“The sky turned a deeper and darker blue as the sun moved farther below the horizon, and soon it seemed we might be in orbit, far above the earth in our small T-38 aircraft, dwarfed by the immensity of the sky and dark earth below. Can it get any better than this, I wondered, flying a sleek aircraft eight miles above the route to San Francisco?,” Jay Lacklen, retired Air Force reserve Lt Col with 12,500 flying hours
More than 72,000 U.S. Air Force pilots have trained in Northrop T-38 Talon, the world’s first supersonic trainer when it entered service. Nearly 1,200 Talons were produced from 1961-72, and more than 500 are currently operational with the Air Force and NASA.
Jay Lacklen, a retired Air Force reserve Lt Col with 12,500 flying hours, remembers his time as a T-38 student pilot in his book “Flying the Line, an Air Force Pilot’s Journey, Pilot Training, Vietnam, SAC.”
Flying T-38, 1971
“Leaving the Tweet [as the T-37 was nicknamed] behind, we moved down the flight line to our T-38 flight rooms to meet our instructors. Mine was 1st Lt. Tom Jones, and I would be his first student after FAIP training. The squadron commander, also named Jones (his first name was “Sir” to me, and he was not related to Lt. Jones), pulled me aside and told me Lt. Jones was one of the best students to go through FAIP training recently; I soon found this to be true.
“Lt. Jones […] treated me as a fellow pilot and comrade, […] He never played “gotcha” on me to make himself look good by making me look bad. At any rate, as a strict Mormon, his strongest epithet was, ‘You tuna!’
“Several instances of flying the T-38 stand out in my memory. First, on an instrument ride, when I had to fly in the back seat instead of the front and with a curtain pulled the entire length of my canopy to block any outside view, I almost did the unthinkable. Since it was a smooth day, I felt no sensation of speed as the IP flew on the initial climb out. I then noticed that part of the instrument curtain was caught under the canopy. Reflexively I started to reach for the canopy handle to raise the canopy and free the curtain. My hand got nearly to the handle before I froze. Had I lifted that handle, my canopy would have opened into the 250-knot wind stream and instantaneously departed the aircraft, leaving me directly exposed to that air stream. I almost threw up right there in terror of what I’d been about to do. I’d never have lived that down.
“Second, on my first T-38 solo, I got into multiple troubles. In one of the maneuvering areas, I decided to do repeated loops, merrily climbing and losing ten thousand feet in each loop. As you pull through the top of the loop, you must look up to see the earth coming back into view. As you finish the loop, there is nothing but earth before you as you streak straight down. I was having a fine time until Center called me and asked which area I was supposed to be in. I gave him the area name, and he informed me I had strayed into the adjacent area in my frolic, and why didn’t I get my butt back into my own area.
“That, however, was mild compared to what was coming. I returned to the Webb pattern, shot an instrument approach, and requested the closed (close in) visual pattern to get another quick landing. As I rolled out on final, I noticed the controls were behaving very strangely. I had to use huge control stick movements to get my desired response from the plane. As I pondered this, the RSU officer came up on tower frequency and asked, ‘T-38 on final, confirm no-flap?’
“AAAAAAH! I had forgotten to put the flaps down to improve lift for the slow final approach and now, belatedly, realized I was about to stall the plane a few hundred feet above the ground, something that could have fatal consequences. I slammed the throttles forward into full afterburner, orange shot out the back of the plane’s engines, and I felt a blessed power surge that pressed me back into my seat. Stunned at my lapse and whispering, “Oh, fuck! Oh, fuck!” to myself, I heard the RSU controller on the radio again a moment later. ‘On the go, [meaning me], gear?’
“AAAAAAH again! I had forgotten, in my panic, to raise the gear and had now exceeded its maximum extended speed limit. However, it did come up and eventually go down one more time as I full stopped.
“I wobbled away from the plane after landing and skulked back into the flight room. I didn’t know if I could possibly get away with this. As it turned out, I could not.
“One of the loudest, most obnoxious of our section’s IPs had been the RSU officer asking me the questions from the tower, and he soon arrived to skewer me in front of the entire flight. ‘Lieutenant Lacklen, were you Rod 22?’ he asked loudly, knowing full well I had been. ‘Er, yes, sir, I was,’ I said. “Did you write up a gear overspeed when you landed?” he pressed glaring at me angrily as if he had just caught me in bed with his wife. ‘Er, no, sir.’
“As he looked around the room to ensure everyone was listening, continued, his voice rising, ‘Well, let me count up the busts for you on flight—one for flying an illegal [for a student] no-flap, one for over-speeding the gear, and one for not writing it up in the maintenance forms. That is three U’s on one solo ride, mister. Where the hell is your IP? Now, get your ass back out to that airplane and write up that gear!’
“Captain Obnoxious had known he had a student by the balls when, after asking for no-flap confirmation of me on final, he had seen the orange flare explode from the back of my engines, a sure sign I had hit afterburners; I didn’t even need to answer him. Had he not seen that, and had I not answered, his next, panicked command would have been ‘T-38 on final, burners now!” because, as my nose-high, wallowing aircraft movement warned, I’d have soon started stalling and falling. But I beat him to the punch. Then, as I streaked past the RSU with my gear still down, he knew he had me again and he did.
“Earlier in the T-38 program, he had grilled three of us by asking question concerning some button you had to push at a given groundspeed to activate nose wheel steering when taxiing the aircraft. When none of us knew the answer, he stood up and erupted with a shout of, ‘You guys don’t .. know… shit!’ that startled everyone else in the flight room. Now, alas, I had run afoul of him again.
“Argh—the only U’s I received in UPT aside from the initial T-37 bust and they all came on one solo flight.
“We did our solo out-and-back to Amarillo, and I managed to embarrass myself yet again. Fort Worth Center cleared me for a visual approach to the airport that I claimed I could see but had misidentified. Now clueless what to do, I called the IP on the ground with the other cross-country solos and told him I didn’t know where the airport was.
“I was close enough he could see me, so he said, ‘Look at your three 0’clock, Tort 08.’ ‘Oh, now I see you,’ I said. I wished that conversation had not transpired where my peer group could listen to it. I became one of Little Bo Peep’s lost sheep in the retelling of the story at the bar.
A final treat before graduation came on my T-38 cross-country to Hamilton AFB, CA, just north of San Francisco. This flight would transverse the continent and provide a visual approximation of a space trip as we fear westward at 42,000 feet on a clear winter night with another T-38. The sky turned a deeper and darker blue as the sun moved farther below the horizon, and soon it seemed we might be in orbit, far above the earth in our small craft, dwarfed by the immensity of the sky and dark earth below. Can it get any better than this, I wondered, flying a sleek aircraft eight miles above the route to San Francisco?“
Photo credit: Terry Wasson, Civilian / U.S. Air Force