The U.S. Air Force’s pilot training program relies upon an obsolete Eisenhower-era jet that may soon be too unsafe to fly. The T-38 Talon was the world’s first supersonic training aircraft when it debuted in 1959, but half a century later the average plane has logged 15,000 flight hours — over twice the planned design life — and age-related problems have begun to appear. Investigations following a fatal 2008 crash caused by metal fatigue found 156 “single-point failure paths” in the flight controls alone. Aside from safety issues, the airframe is troubled by rising maintenance costs and diminished availability.
The Air Force has relied heavily upon the T-38 to train pilots destined to fly its bombers and fighter aircraft. However, the value of the aircraft began to diminish with the introduction of so-called fourth-generation fighters such as the Boeing F-15 and Lockheed Martin F-16 in the 1970s, because those airframes were considerably more advanced than the design on which the T-38 was based. Talon replacement was deferred, though, because two-seat versions of the F-15 and F-16 were purchased suitable for training their pilots.
That is not the case for newer fifth-generation fighters — the F-22 and F-35 — which are only built in single-seat configurations and therefore require a better trainer to prepare their pilots. The Air Force has identified five demanding training activities in which a replacement plane capable of carrying instructor and student would be highly desirable: sustained high-G operations, aerial refueling, night vision operations, air-to-air combat, and datalink utilization. Ground-based flight simulators are useful in preparing pilots to execute such activities, but despite all the advances in simulator technology, there is still no substitute for actually putting pilots in a trainer and sending them aloft — if they are accompanied by a competent instructor.
What this all points to is the need for a new dual-seat trainer aircraft that can close the gap in performance characteristics between the trainer plane and the fighters that trainees must one day pilot. The fact that current trainers are increasingly unsafe simply underscores the need to get moving on a successor. The Air Force has such an effort in place, called the T-X program, but whether in will be funded in an increasingly austere budget environment is anyone’s guess. The program apparently will entail the purchase of 350-500 training aircraft, several dozen ground simulators, and a variety of other instructional devices.
Pilot training is one of those support missions that seldom gets much mention in the national media. However, it’s just common sense that if the Air Force and other services don’t buy the tools needed to train future warfighters, then the value of America’s investment in cutting-edge military equipment will be greatly diminished. For the safety of future pilots and of the whole nation, Congress needs to keep the T-X program on track. There’s no good reason why the men and women who will secure the skies over future battle zones should have to train in planes that were developed at the dawn of the Cold War.