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UPT Phase III...
T-38 and Graduation

Undergraduate Pilot Training

Undergraduate Pilot Training Phase III, The T-38

Finally the day comes that every UPT student has been waiting for -- graduation to the T-38A, officially designated the "Talon", but much better known among us "steely-eyed killers" as the "White Rocket". By this time, I, like the others in my class, was feeling pretty cocky - we were real jet pilots! Right! My instructor in the T-38 was Captain Ron Kramer (although we all called him "Creeper" because of his usual dour-looking countenance). My apologies for that name, Ron, but it seemed appropriate at the time. Despite the nickname, I came to regard Ron with the highest respect and had absolute confidence that he would get me through the T-38 training fully assembled.

The first takeoff in the T-38 was a dollar ride in which I was in the back seat. We rolled out into takeoff position on runway 17, Ron advanced the throttles to 100%, released the brakes, and then eased the throttles forward to light the afterburners. Things happened very fast. At the 1000 foot marker, airspeed was over 100 knots (115 mph), seconds later we reached 155 knots (178 mph) and rotated for takeoff. The aircraft leapt off the runway, accelerating at a prodigious rate. There was just time to retract the gear before its limit airspeed was reached. The flaps were retracted just before their limit airspeed was reached. At the far end of the runway, airspeed was passing Mach 0.9 and Ron smoothly pulled up into a 45 degree climb. Seconds later we leveled at 10,000 feet by rolling inverted, pulling the nose down level and then rolling back upright.

Among other things, the T-38 is known for its very high roll rate capability. It can achieve 720 degrees of roll per second. That is not a typo - 2 revolutions around its longitudinal axis in one second! Of course, on my dollar ride I asked to see a maximum performance aileron roll. Nothing in my experience to date could have prepared me for what was about to happen. I'm sure there was a sadistic grin on Ron's face as he snapped the stick to the left. All I know is that the canopy struck the right side of my helmet hard enough to make me see stars. After a triple roll, Ron asked if I was a little dizzy. I made the mistake of saying "yes". Wham! The canopy struck the left side of my helmet for three more rolls to the right. That second roll actually did clear the dizziness and I was asked what else I would like to see. Having been reading ahead in my text book, I asked for a "cloverleaf", which is four consecutive loops in which the aircraft is rolled 90 degrees as it passes through the vertical on the ascent in each loop. A T-38 uses about 10,000 feet of vertical airspace to perform a loop. The entry is usually a 45 degree dive with the pullup initiated at about 500 knots indicated (although an afterburner loop can be entered at 400 knots). The pullup runs 4 - 5 Gs and over the top airspeed has bled to about 200 knots. Coming down the back side, acceleration is very rapid, arrested only by the pullup for the next loop of the cloverleaf.

The final humbling during the dollar ride is the landing. The T-38 has a supersonic wing design with very little compromise for its low speed performance. In fact, without extending the flaps, it cannot be flown under 280 knots and it has a special waiver from the FAA which requires all aircraft operating below 10,000 feet to maintain 250 knots or less. The standard Air Force landing pattern for such an aircraft is called an "overhead pattern", in which the aircraft is flow down the runway at 1500 feet in direction of intended landing. At about halfway down the runway, power is cut and a 180 degree, 2g (60 degrees of bank), level turn is made. As the the aircraft rolls out of the turn, airspeed has bled to allow extension of the flaps, followed by extension of the gear. Just about the time the gear locks another descending 180 degree turn is started to bring the aircraft back around and lined up with the approach end. Speed is now down to 155 knots plus 1 knot for every 100 pounds of fuel remaining - typically 160 to 165 knots (184 to 190 mph). God willin' and the creek don't rise, you roll out of the final turn just in time to flare for landing and gently plant the main gear wheels on the concrete and then dump the speed brake. Now the problem is that you are still traveling almost 200 mph and watching the 1000 foot markers go by like fence posts. The aircraft is kept on its main gear and the nose is raised to present a high drag profile and bleed off speed. As the speed drops below 100 knots, the nose is lowered to the runway before all lift is lost. The T-38 does not have anti-skid brakes, so brake application is very gentle and gingerly. You are still traveling fast enough to blow a tire instantly should the wheel lock up. Turn off the runway at the departure end and get the canopy open - with the engine at idle, there is almost no air conditioning output and the hot West Texas sun will heat the cockpit to well over a hundred degrees in a very short time.

Part of the unwritten code of conduct of a UPT student is that one never expresses doubt, shows hesitation, or admits that anything is difficult. However, each one of us, after that dollar ride had the same feeling - "How am I ever going to be able to cope with the pace of activity and the level of awareness required to competently and safely drive the white rocket?" The attitude fostered by that unwritten code, however, is the very thing that makes it possible. Failure is simply unacceptable at this point, so you reach deep into your reserves and master the White Rocket, as all the challenges before.

In the T-38, formation training is intensified to include pitchout and rejoin maneuvers, formation acrobatics and both single ship and formation supersonic flight. The T-38 was capable of exceeding Mach 1 in level flight, although it did take a nudge from the afterburners to push it over. Instrument training is also intensified in this portion. On an instrument ride, the student sits in the rear cockpit with the instructor in the front. A special curtain (the "hood") is drawn closed so that the student has no view whatever of the outside world. The hood is in place before the aircraft takes position on the runway. The instructor lined up the aircraft on the centerline and then yielded control to the student. The takeoff was performed using compass heading alone for lateral guidance. Once in the air, the student flew the whole mission under the hood, usually a number of instrument approaches without landings at a variety of airfields (a T-38 can cover a lot of territory very quickly). By the end of an instrument ride, the student was soaked with sweat and physically and emotionally drained and it was customary for the instructor to fly back to Webb and land as his reward for patience beyond the call of duty.

Ron had a particularly unique way of returning to base. Somehow he always managed to position the end of an instrument ride out in some hilly, desolate country. When he took the aircraft and allowed me to come out from under the hood, he would drop down to between 50 and 100 feet and he was always positioned at the end of a narrow ravine between the hills. Pushing up the throttles to put the aircraft just under the Mach, he would fly up the ravine. At the end of the ravine, the terrain opened up into a small valley with a little building in the center of it. At this point he would literally aim for the door of the building, allowing his altitude to further decrease. He timed his pullup so that the aircraft was precisely at 90 of pitch directly over the building. Just as the aircraft reached 90 of pitch, he would advance both throttles to maximum afterburner. Approaching 10,000 feet he would execute the pull to level inverted and roll erect and be at 10,000 feet and 280 knots precisely at the spot he needed to call Webb Approach for clearance. I was always impressed by the precision of the whole maneuver and exhilarated by the speed that close to the ground. Close to the ground is the only place where you truly appreciate just how fast Mach 1 is.

Wherever you are now, Ron, thanks for those rides - I'll never forget them. And by the way, since I am sitting here typing away at a computer keyboard, you must have done a good job on the training side as well!

T-38 Pictures
Single Ship
Two Ship Formation
On the ramp

Aircraft Comparison
T-38pitotboom.gif (6373 bytes)
In a turn
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Canopies Open



The graduation ceremony was the only time in my Air Force career I actually had to march in formation. We paraded out onto the flight line in the hot West Texas sun on the 26th of October, 1968 and listened to the Wing Commander drone platitudes for the sake of the assembled families. Then, one by one, we were called to the podium to be presented with the silver wings of an Air Force pilot and a certificate signed by Colonel W. C. McGlothlin, Jr. attesting to the fact that we were now in possession of a United States Air Force Aeronautical Rating and an Air Force Specialty Code (AFSC) of 1111. This was probably the proudest day of my life. Those Air Force wings were more valuable to me than my degree from M.I.T., although I would soon find out that my training had only just begun.

More Pictures
Petester's "Tiger" Photo  

Revised: 24 March 1999