The U.S. Air Force grounded their entire fleet of Northrop T-38C supersonic trainers after a fatal accident last week in Texas. It was the second fatal T-38 crash in the last two weeks, and in both cases the student pilot and instructor did not survive. The first crash occurred on April 23 soon after takeoff from Columbus Air Force Base in Mississippi, and the second one on May 1, during landing approach at Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas.
The T-38 Talon was designed in the 1950s, and the first prototype flew in 1959. The U.S. Air Force has over 500 aircraft still in their inventory, and various safety upgrades, including structural and avionic enhancements, have allowed the Air Force to continue flying them with a relatively good safety record for almost 50 years. NASA also has a small fleet of T-38s that they use for astronaut flight currency and training.
Another T-38 safety upgrade that has not been implemented yet, but has been in development for several years, is the retrofit of current state-of-the-art ejection seats into the two-place aircraft. Manufactured by Martin-Baker Aircraft in the United Kingdom, the Mk-16 ejection seat has already been retrofit to the NASA T-38 fleet several years ago. Plans are underway to eventually change out the old Northrop seats in the Air Force trainers, with a contract awarded to Martin-Baker in 2005. The existing Northrop seat is a 1950’s early generation ejection seat and has poor low speed, low altitude escape performance, apparently the part of the flight envelope where both of these accidents unfortunately occurred. In at least one of the mishaps, a local TV station is reporting that one of the crewmembers attempted to eject. If the official mishap investigations conclude that a more advanced ejection seat could have saved one or more of the crew in these two accidents, you may see the Air Force accelerate the retrofit of the Martin-Baker seats into all of their T-38s as quickly as possible.