Week 12
August 30 - September 3, 2004


Get out the fire hose; it is time for T-38 ground school. Ground school is what we did this week. All week. My brain is full. Let's see, what can I say about ground school other than we covered an amazing amount of information.

Monday we started with the welcome from the instructor pilots. They liked to point out how much experience they have with being instructor pilots for NASA. Which they do. They have many, many years of experience. Now, if I had a cynical side, it would be thinking that these guys are older than dirt . . . hope that they are in good health. . . Good thing I don't have a cynical side. Seriously, though, they are top notch instructor pilots.

Following the welcome, we dived right into lectures. The rest of the day, we covered the syllabus for the T-38 training (roughly 20 flights), a systems overview, the engines, the fuel system, the hydraulics, the electrical system, the flight controls, the operating procedures, and the ground rules for flying. Whew! Is there anything left?

But, of course. . . Tuesday we had four hours on the avionics and an afternoon on the aircraft performance. Coming from relatively simple planes all this information is a lot to take in. As far as the avionics go, the NASA T-38s have a rather fancy Flight Management System (a. k. a., the FMS). This gizmo takes in information from TACANs, from VORs, from GPS satellites, and from inertial units to create all kinds of ways to present navigation information. It also stores the regular routes that NASA uses; it can do altitude profiles; it can store waypoints or new routes; it calculates fuel flow and who knows what else. It is a souped up GPS system. Since there is so much to the FMS, we will get another class on this system later. Regarding the performance characteristics, there are many factors that must be known before taking off. For example, you have to know various speeds for the take off, such as how fast you should be going when, say, 2000 feet down the runway, at what speed you can no longer abort the take off, and at what speed the plane needs to be traveling for a single engine take off. Naturally, all these speeds depend on the temperature outside, the altitude of the airport and whether it is raining. The speed at which you land depends on how much fuel is left in the plane, so there are more calculations that must be done while in the landing pattern. Dang, I was hoping to avoid the public math.

Wednesday we covered personal equipment (basically, what is in the ejection seat), weather, operations limits, the weather radar, the local area operations procedures, and cross country procedures. In addition, we threw in a tour of the tower at Ellington for good measure.

Thursday we went over the ground operating procedures (high level run through of the checklists), overhead patterns, crew resource management, and many, many emergency procedures.

Friday was a short day (thank goodness). We got a little hands-on time with a plane going over the preflight procedures, some cockpit familiarization, and ejection seat training. When you strap into NASA's T-38s, there are nine buckles that must be fastened just so - there are two shoulder straps, a lap belt, two buckles that fasten your flight harness to the seat, and two garters on each leg (one at the knee and one at the ankle) that are there to ensure that your legs are yanked in during an ejection so as not to break any bones. So, do you think that I could get out of all of this on the ground quickly should I need to? Heck, I have trouble getting my mask fastened half the time. Oh, and there are also two oxygen connections to the harness (one primary and one emergency) which then connects to the mask and a communications connection to the helmet. Twelve connections that have to be undone before getting out of the plane (you can leave the mask to harness connection). They assure us that they have never had to do an emergency egress on the ground (and, only one ejection in all of NASA's history with the plane). I am definitely going to have to practice undoing my buckles quickly, just in case.

Here are the T-38 fun facts (as I remember them): The T-38 was first made in the late 1950s as an advanced Air Force trainer. Its first flight was in 1959. The last aircraft was built in 1971. There were roughly 1100 jets built. NASA owns both the oldest and youngest planes as part of their fleet. NASA started buying their T-38s in 1964. They have modified theirs from the Air Force T-38. The modifications include various avionics upgrades, weather radar, and a new ejection seat, among other things. The plane is considered small. It is 46"4' long and its wingspan is 25" 3'. The engines are GE turbojets that were originally designed as a single use rocket (really!). The static thrust is 2050 lbs and 2900 lbs with the afterburners. Pretty spiffy amount of thrust, but when the afterburners are operating the fuel flow is about three times the fuel flow with no afterburners. Speaking of fuel, the jet holds just under 4000 lbs of useable fuel (Jet A) and the T-38s weigh roughly 9000 lbs without fuel. What all of these engine and fuel numbers come down to is that the T-38 can fly for about 2 hours at a whack. That is enough to get from Houston to the Kennedy Space Center in one hop, if the winds cooperate. It normally takes two hops to get back. I am sure there are more fun facts, but that is all I recall at this time. I am itchin' to go fly.

© Shannon Walker   2004

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Revised 09-26-04