NOTE: This story first appeared in the June 1986 edition of MotorTrend. We’ve resurfaced it as a celebration of the life of Yeager, an American icon who passed away on December 7, 2020, at the age of 97.
Comparisons are inevitable. It’s human nature to want to know how yours stacks up against theirs. Sitting around waiting for Rocky V the other day, we were speculating about the similarities between ultra-high-performance aircraft and cars. Someone suggested a comparison test between an outstanding example of both disciplines. The car half would be easy—sitting in our garage at the time was one of Chevrolet Engineering’s twin-turbo Corvettes, inarguably an ultra performer in light of its tire-smoking acceleration and true 200-mph top-speed capability. Finding the equivalent airborne hot-rod—and someone to fly it—would be a little more difficult.
It seemed quite natural to us; if you want a hot-rod airplane, call the Air Force. They have all those great jets and jet jocks, right? Wrong. After some lengthy correspondence, the USAF decided their involvement would imply endorsement of a product—the Corvette—and they could not—or at least would not—let us have a super-zoot jet fighter with Sky King or another suitable chauffeur.
The F1 Car of the Sky
As we neared the end of our finding-a-jet-for-this-story rope, we happened on a privately owned Northrop T-38 Talon. That innocent-sounding statement may not make much of an impression on car freaks, but it would certainly get your attention if we told you there was a guy in Canoga Park, California driving a 1,000-hp Formula One Williams-Honda in day-to-day traffic. A privately owned and flown T-38 Talon is just as rare a beast as a street-driven F1 car. Trust us.
And this is a very special T-38 because it’s exactly the same as the T-38s currently on duty in the USAF. It is capable of Mach 1.3 (roughly 831 mph) and was assembled by a group of dedicated civilian craftsmen. Northrop T-38s are currently training future jet pilots, and military policy absolutely precludes letting them into the hands of private citizens. Not even wrecked ones (planes, not citizens). After all, NASA astronauts and the USAF Thunderbirds fly this plane—it just wouldn’t do to have civilians flying around in them.
Our particular test plane exists because of a military screw-up. (Don’t you love it?) It came compliments of an Air Force student pilot who executed an acceptable landing, unacceptably short of the runway. The USAF “totaled” the plane and, after stripping it of all the good parts, sold it for scrap. For some unknown reason (maybe because it was an Air Force plane landing at a Navy base), the usual procedure of “demilitarization” prior to the scrap sale wasn’t followed. Demilitarization is governmentese for sawing and crunching it up so it can never be flown again. By whatever chance, the bureaucracy screwed up, and this happy mistake allowed the damaged but repairable, T-38 fuselage to fall into the hands of one Mr. Chuck Thornton—with the results on these pages.
Restoration of a Fighter (Jet)
Chuck Thornton had flown fighter jets before, appreciated the thrills and rewards thereof, and decided he wanted one of his own. His first choice was the T-38 for a number of reasons important to airplane people: It has two engines, reasonable (for a jet fighter, that is) fuel burn, flies slow enough to be accommodated at larger civilian airports, and carries two people. Thornton is not the only person who ever lusted after a T-38, but he is the only one who ever managed to get one.
Of course, the transformation from wrecked AF trainer to pristine civilian aircraft wasn’t nearly that easy, and the project consumed more than three years after it was first trucked into a Chino, California hangar. Thornton spent those three years buying up every wrecked T-38 he could find, and even negotiated trades with the Air Force Museum for many critical items he couldn’t get anywhere else. As an indication of the magnitude of the project, a complete set of AF technical manuals for the T-38 were located and placed on top of each other, and the stack was 15 feet high!
The finished plane is a show stopper. Even non-flying types go slack-jawed when they see it. The detail and immaculate finish are of an order found in 100-point cars—like something you’d see sitting under a cypress tree at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.
General Chuck Yeager: Master of Air and Track
Remember that third ingredient—a pilot? Who’s the acknowledged best pilot in the world? One who has mucho experience in the T-38, is fearless, steely-eyed, and has the requisite drawl? How about Brigadier General Charles E. Yeager (Ret. )? Mr. Stretch-the-Envelope/Break-the-Sound-Barrier Chuck Yeager. If we could get him to drive the twin-turbo ‘Vette and compare it to the T-38, we might just have the definitive word on these two hot-rods.
Working on the now-famous YNKTYA (you never know ’til you ask) theory, we called him up. The amiable General Yeager agreed immediately—he owns a Corvette—and told us, “I would love to get my hands on that turbo’d version.” The additional plum of letting him drive it around Willow Springs Raceway cemented the deal. So one crisp morning, I rescued him from the Pasadena Hilton and we spent an enjoyable drive out to the high desert Willow Springs racetrack talking cars and airplanes. He has real respect for both and takes pride in his “feel” for things mechanical. He attributes much of his success to his ability to judge when the equipment is near its limits. Certainly, he explored the limits (and beyond) of the planes he flew in both combat and research flying and feels his awareness and rapport with the plane saved his bacon many times.
This mechanical savvy was evident on the track. He hadn’t driven at Willow Springs (or any racetrack) before but adapted quickly to the peculiar requirements of putting 500 hp through street tires. His approach to the track was about what I had anticipated—systematic and unemotional—very, well, test-pilot-ish. While concentrating on learning his way around the track, he was quantifying amiss with the Corvette: “slight high-frequency driveline vibration, fluctuating oil pressure, brake pedal pulsation.”
When our test track time was over, we asked him a few questions.
MotorTrend: Now that you’ve driven this twin-turbo Corvette around Willow Springs, are there any similarities in control response or feedback between it and the T-38?
Chuck Yeager: Yes, quite a few. The most noticeable is the way the ‘Vette accelerates. It’s very comparable with the afterburner (AB) in the T-38. Modern turbine engines have up to four flame gutters to make AB progressive, so it’s not like the earlier ones, which were all or nothing. Max AB ignites all four flame gutters, and it feels similar when the Corvette turbos get spooled up—that same intense push in the back.
MT: Any other similarities between the racetrack and high-performance flying?
CY: Well, remember, I haven’t been on a racetrack before or driven a street car with this much power, but the concept of pushing right to the ragged edge of control is the same. It’s obvious the driver is constantly dealing with a risk-versus-reward factor—exactly as we did in research flying.
Now it’s time for my fantasy ride. Since General Yeager was allowed into my domain (Corvette on the racetrack), it’s only natural I should be allowed into his. Seems eminently fair to me.
Before I get into the plane, a word about the two machines involved in this story. The Corvette is one of 14 commissioned and built within the Corvette group, to evaluate the higher performance levels anticipated in the late ’80s. It is basically a stock ’85 vehicle with a full roll-cage, an air-to-air intercooler, twin turbos, and adjustable boost. Using the nominal 10-12 psi boost setting, the engine produces some 475 to 500 hp. The only exterior clues to its enormous potential are two black grilles on the top of the hood, used to vent the turbine section heat into the atmosphere, and one intake grille in the front license plate location for ambient air feed to the intercooler. Likewise, once inside, the only visual clue to what’s lurking under the hood is a small boost gauge, and under the ashtray door a small knurled knob marked “boost.”
The supersonic Northrop Talon initially flew in 1959 and was one of the first to use the area-rule (Coke bottle) fuselage to attain supersonic flight. It has moderately swept wings, weighs over 12,000 pounds when full of fuel, and uses two General Electric J85-GE-2 Turbojet engines, each producing 2,050 pounds of thrust in military power (100 percent rpm but no afterburner) and 3,900 each in max afterburner. The airframe is built to withstand 7.2 g positive load, and 2.9 negative. The top speed at 36,000 ft above sea level is 831 mph (Mach 1.3), and the maximum ceiling is 57,000 ft. It’s a tandem two-seater, with individual canopies and rocket catapult ejection seats.
Perhaps this plane’s most startling characteristic (viewed from a car freak’s vantage point) is its voracious appetite for fuel. In full AB supersonic flight, this beast devours 22,800 pounds of fuel per hour. To put it in perspective, that’s 3,403 gallons, and since it only carries 537 gallons, it can stay airborne for 9.5 minutes. There aren’t enough zeros on your calculator to figure the cost of operating this baby.
The first lesson in SkyKinghood is that flying in one of these is not as simple as just walking up and climbing in. First, you have to go to ground school—to learn how to eject! Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all—this guy is talking about what to do if the canopy blows off and he is hit with a bird strike and the engine flames out and if the canopy sticks eject through it and as soon as you clear the aircraft try and get away from the seat before pulling the rip-cord and … Are we sure Captain Kirk started this way?
After being fitted for a helmet, oxygen mask, flight suit, parachute, and G-suit, I’m ready. As the technician plugs me into everything, the first impression is how amazingly small the plane is. It’s only slightly more than shoulder-width, and with the wings and engine behind me, the view is dramatic, to say the least.
Finally, all the preflight hype is over and the canopy comes down; the rest of the world is locked out. The tight-fitting helmet and oxygen mask block out all sound, except for the two of us breathing on the intercom -eerily scuba mask-like—and the ever-present muted jet whine.
Now the Talon sits poised, aimed at the runway, straining for flight. It’s vibrating a little, rocking lightly back and forth on its tricycle landing gear, heat waves pouring from the stainless steel nozzles as it converts kerosene into pure energy. It doesn’t like it here—it wants to be up there. I lay my hand lightly on the throttles as they slide forward to military power—the whine moves up the scale—no longer muted. Then Chuck overpowers the detent and into AB—boom!—now we’re moving. The initial acceleration is less than expected but builds steadily. At 185 mph, the nose comes up and we simply leap into the sky—it seems like straight up.
We level off almost immediately, nearly three miles high, and a glance shows 345 effortless mph on the ASI (Air Speed Indicator). The intercom says: “It’s your airplane.” In pilot-ese that means I’m flying it.
It’s an experience impossible to describe.
Having said that, I’m going to try anyway. The control stick between my legs seems directly connected to the earth in some mysterious way so that moving the stick affects where the earth is. Move the stick three inches left or right, and the ground suddenly appears directly overhead. Three inches back makes the ground disappear behind you; three inches forward and the canopy suddenly fills with mountains, cities, fields, etc. A data point pops into my mind from the flight manual: Full aileron roll rate is 720 degrees per second. That means if you move the stick all the way left, the earth will pass by overhead two times every second. Stick your finger out in front of you and make a small circle. Then try and make two circles in one second. Get the idea?
During the flight, we make some low passes for photography and to time acceleration. Down close to the ground, the enormity of how fast we’re going is overwhelming. At 15,000 ft, 500 mph is just a number on a dial—at 100 ft, it’s riveting. It’s impossible to look at any specific feature on the ground; by the time my mind attempts to register it, it’s gone. It becomes necessary to look at bigger things like mountain ranges, oceans, cities, and even they get the “warp-factor” treatment.
Among the many dials and gauges on the instrument panel is one labeled Gs, and is scaled from -7 to +7. My suggestion for a new label—OMGIGS (oh my God, I’m getting sick). Nothing in my previous experience prepared me for sustained 6.5 g. At 6.5 g, I weigh 1,235 pounds—almost as much as a Honda CRX. Believe me, it’s difficult to function when you weigh as much as a car, and much of the maneuvering done in this plane is in the 4-6 g range. Even with these huge forces constantly pushing and pulling on your body, the flow of adrenaline overpowers the physical abuse, allowing the pure joy of this machine to shine through.
Air vs. Land
For a car person used to the confines of driving on roads or racetracks, the total freedom in the air is unnerving. There’s nothing to hit or run into, allowing for all kinds of craziness. You can gather it back up after nothing more than losing a little altitude (just make sure you don’t lose a little too much). A plane like this, in its environment, allows complete abandon that’s just not possible in a car. A car on a racetrack is freedom of a different nature—freedom to explore its limits, and yours, but with a different set of penalties for stepping beyond those limits. At Indy, misjudging the exit of turn three by one foot puts you squarely into the wall at 200 mph.
Some of the less violent maneuvers in the T-38 are slow, with an almost ballet-like grace, causing strains of “The Blue Danube” and visions of docking spacecraft to drift through my mind. The experience of watching the earth rotate lazily overhead, from the T-38 canopy, must be akin to what an astronaut feels as he drifts free of his spacecraft with the earth spread out for his viewing pleasure.
All too soon, the intercom said, “We’re down to a thousand pounds, time to head back.” A thousand pounds of fuel seems like a lot to me, but not with engines that gobble up hundreds of pounds per minute. The landing was anticlimactic after the experiences of the hour-long flight. The canopy came up—reality flooded in—and I had to get out and communicate with earthbound mortals. I didn’t want to. How could they know what we had just gone through, me and this machine that smelled of kerosene? That had taken me to places I had never been nor imagined. And had thrilled me to my very core.
How do you say goodbye to such a machine?