Learning to Fly – Six of America’s Most Important Cold War Training Aircraft 

Before being certified to fly frontline combat planes, rookie pilots hone their skills on advanced trainers. Two aviation writers provide MHN with their pics for the most important American training aircraft of the Cold War. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Before being certified to fly frontline combat planes, rookie pilots hone their skills on advanced trainers. Two aviation writers provide MHN with their pics for the most important American training aircraft of the Cold War. (Image source: WikiCommons)

“Trainers have to be just challenging enough to fly to eliminate the willing but unworthy yet not so difficult to fly as to be dangerous for the neophyte.”

9780764350306Trainer aircraft are the unsung heroes of military aviation. Every ace from history from the Red Baron to Richard Bong initially cut their teeth at the controls of one of these forgiving practice planes. Following World War Two and the emergence the jet age, it would take new generations of increasingly sophisticated trainers to bring novice combat pilots up to speed. Yet despite the importance of these aircraft, few aviation writers have explored the subject at length. That is until now. Authors Mark A. Frankel and Tommy H. Thomason dive into the subject in their new book Training the Right Stuff: The Aircraft That Produced America’s Jet Pilots. The study, which is printed by Schiffer Publishing, explores and compares the U.S. Navy and Air Force trainers of the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. Frankel and Thomason are offering MilitaryHistoryNow.com readers this sneak peek.

By Mark A. Frankel and Tommy H. Thomason

Becoming a combat pilot starts with learning how to fly in primary trainers and demonstrating an aptitude for flight, a skill that justifies continuing on to basic and the advanced level instruction. Each step in the process involves flying aircraft with more power and complexity of operation, increasing the competence of the student and building the instructor’s confidence in the student. The trainers have to be just challenging enough to fly to eliminate the willing but unworthy yet not so difficult to fly as to be dangerous for the neophyte. Here are six of the most important trainers of the early Cold War:

T-28 Trojan

(Image source: WikiCommons)

Thousands of American aviators trained on the North American T-28 Trojan. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Existing trainers sufficed for pilot training in World War Two. The priority was on the improvement of existing fighters and bombers and the development of their replacements. However, after the war ended, the Air Force decided that a new trainer was called for, one that incorporated the tricycle landing gear that was a feature on all new bombers and jet fighters. The winner of industry-wide competition was North American. The new trainer was designated the T-28. It entered service in 1950. Although its service in Air Force was relatively brief, the U.S. Navy also opted to buy it as a basic trainer and subsequently modified it for carrier landings, operating it for more than 30 years. As a result, the sons and daughters of Navy pilots who had learned to fly in the T-28 would also fly it in the Navy training command.

Crew: Two
Powerplant: 1 × Wright R-1820-86 Cyclone radial engine, 1,425 hp (1,063 kW)
Maximum speed: 343 mph (552 km/h)
Range: 1060 mi (1705 km)
Service ceiling: 39,000 ft (10,820 m)
Rate of climb: 4,000 fpm (20.3 m/s)

T-33 Shooting Star

(Image source: WikiCommons)

The T-33 was a descendant of the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star, the first operational jet fighter of the USAAF. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Flying a jet was very different from flying a conventional propeller-driven airplane. This was a hard-earned lesson, marked by the unacceptable accident rate of the early single-seat jet fighters, which was high even among experienced aviators. As a result, Lockheed, which had developed the P-80 Shooting Star, the first U.S. jet fighter to be deployed operationally, proposed a two-seat version to the U.S. Air Force as a trainer. Designated the T-33, it proved more than adequate to the task of safely introducing both students and high-time pilots to the nuances of operating jet-propelled airplanes. The U.S. Navy quickly followed the Air Force’s example by buying it as the T2V. While it only served as a trainer for about a decade before being replaced by new designs created specifically for the flight-training requirement, it filled a very important need until they were available.

Crew: Two
Powerplant: 1 × Allison J33-A-35 centrifugal compressor turbojet
Maximum speed: 600 mph (965 km/h)
Cruise speed: 455 mph (732 km/h)
Range: 1,275 mi (2,050 km)
Service ceiling: 48,000 ft (14,630 m)
Payload: 2,000 lb (907 kg) of bombs or rockets (AT-33)

T-34 Mentor

First introduced in 1953, T-34 Mentors are still popular on the 21st Century air show circuit. (Image source: WikiCommons)

First introduced in 1953, T-34 Mentors are still popular on the air show circuit. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The T-28 was originally intended to serve both primary and basic training needs, but the Air Force had second thoughts about using such a complex, high-powered airplane for inexperienced students. The search for a lighter, simpler trainer began in 1947 but the contract was not issued until 1953 after the evaluation of 18 aircraft in two fly-off competitions. The winner, Beechcraft’s Model D-45, received the Air Force designation T-34A. Actual training service began in 1954 with 450 units produced. By the early 1960s the Air Force decided to develop an all-jet training syllabus and retired their T-34As. The Navy, also in need of a modern primary trainer, evaluated the Beechcraft in 1953 and ordered 423 examples. Their aircraft, designated the T-34B, differed slightly from the Air Force version. Navy training began in 1955 and continued until the late 1970s when a turboprop variant, the T-34C, replaced the aging fleet.

Crew: Two
Powerplant: 1×Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-25 turboprop
Maximum speed: 322 mph (518 km/h)
Cruise speed:  246 mph (396 km/h)
Range: 814 miles (1,811 km)
Service ceiling: 30,000 ft (9,145 m)

T-37 Tweet

The Cessna T-37, initially conceived as a trainer, would go on to become a versatile ground attack aircraft. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The Cessna T-37, initially conceived as a trainer, would go on to become a versatile ground attack aircraft. (Image source: WikiCommons)

In 1952 the Air Force launched a program to develop a turbine-powered trainer with higher performance than the T-28. Eight manufacturers submitted fifteen proposals. Surprisingly, the company with least military experience, Cessna, was awarded a contract to build the XT-37. After a successful first flight in October 1954, the Air Force ordered eleven pre-production examples and by mid-1957 the T-37A entered flight-training service. Nicknamed “Tweet” because of the shrill screech from its twin J69 turbojets, the Air Force ordered 534 examples. Early experience with the jet trainer was so successful that the Air Force eliminated prop-plane training in the early 1960s. In 1959 Cessna demonstrated an improved version, the T-37B, with new engines and avionics. The Air Force upgraded most of the T-37A fleet to the B standard and ordered 552 newly built examples. The T-37’s durability was remarkable: its service life was extended from 10,000 hours to 18,000 hours and it served as the Air Force’s only primary trainer until 2009, 55 years after its first flight.

Crew: 2
Powerplant: 2 × Continental-Teledyne J69-T-25 turbojets
Maximum speed: 425 mph (684 km/h)
Range:  932 miles (1,500 km)
Service ceiling: 35,000 ft (7,620 m)
Payload: 2 underwing for stores up to 500 lb (227 kg) (T-37C)

T-2 Buckeye

(Image source: WikiCommons)

(Image source: WikiCommons)

Up until the mid 1950s, the U.S. Navy had simply taken advantage of the U.S. Air Force’s development of post-war trainers. Training pilots to operate jet airplanes to and from aircraft carriers was a very important part of the Navy’s curriculum, however, and the design requirements for carrier takeoffs and landings, very specialized. As a result, the Navy initiated a competition for a bespoke carrier-capable jet trainer, which North American won in 1956. It was designated the T2J in accordance with the Navy’s system of designating its airplanes and given the popular name Buckeye. (Following the 1962 consolidation of Air Force and Navy designations, the T2J-1 became the T-2A.)  In addition to its carrier compatibility, it was capable of being used for armament training using pod-mounted guns on pylons that could also be used to fire rockets and drop bombs. First delivered to the Training Command in 1959, it and successive twin-engine variants would serve through 2003.

Crew: Two
Powerplant: 2 × General Electric J85-GE-4 turbojets
Maximum speed: 522 mph (840 km/h)
Range: 1,047 miles (1,685 km)
Service ceiling: 40,400 ft (12,315 m)

T-38 Talon

A T-38 Talon takes off at Edward's Air Force Base. (U.S. Air Force photo by Chad Bellay)

A T-38 Talon takes off at Edward’s Air Force Base. (U.S. Air Force photo by Chad Bellay)

In 1954, Century Series fighters entered front-line service. Pilots were required to transition from straight-winged T-33s of modest performance to supersonic aircraft with afterburning engines. To make the transition less challenging, the Air Force ordered an advanced trainer with characteristics that mimicked those of the new fighters. Northrop had been designing a small supersonic fighter and General Electric had just demonstrated a compact high-thrust engine. Their efforts blended into the very successful T-38 Talon, the world’s first supersonic trainer. The prototype YT-38 flew on April 10, 1959 and completed its flight test program by March 1962, a remarkably short time for a new supersonic aircraft. The T-38 is expected to remain in training service until at least 2023 when it will be replaced by a new advanced trainer from the current T-X competition. At that time the Talon will be 64 years old and former T-38 pilots will see their grandchildren train in the famous “White Rocket.”

Crew: two: student and instructor
Powerplant: 2 × General Electric J85-5A afterburning turbojets
Maximum speed: Mach 1.3 (858 mph, 1,381 km/h)
Range: 1,140 miles (1,835 km)
Service ceiling: 50,000 ft (15,240 m)
9780764350306Mark Frankel studied aeronautical engineering at Cornell University and graduated from the Wharton School and Law School at the University of Pennsylvania. He served as a trial lawyer in the Navy JAG Corps during Vietnam. An avid aviation enthusiast since childhood, he soloed at the age of 17 and earned his private pilot license in 1970. He has written three books on aircraft of the Cold War-era.

Tommy Thomason is a retired aeronautical engineer, flight test engineer and executive. He graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a bachelor of science in aeronautical engineering and earned graduate degrees from the University of Southern California and Harvard. He has accumulated over 3,000 hours of flight time and has written eight aviation books.

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