft was adopted and plans made for large-scale procurement. Manufacture spanned from 1961 to 1972 to which 1,146 units would be delivered to the USAF and others including the United States Navy (USN) (used for a time as aggressor aircraft). Deliveries began in 1961 under the formal production designation of "T-38 Talon". In Northrop nomenclature, the aircraft was company model "N-156T".

The T-38 was certainly a no-frills aircraft. It retained the same general form and function of the Northrop F-5/F-20 line of aircraft with their most notable quality being the small-area mainplanes that were low-mounted stubs along the fuselage sides. A short nosecone sat ahead of the two-seat, tandem cockpit which saw the student in front and the instructor in the back. Both positions offered excellent views of the surrounding area. The fuselage was well-contoured for aerodynamic efficiency and promoted a slim profile from all angles. The fuselage spine began the base of the single vertical tail fin which was of a tapering shape and clipped at its tip. The tailplanes were low mounted and small-area surfaces. The engines were installed side-by-side and aspirated through small individual intakes located to the sides of the fuselage, just aft of the cockpit placement. The undercarriage was of a tricycle arrangement and retractable, keeping the ventral side of the T-38 rather clean and noticeably flat.

From the YT-38 developmental models emerged the production-quality "T-38A" variant of which 1,139 were eventually produced - this making the A-models the definitive mark of the line. NASA took on the form as "T-38A(N)" - NASA eventually operating a fleet of some 32 Talon aircraft. A weapons trainer variant was developed from A-models that became the "AT-38A". The USN utilized modified T-38As as drone directors under the "DT-38A" designation and unmanned drone aircraft were then designated as "QY-38A". "NT-38A" were known test-related airframes and the "AT-38B" became a weapons trainer version. The improved "T-38C" appeared with new avionics and a revised structure in an effort to extend the useful service lives of the aircraft family. Head-Up Display (HUD), GPS navigation and revised engines were all introduced with C-models.

Several proposed experimental variants were championed for a time including a unique VTOL version (Vertical Take-Off and Landing), the Mach 3.2-capable "N-205" triple-rocket aircraft for fast vertical take-off and the "ST-38" based on the N-25 super-high-speed concept.

Turkey became a foreign operator of the T-38 line and its aircraft were designated as "T-38M", these based on the T-38A production model. Other operators went on to include Germany, Portugal, South Korea, and Taiwan - though none managed the numbers in inventory that the United States did. Portugal and South Korea are now former operators of T-38 Talons.

With its storied career now more written than not, the USAF has enacted the "T-X" program in an effort to find a modern advanced jet trainer to replace its stock of T-38 Talons. To the participants of the program, the T-X stands as a lucrative deal that would most likely net a contract for hundreds of aircraft. As it stands today (July 2014), the T-38 has enjoyed a service career spanning some 53 total years - an amazing tenure for any military aircraft. It is thought that the T-38 will remain a viable training entity until 2020.

Northrop states that some 72,000 USAF pilots were born from the T-38 Talon's faithful service.

Northrop T-38 Talon Specification


Active, In-Service


[ 1,146 Units ]:
Northrop Corporation - USA


- Training



46.39 ft (14.14 m)


25.26 ft (7.7 m)


12.86 ft (3.92 m)


Empty Weight:

7,209 lb (3,270 kg)


11,817 lb (5,360 kg)

(Diff: +4,608lb)


2 x General Electric J85-GE-5A afterburning turbojet engines developing 2,680 lb dry thrust and 3,850 lb thrust with afterburner.


Maximum Speed:

857 mph (1,380 kph; 745 kts)

Service Ceiling:

50,000 feet (15,240 m; 9.47 miles)

Maximum Range:

1,140 miles (1,835 km; 991 nm)


33,600 ft/min (10,241 m/min)


None. Some variants feature provisions for practice bomb dispensers for weapons training.


T-38 "Talon" - Base Series Designation

N-165T - Northrop Company Designation

YT-38 - Developmental prototypes; three completed; joined by pre-production airframes.

T-38A - Initial and definitive production mark; 1,139 examples.

T-38A(N) - NASA A-models

T-38C - Mid-Life Upgrade (MLU) variant of A-model

T-38M - Turkish Air Force variant

AT-38A - Weapons Trainer

AT-38B - Weapons Trainer

DT-38A - USN drone directors from A-models

QT-38A - Unmanned drone aircraft from A-models

NT-38A - Converted research platforms

N-205 - Proposed triple-rocket powered vertical launch aircraft.

ST-38 (N-205B) - Revised, proposed rocket-assisted vertical launch model.

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