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  End of shuttle effect on NASA's T-38 jet fleet

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Author Topic:   End of shuttle effect on NASA's T-38 jet fleet
LM-12
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posted 06-19-2011 07:30 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for LM-12     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
How many T-38 jets does NASA currently maintain? What impact will the end of the shuttle program have on the fleet of NASA T-38 jets?

Robert Pearlman
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posted 06-19-2011 07:41 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Robert Pearlman   Click Here to Email Robert Pearlman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
That is currently under review by The National Academies at the request of the White House in connection with a study on the size of the Astronaut Office.
An ad hoc committee will conduct a study and prepare a report on the activities of NASA's human spaceflight crew office. In writing its report the committee will address the following questions...

3. Is the astronaut corps' fleet of training aircraft a cost-effective means of preparing astronauts for the requirements of NASA's human space flight program? Are there more cost-effective means of meeting these training requirements?

In January, the National Research Council committee met at Johnson Space Center where they heard from chief astronaut Peggy Whitson and Aircraft Operations Division director Dick Clark, who both defended the T-38 as the best high-pressure, situational awareness training experience available.

Jay Chladek
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posted 06-19-2011 11:25 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Jay Chladek   Click Here to Email Jay Chladek     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
The thing about the T-38 is flying it is NOT a simulation. Having flown airplanes myself, in my opinion there is no replacement for direct stick and rudder experience with astronauts as they give their problem solving and situational awareness skills a workout in the process. Granted, those who aren't shuttle pilots or military pilots on duty to NASA can only fly from the backseat under the current system (which may change if civilians get the chance to command future spaceflights). But, crew members in the back tend to get plenty of stick time as well since they aren't just idle passengers (of course that depends on who is sitting up front during the flights).

Of course there are those who will argue that not having a spacecraft with wings coming home anymore will mean astronauts don't need to fly planes. But, stick time is experience in operating complex machinery and it helps to experience some things that can't be taught with a simulator.

I am glad that even though Peggy Whitson isn't a military pilot, as chief astronaut she still respects the benefits that come from having such aircraft at the astronaut office's disposal.

gliderpilotuk
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posted 06-20-2011 05:27 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for gliderpilotuk   Click Here to Email gliderpilotuk     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Well said and as a pilot myself I agree.

A similar analogy is the UK's premature retirement of both BAe Harriers and aircraft carriers. We'll have no pilots with VTOL or deck landing experience for the next 8 years until the new carriers are built and the F-35 (possibly) acquired. There is no substitute for keeping current.

328KF
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posted 06-20-2011 10:17 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for 328KF   Click Here to Email 328KF     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
quote:
Originally posted by Jay Chladek:
Of course there are those who will argue that not having a spacecraft with wings coming home anymore will mean astronauts don't need to fly planes.
The rebuttal to that argument is that NASA astronauts were flying T-38's long before there was a space shuttle. Pilots need to stay current, non-pilots need the aforementioned real-world experience. The real question would be is the T-38 the best suited aircraft for the job?

Unfortunately, for the near term most of our astronauts' jet setting time will be spent in the back of an airliner heading to Star City.

Tom
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posted 06-25-2011 10:45 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Tom   Click Here to Email Tom     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
This new thread reminds me to ask this question.

We always see NASA crews arriving in their T-38 trainers before their spaceflights. Why do we never see Russian cosmonauts flying their jet trainers?

They're always seen departing government type aircraft when arriving at the launch site.

capoetc
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posted 06-25-2011 12:52 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for capoetc   Click Here to Email capoetc     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I've had a bit of experience flying the T-38, and in my view the most important thing that comes from flying it is real-time decision making.

What I mean by this is, there will inevitably be decisions that must be made, quite literally with very little notice, and these decision have important implications for your own safety and for that of your crew. For example, the weather in Houston is deteriorating rapidly, with just enough fuel to divert to your alternate -- do you fly the approach and try to get in, or make the call to divert right away?

In the simulator, you make those kinds of decisions and then discuss them in the aftermath -- in the jet, a poor decision means you end up ejecting and destroying an expensive airplane.

Whether they are flying a winged spacecraft or any other kind of spacecraft, if split-second accurate decision-making is required, there is simply no substitute for having a vehicle in which to place your little pink hide in jeopardy pending the outcome of your decisions.

Perhaps another aircraft would be the appropriate choice, but it simply must be a high-performance aircraft. Flying a Learjet, for example, will not be sufficient.

LM-12
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posted 06-25-2011 01:19 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for LM-12     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
quote:
Originally posted by capoetc:
I've had a bit of experience flying the T-38

That's absolutely fascinating. Thanks for sharing your first-hand experience. What you say makes a lot of sense. I can see why Peggy Whitson described the NASA T-38 jet as the best training experience available.

Do you know how many T-38 jets are in the NASA fleet?

Robert Pearlman
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posted 06-25-2011 02:11 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Robert Pearlman   Click Here to Email Robert Pearlman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
quote:
Originally posted by LM-12:
Do you know how many T-38 jets are in the NASA fleet?
According to Richard Clark, chief of NASA's Aircraft Operations Division, as of January 2011, the space agency was operating 21 T-38 jets (14 Block 3 and seven Block 2 aircraft).

mjanovec
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posted 06-25-2011 09:09 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for mjanovec   Click Here to Email mjanovec     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
quote:
Originally posted by Jay Chladek:
Of course there are those who will argue that not having a spacecraft with wings coming home anymore will mean astronauts don't need to fly planes.

When touring JSC with Harrison Schmitt back in April, he mentioned that he believes all astronauts should learn how to fly, not just the pilot astronauts. He saw his flying in the T-38 as a key element to his astronaut training and thinks all astronauts can benefit from having that skill.

Robert Pearlman
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posted 06-25-2011 09:17 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Robert Pearlman   Click Here to Email Robert Pearlman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Chief astronaut Peggy Whitson provided a number of reasons to the National Research Council why T-38 training was relevant to International Space Station expedition crew members, but here's one that I found particularly interesting.
A higher percentage of astronauts with military piloting backgrounds qualify at a higher level in robotics as compared to non-pilots.
Non-pilots need to develop effective scan patterns for robotic operations, which the T-38 (or other high-performance aircraft) helps train.

328KF
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posted 06-26-2011 11:55 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for 328KF   Click Here to Email 328KF     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
quote:
Originally posted by capoetc:
Perhaps another aircraft would be the appropriate choice, but it simply must be a high-performance aircraft. Flying a Learjet, for example, will not be sufficient.
Can you expand on this opinion a bit more? Given the reasons you cited in your post, all of the requirements could be met in a civil transport aircraft. I would think that not having the option of an ejection seat would apply more pressure on the pilot to get things done right and in a timely manner. Losing an expensive aircraft is one thing, but losing your life with it is quite another.

I understand the benefit of having a fully aerobatic jet, and the crewmembers, particularly non-pilots, would take time to build up a G tolerance. But it is my understanding that the current fleet of T-38's has had restrictions put on it as the jets have aged, and ISS crews could do high-G training in the centrifuge.

Being supersonic is certainly not advantageous, as there is hardly anyplace they fly where they are allowed by regulation to go fast, and the penalty is the rapid guzzling of fuel. Even subsonic, they rarely make it from one destination to another without a fuel stop.

I guess the real question is, what is the mission? Can adequate training be done in a more capable, cost effective aircraft? If transport from A to B is the primary role, even the current STA fleet could be fill this.

As an aside, if the Dreamchaser comes to fruition, will there be a renewed need for a real-world simulator aircraft for approach and landing training?

Robert Pearlman
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posted 06-26-2011 12:18 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Robert Pearlman   Click Here to Email Robert Pearlman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
quote:
Originally posted by Tom:
Why do we never see Russian cosmonauts flying their jet trainers?
I wouldn't say "never," as I recall a few photos but the primary reason would be that Roscosmos public affairs doesn't document and/or distribute such footage.

Russian cosmonauts have a requirement of 20 hours per year of L-39 training, as well as undergo parachute training.

(U.S. astronauts are currently required to fly eight hours per month if they are front seaters; four hours per month if back seat crew members.)

Cozmosis22
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posted 06-26-2011 05:53 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Cozmosis22     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
quote:
Originally posted by Robert Pearlman:
According to Richard Clark, chief of NASA's Aircraft Operations Division, as of January 2011, the space agency was operating 21 T-38 jets (14 Block 3 and seven Block 2 aircraft).
With the upcoming "slowdown" in astronaut activity we can expect that number to be cut in half, at least?

Robert Pearlman
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posted 06-26-2011 06:02 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Robert Pearlman   Click Here to Email Robert Pearlman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
quote:
Originally posted by Cozmosis22:
With the upcoming "slowdown" in astronaut activity we can expect that number to be cut in half, at least?
Again, according to Richard Clark, chief of NASA's Aircraft Operations Division, the "correct" number of T-38s is based on a sustainable aircraft utilization rate - monthly flight hours per available aircraft.
  • 2000 – 11,103 hours/28 (3 in depot) = 33 hours/month
  • 2010 – 6,085/17 (4 in depot) = 30 hours/month
  • 2013 – 4,820/14 (2 in depot) = 29 hours/month

LM-12
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posted 07-31-2011 03:46 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for LM-12     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
This interesting Kennedy Space Center article on the T-38 was posted recently on their NASA website.
Years before the space shuttle would glide home to a safe touchdown on runways in California and Florida, astronauts pitched the noses of T-38 jet trainers toward the same runways to find out what it would look like to land a spacecraft in such a way.

The T-38 remains a fixture for astronaut training more than 30 years later because the sleek, white jets make pilots and mission specialists think quickly in changing situations, mental experiences the astronauts say are critical to practicing for the rigors of spaceflight.

"It's actually our most important training that we do as astronauts," said Terry Virts, who flew as the pilot of STS-130 aboard shuttle Endeavour. "It’s the one place where we're not in a simulator. It's real flying and if you make a mistake, you can get hurt or break something or run out of gas. There are a lot of things that happen real-world in a T-38 that don't happen in the simulator."

"You're in a different world, a dynamic world, it doesn't matter whether it's a shuttle or a T-38," said Story Musgrave, a six-time shuttle flyer who posted thousands of hours in the T-38 and instructed others how to fly it, too. "It's understanding the rules, how to live within the rules."

Jay Chladek
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posted 08-02-2011 09:19 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Jay Chladek   Click Here to Email Jay Chladek     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Supersonic flight in a T-38 is a rare thing these days and becoming rarer since the T-38 fleet is being retrofitted with new intakes to make the engines more efficient at sub-sonic speeds than supersonic ones. As a side effect, the T-38s won't be able to break mach anymore (except maybe in a dive).

High gee manuevers are not something a T-38 was really intended to do as indeed it puts stress on the airframe. But, three to five gee manuevers and zero gee parabolas will still likely be flown. But the biggest benefit comes from flying a plane that is classified as high performance since at typical jet speeds, things are going to happen a lot faster than in a prop job. You have to literally think in front of the airplane about a manuever or two ahead and reaction time has to be quick. These skills need to be honed or they stagnate and as such, real world flying experience is a key.

I don't necessarily believe NASA will get rid of the T-38s since they are essentially long since paid for and since the USAF still utilizes them as trainers, it means the parts and service on the aircraft is less expensive than bringing in a new plane for the job. If the plane is unique, the price tag for replacement parts and service goes up since there are fewer parts in the pipeline.

The jets also serve quite well for allowing astronauts to fly to the various NASA centers. Okay, so they may not go to KSC as much anymore, but MSFC in Huntsville is likely going to still be a common destination due to ISS operations there. Ramping up of testing hardware for the spacecraft formerly known as Orion also means a few astronaut reps will likely want to be on hand for that testing at the contractor facilities.

As for other planes, NASA for a time did have a Citation jet available for astronaut use. Tom Jones I believe mentioned it in his book and he could fly the left seat in it since he was checked out on jets (ironic he couldn't fly front seat in a T-38 since he joined NASA as a civilian when he flew T-38s in the Air Force).

For future missions, the Gulfstream business jets likely will be used to ferry astronauts to KSC for launch. They've done that for many of the later shuttle missions when there weren't enough pilots checked out in the front seat of T-38s, but on the last handfull of missions, the T-38s were being used more heavily, probably because NASA knew it made for good publicity on the day the crew arrived at KSC. I imagine though for the first Orion manned flight or manned Dragon, if the crew is a small one, I can see the T-38s being used to help show everyone that pilots are going to fly in it.

capoetc
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posted 08-03-2011 09:29 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for capoetc   Click Here to Email capoetc     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
quote:
Originally posted by Jay Chladek:
But the biggest benefit comes from flying a plane that is classified as high performance since at typical jet speeds, things are going to happen a lot faster than in a prop job. You have to literally think in front of the airplane about a maneuver or two ahead and reaction time has to be quick. These skills need to be honed or they stagnate and as such, real world flying experience is a key.
You hit the nail on the head here.

A question was asked earlier up-thread (sorry I missed it before) about why a Learjet or something like it couldn't be used. Well, it could. But the T-38 or similar fast-mover is going to do the best job of requiring the pilot to very rapidly make key decisions.

The key to flying any airplane is to keep yourself "ahead" of the airplane. A Lear is, comparatively speaking, a fast jet, but ... it is nothing like flying a T-38. Everything happens quickly in a T-38.

In a Learjet (which I also happen to have quite a few hours in), when there is a system malfunction, you turn on the autopilot, enter a holding pattern for 20-30 minutes, sort it out, then go land. In a T-38, 20 minutes in a holding pattern is probably not going to happen.

Flying the T-38 is living life on the edge -- the experience cannot be duplicated in a more docile aircraft.

LM-12
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posted 08-03-2011 10:36 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for LM-12     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I guess one factor to consider is how many CDR and PLT astronauts will stay with NASA and how many will leave.

Michael Cassutt
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posted 08-04-2011 10:24 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Michael Cassutt   Click Here to Email Michael Cassutt     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
quote:
Originally posted by LM-12:
I guess one factor to consider is how many CDR and PLT astronauts will stay with NASA and how many will leave.
NASA has been working on this transition for some time. With the exception of those who flew 133, 134 and 135, most Shuttle CDR/PLTs who wanted to leave have left. Those remaining are in the ISS flow.

I was a member of a National Academy of Sciences panel that examined the whole business of T-38s, astronaut training, and astronaut office size for the next few years. That report should be available in a few weeks.

Robert Pearlman attended our open session at JSC in January. He knows this, too.

astro-nut
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posted 08-06-2011 04:34 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for astro-nut   Click Here to Email astro-nut     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Does any collectSPACE member know which T-38's are still in service and which one have been retired by their tail numbers? NASA 903, NASA 906, NASA 934, etc.?

User997
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posted 10-27-2011 04:42 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for User997     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I can't say for certain which ones are retired, but according to FlightAware the below T-38 tail numbers have been active in the previous month:

NASA 900, 902, 903, 904, 906, 908, 915, 918, 919, 920, 921, 923, 924, 955, 959, 960, 961, 966, and 969.

A search of some of the other tail numbers show that most of them in the past year have gone to various AFB's around the country and left. I'd assume those in particular were getting a new lease on life as an AF trainer.

Hope this helps!

goldbera
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posted 11-02-2011 11:46 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for goldbera     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
In Tom Jones' book, he stated that he had the option to qualify as a T-38 front-seater (since he flew them when he was in the USAF), but declined to do so.

Blackarrow
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posted 11-02-2011 09:08 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Blackarrow     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
So tail-number 924 is still operational... I have a July 1975 photograph of me standing beside 924 at Patrick Air Force Base. I suspect that if I had my picture taken beside 924 today, the ravages of time would be far more apparent on me!

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