Academic journal article Air Power History

The United States Air Force and the Bats of Brarken Cave

Academic journal article Air Power History

The United States Air Force and the Bats of Brarken Cave

Article excerpt

In March 17, 1961 a lone T-38 Talon streaked over Austin, Texas, headed for Randolph Air Force Base (AFB) near San Antonio. After signaling his approach, to Randolph with a sonic boom, pilot Lt. Col. Arthur W. Buck flew low over the base and landed Air Training Command's (ATC's) first supersonic jet trainer. (1)

This aircraft was the first of over 1,000 T-38s the U. S. Air Force would order to upgrade its pilot training programs. The Talon derived from a military aircraft that Northrop Corporation's Norair Division had developed as a private venture in the early 1950s, a lightweight, supersonic aircraft featuring advanced avionics and structural innovations. (2)

Later in the decade, the Air Force became interested in a trainer version of the same aircraft to replace its aging T-33, so the arrival of the T-38 at Randolph, headquarters for Air Training Command, was long awaited. The T-38 would bridge a "performance gap" in the T-33 that limited the ability of Air Training Command to train fighter pilots for the growing inventory of supersonic aircraft in the U.S. Air Force.

The Talon, equipped with two jet engines capable of speeds up to 805 mph, arrived at Randolph with great promise. As Lt. Col. Buck, T-38 project officer for Air Training Command, wrote later:

We believe that as a result of the new ATC pilot training program the first-line units will get a man who can become combat-ready in any weapon system with less training and with a higher degree of flying safety than has ever been possible before. This should reduce the units' training time, costs, and the number of two-seat combat-type aircraft that are required. (3)

Training on the T-38 started only after months of testing, as flight instructors developed a new training regimen and worked out bugs associated with the new aircraft. Meanwhile, phase-in of the T-38s continued over the next few years as ATC included more of the supersonic trainers in its several flying training wings located at other bases, mainly in the Southwest. By January 1967 the Talon had logged 1,000,000 training hours in Air Training Command. At about the same time, the air war in Vietnam had begun to escalate, creating a demand for more pilots.

With increased night flying of T-38s, however, Colonel Buck's optimistic predictions in 1961 for the T-38 started to fray Pilots began to notice a disconcerting number of bird strikes. High speed aircraft hitting birds had long been a problem with training pilots and with flying in general. Air bases had taken a variety of precautions to limit the danger, including heavy spraying of pesticides to kill insects that attracted birds, and cutting long grasses near runways to destroy bird habitats. None of these stratagems was entirely successful, and in 1966 the Air Force estimated that collisions with birds was costing the service about $10 million in damaged equipment and lost flying time. Moreover, in ATC the number of bird strikes had increased from 15 in 1962 to over 200 in 1965. In 1966 ATC reported 307 bird strikes, well over one-third of the 839 bird strikes for the entire Air Force. About two-thirds of the bird strikes in ATC were on the T-38. (4)

Also new was that seasonal bird strike patterns on the T-38 did not conform to what was usual on other aircraft. Normally, seasonal bird strike patterns corresponded with the migration of birds during spring and autumn. The number of strikes on the T-38s, however, peaked in August, tapered off in October, and resumed the following April. In addition, 60 percent of all strikes on T-38s were below 1,000 feet above ground level (AGL), whereas bird strikes on other aircraft usually occurred at higher altitudes. (5) Furthermore, most of the strikes on the T-38s were at night. Birds of course flew at night, particularly when migrating; but again, migratory flights usually took place at much higher altitudes than where most of the T-38 bird strikes had been occurring. …

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