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Old Warbirds Need Their Feed

There’s just something about iconic aircraft – particularly aircraft that serve in our nation’s armed forces . . . the sleek lines of speed, the style of the nose-art, the scream of the engines, the menace of weaponry.  For these reasons, military aircraft inspire confidence – in many cases, bordering on adoration – in the pilots, the crew, and the nation who depend on them to defend the homeland.

This confidence is even greater with military aircraft that have extremely long service lives.  The B-52, the C-130, and the U-2 are a few that come to mind – iconic “warbirds” that earned their battle stars in multiple conflicts over multiple decades.

Also on the list of legacy warbirds is the Northrop T-38 Talon.  In many ways, the Talon is an unsung hero.  Outside of a small community of military pilots, contractors and maintainers, most Americans probably don’t know much about the T-38 – even if they’ve heard its name.  And yet, it is an airplane that has valiantly trained our nation’s jet pilots – across the Air Force, Navy and Marines – without interruption for decades.

To simply say that the T-38 Talon has a distinguished record of service is to dramatically undersell the history and importance of this critical and cherished aircraft.  For one, it was the world’s first supersonic trainer aircraft, and it has been in continuous use by the U.S. military for over five decades.  Most importantly, it is a plane that has been used to train a whopping 72,000 U.S. military pilots over its lifespan. And it is an aircraft that is still serving the country today – the USAF still has a fleet of some 500 birds, and NASA relies on the Talon for a variety of requirements as well.

Despite its age, it is important to note that the U.S. government has indicated that the T-38 could fly in operational service for another 20 years! This is even more remarkable considering the Talon first flew in 1959, and the last newly manufactured T-38 rolled off the assembly line in 1972 – almost 50 years ago.  The plane’s superb design and engineering, ease of maintenance, low operational costs, excellent safety record, and key sub-components like its legendary General Electric J-85 engine have all helped to keep the Talon in service.

And while the aircraft that will eventually replace the T-38 – the T-7 Red Hawk – is starting to come online, the T-38 will undoubtedly continue to serve in a key training capacity for several more years.  In fact, according to a recent analysis produced by the Congressional Research Service, life extension modifications have allowed the T-38 to keep working until 2029.

With all of this in mind, Congress, the Dept. of Defense, and the services need to ensure that the T-38 Talon is properly supported in the coming years – without fail.  Support means Congress fund this important program of record consistently, uniformly and adequately year-over-year – for everything from key avionics upgrades and structural maintenance to engine sustainment, repairs and overhauls.  Support also means DoD and the services consistently and adequately request what is necessary to ensure maximum mission capability and continuity of training operations.  Finally, it also means being clear with industry about what the service future of T-38 looks like and working with the U.S. defense industrial base to plan for fleet sustainment, maintenance needs, supply chain availability, and other needs. 

Unfortunately, there’s a tendency for older legacy programs to fall on the proverbial back-burner when a new program comes online.  As a result – efforts, focus and resources from the USG and industry are often re-directed from the legacy platform to the new program – even if the established older program remains vibrant, vital and important. 

Given how essential the T-38 will continue to be in building our Nation’s military pilot corps – this trend cannot be allowed to develop.  Also, all too often, a new aviation platform experiences contracting complications, delays in production or delays in getting the replacement trainer into operational service could push back the timelines for retirement of the T-38.  As such, if the new T-7 Red Hawk doesn’t reach full operational capability according to current plans and timelines, it will underscore the need to keep the T-38 properly funded and supported until the last jet flies the last mission, thereby ensuring a seamless transition from one successful chapter in aviation history to another.    

In the end, the bottom line is this: if the T-38 Talon is going to be expected to keep training American pilots for the next decade or more, Congress and DoD need to make available everything necessary to keep the T-38 flying safely, reliably, and at a high operational readiness rate. 

In other words, if these trusted old warbirds are going to keep fighting and flying for our Nation, they need their feed.