RANDOLPH AIR FORCE BASE, Texas –
The T-38 has served the Air Force as one of its advanced jet trainers for nearly 50 years and remains a common sight at Randolph as the winged warhorse of the 435th Fighter Training Squadron and the 560th Flying Training Squadron.
Now the versatile two-seat aircraft, less than a decade after a comprehensive modernization program transformed it into the T-38C, is receiving an upgrade that will improve aircrews' safety and comfort.
Representatives from Martin-Baker Aircraft Co. Inc. are in the early stages of installing their state-of-the-art escape systems in all 66 T-38Cs at Randolph after completing the same project at Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas, the first of five Air Education and Training Command installations scheduled for the upgrade.
"The ejection seat in the T-38 is the original one from the 1950s and '60s," said Rick French, AETC T-38 program manager. "There were modifications over the decades, but the seats made today are much more capable."
One of the greatest advantages of the new seat, called the Mk US16T, is that it functions well in the situation that accounts for most ejections.
"The old ejection seat has the least capability in the flight regime where the most ejections occurred - the low-altitude, low-airspeed range - because it takes a few seconds for the parachute to open when you leave the aircraft," Mr. French said.
"The best part of the new seat is that it's a zero-zero seat," said Rey Gutierrez, 12th Operations Support Squadron Aircrew Flight Equipment instructor. "It will eject at zero altitude and zero airspeed, so the aircrew can bail out on the ground."
The new seat provides rapid deployment of the parachute following ejection.
"When the seat clears the aircraft, explosives deploy the parachute," Mr. French said. "It's almost instantaneous."
A bonus for aircrew members is that they no longer have to carry their parachutes - a 45-pound load - to the aircraft because each one is part of the ejection seat, enclosed in a container called the head box. Their only requirement is to wear a 5-pound harness that attaches to the ejection seat. The parachute itself, an efficient aeroconical design, has a host of safety features.
Another feature, the inter-seat sequencing system, which has a selector box with three options, decreases the possibility of aircrew collision during ejection and aircrew burn potential because the rear seat will always eject first, no matter which crew member pulls the seat firing handle located on the front of the seat.
Mr. Gutierrez said another advantage of sequencing "is that the rear seat ejects up and to the right and the front seat ejects up and to the left, so a collision is unlikely."
In addition, the seat decreases the potential of injury to aircrew members, especially at high airspeed, because its thigh and ankle restraints keep them more secure; it also expands the population who can fly the T-38 - anyone from 103 to 245 pounds - because it has two positions, including one that moves it one inch forward.
"Now the seat can better accommodate smaller pilots," said Mr. French. "The old seat accommodates 58 percent of female pilots; the new seat brings that percentage up to 87 percent."
Mr. Gutierrez, who is training instructor pilots, student pilots, flight doctors and others who fly the T-38 to use the new seat, said its other features include a survival kit with a radio, flares, a mirror, a first aid kit, water, a flashlight and other items as well as fittings that allow for a faster release of the parachute canopy.
Mr. French said installation of seats will begin this month at Columbus AFB, Miss., and the project is expected to conclude in May 2013 at Vance AFB, Okla., and Sheppard AFB, Texas.