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Historical finish: Sheppard AT-38 flies last Air Force mission

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Ian Phillips
  • 82nd Training Wing Public Affairs
As the wheels of two training aircraft touched down on the runway here April 14, a segment in Air Force history ended as the final mission of the AT-38 Talon rolled to a stop, ushering in an updated aircraft and a new era in the T-38C.

The final mission flown in the aircraft was in line with the airframe's primary purpose at the 80th Flying Training Wing: introduction to fighter fundamentals. The AT-38, flown by Col. Jeffrey Kendall, 80 FTW commander, and Lt. Col. Richard McCool, 88th Flying Training Squadron commander, maneuvered through the Texas skies in daring aerobatic fashion to "shoot down" the updated T-38C.

During the flight, the veteran pilots led a student pilot in the newer-model aircraft through all aspects of his training mission. They also became the "bandit" during dog-fighting attacks on the student.

"It is a great day for us to retire the AT-38 and move on to a new aircraft," Colonel Kendall said. "The T-38C has proven to be a tremendous step forward and will help us to train better."

The aircraft has a long history throughout the Air Force, training pilots all over the country. Since 1994, the 80 FTW has flown 62,596 hours in the AT-38, and student pilots throughout Air Education and Training Command have flown 173, 595 training sorties in the aircraft.

The Air Force first converted the T-38A into the AT-38 in 1977. A total of 130 aircraft were converted to this configuration from 1977 to 1988. Originally, the aircraft were flown in Tactical Air Command - now Air Combat Command - as part of lead-in fighter training.

This mission was handed over to AETC in 1994, with training conducted at Columbus Air Force Base, Miss., and Sheppard. Instructor-pilot training was accomplished at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas.

For Colonel McCool, the aircraft's final flight was notable because he flew the AT-38 as a student and as an initial member of flight instructors at Randolph. These flights have spanned his career and he had the opportunity, as commander, to fly the final mission. "It has sentimental value, and the historical perspective is important," Colonel McCool said. "Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals exists because the Air Force felt this training would produce better pilots. This helps close the gap between basic pilot training and tactical fighter pilot skills."

An upgrade to the "C" model of the aircraft gives it improved avionics and displays. The aircraft will be similar to the model flown in pilot training, but these upgrades provide for an easier transfer of skills as students move toward more complex systems. "The main reason for the upgrade was to give (the aircraft) avionics and displays that mimic front-line fighters as closely as possible and give students directly transferable skills from this phase of training to the next," Colonel McCool said.

Sheppard had 25 AT-38s before the conversion started. Currently, three AT-38s are awaiting a transfer to Williams Gateway near Phoenix to finish the conversion modifications by Boeing. Once the new displays are installed, the aircraft will be returned to Sheppard for use in the IFF phase of pilot training.

It will take about 23 months to receive all 124 of Sheppard's updated T-38s. Eventually, all models of Sheppard's T-38s will receive the new instruments. The first 25 are designated for training in the introduction to fighter fundamental courses, and the remaining 99 will be used for undergraduate pilot training.

"It has been a phenomenal time in this airplane, but we are moving toward better technology and better equipment for the students," Colonel Kendall said.
Following the transition to the T-38C, the 80 FTW will convert from the T-37 to the T-6 Texan II starting in fiscal year 2008. The Texan will serve as the introductory training aircraft here.

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