Aviation History

USAF T-38 with F-4 Vietnam War-paint scheme honors legacy of POW fighter pilots

The painters used a schematic from an outdated technical order to approximate the camouflage pattern of the F-4

A T-38 Talon with a color scheme familiar to the U.S. Air Force (USAF) pilots who flew missions during the Vietnam War will play an important role in the 560th Flying Training Squadron’s 45th annual Freedom Flyer Reunion on Mar. 22-23.

It will remain a sight to see at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph for years to come.

One of the 560th FTS’ T-38Cs in fact has been repainted in the gray, green and tan colors of the Vietnam-era F-4 Phantom II, the fighter aircraft many USAF pilots were flying when they were shot down over North Vietnam and taken to prisoner-of-war camps.

“The T-38 was specifically painted for this year’s reunion,” said Maj. Wil Harris, 45th Freedom Flyer Reunion director. “It will be a central piece in the freedom flights of three ex-POWs on March 22. It will also be on display at the reunion’s wreath-laying ceremony at Washington Circle the next day.”

As explained by Robert Goetz, 502nd Air Base Wing Public Affairs, in the article T-38C dons F-4’s colors for role during Freedom Flyer Reunion, Harris, 560th FTS director of standards and evaluations, said the vision to paint one of the T-38s like the F-4 started with a squadron conversation about the Freedom Flyers and Vietnam.

“We have numerous pictures of Vietnam-era aircraft in our squadron as part of our Freedom Hall, and as we discussed the aircraft of the era, we started talking about how cool the paint scheme looked and mentioned how awesome it would look on a T-38,” he pointed out.

Harris credited Lt. Col. Dennis Hargis, 560th FTS instructor pilot, with bringing the vision to life. Hargis submitted the proposal to Lt. Col. Jonathan Elza, 560th FTS commander, setting the process in motion.

“Lt. Col. Elza was completely supportive, and the email was sent up, so from inception to execution was literally two days,” Harris said. “The paperwork came back approved within a few weeks, so at every level folks were supportive of the plan and really helped move this idea along.”

The task to change the T-38’s colors belonged to the 12th Maintenance Group’s corrosion control team, who received the aircraft on Feb. 23 and finished the job on Mar. 3.

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Steps in the process included masking the aircraft, sanding it, painting the landing gear, masking the landing gear, priming and painting the aircraft in the new colors and stenciling it, said Don Collier, a member of the 12th MXG corrosion control team.

“It took six hours to paint the aircraft,” he said. “A normal paint job on a T-38 takes about two hours.”

The painters used a schematic from an outdated technical order to approximate the camouflage pattern of the F-4, Collier said.

“The T-38’s a lot smaller, so we had to adjust the schematic to suit the aircraft,” he said. “It was all through trial.”

In addition to Collier, members of the corrosion control team involved in the project were Mario Tarin, Neil Orlowski, John Esquivel and Martin Herrera.

The aircraft will retain the F-4’s colors well into the next decade as a continuing part of the T-38 fleet, he said.

“I will say it looks even better than what we imagined,” Harris said. “The 12th Maintenance Group really did an amazing job; the work that they put into the aircraft really makes it a fitting tribute to the men and women of the Vietnam era who sacrificed so much for this nation.”

Harris called the reimagined T-38 the “perfect centerpiece” for the reunion.

“It will let the Freedom Flyers and POWs know that we as a nation are still indebted to them for their sacrifice and humbled by their return with honor in the face of such harsh circumstances.”

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

Artwork courtesy of AircraftProfilePrints.com

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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