by Bryan R. Swopes of This Day in Aviation
On August 24, 1961, at Edwards Air Force Base, California, the legendary Jacqueline Cochran flew a Northrop Talon (T-38A-30-NO 60-0551) to an average speed of 1,358.6 kilometers per hour (844.2 miles per hour) over a straight 15-to-25 kilometer course, setting a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) world speed record for women.
“August 24 Big day! First solo in production. Jackie took off in Northrop T-38 for a 15–25 record attempt at 9:00 am. I chased in F-100. Flew good pattern and lit afterburners 50 miles from west outer marker. Jackie held a good altitude through the trap and made a good procedure turn. Lit afterburner 40 miles out on return run and nailed the altitude down perfectly. The average speed was 844 mph. All the officials were pleased and the record was confirmed. One down and nine to go.”
— Brigadier General Charles Elwood (“Chuck”) Yeager, U.S. Air Force, quoted in Jackie Cochran: An Autobiography, by Jacqueline Cochran and Maryann Bucknum Brinley, Bantam Books, New York, 1987, Pages 301–302.
The Northrop T-38A Talon is a two-place, twin-engine jet trainer capable of supersonic speed. It is 46 feet, 4 inches (14.122 meters) long with a wingspan of 25 feet, 3 inches (7.696 meters), and an overall height of 12 feet, 11 inches (3.937 meters). The trainer’s empty weight is 7,200 pounds (3,266 kilograms) and the maximum takeoff weight is 12,093 pounds (5,485 kilograms).
Two General Electric J85-GE-5s power the aircraft. The J85 is a single-shaft axial-flow turbojet engine with an 8-stage compressor section and a 2-stage turbine. The J85-GE-5 is rated at 2,680 pounds of thrust (11.921 kilonewtons), and 3,850 pounds (17.126 kilonewtons) with an afterburner. It is 108.1 inches (2.746 meters) long, 22.0 inches (0.559 meters) in diameter, and weighs 584 pounds (265 kilograms).
The Talon has a maximum speed of Mach 1.08 (822 miles per hour, 1,323 kilometers per hour) at Sea Level. The aircraft’s service ceiling is 55,000 feet (16,764 meters) and it has a maximum range of 1,093 miles (1,759 kilometers).
In production from 1961 to 1972, Northrop built nearly 1,200 T-38s. As of September 2017, the U.S. Air Force had 503 T-38A Talons in the active inventory. The type also remains in service with the U.S. Navy, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Turkey also maintains a small fleet of the type, as does Germany’s Luftwaffe, although all of the latter airframes are based in the USA.
Jackie Cochran’s record-setting T-38 still survives, belonging to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. In late 2018, the museum moved the fuselage to their Udvar-Hazy Center annex for a little TLC within the Mary Baker-Engen Restoration Hangar. The complete aircraft will eventually go on display at their Washington, DC campus once that building’s renovations are complete.
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