April 2012

Developed from the P-80 fighter, the T-33 Shooting Star jet trainer first flew in 1948 and, amazingly, still remains in service today. Some air forces even used the T-33 in a combat role and it retained 2 .50mm machines guns from its combat-ready predecessor. In an interesting twist, T-33’s from the Cuban Air Force were deployed during the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion to help foil the CIA operation.

The example in the photo above is a T-33A on display at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum at the Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Center. It is painted white on the underside and retains a shiny, unpainted metal finish on the rest of the aircraft.

In Canada, London’s Jet Aircraft Museum keeps a T-33 in flying condition and another example is on display at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa.

Speed: 600 mph
Ceiling: 48,000 ft
Armament: 2 .50in machine guns and mounting points for 2000lbs of bombs or rockets
Crew: 2

To replace the aging fleet of Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star training jets, the USAF turned to Northrop, who adapted their F-5 Freedom Fighter airframe into a 2-seat trainer they dubbed the T-38 Talon. The T-38 first flew in 1959 and continues to be a front line trainer for the USAF to this day. The T-38 has also served in the air forces of Germany, Turkey, Taiwan, Portugal, and South Korea.

Perhaps the T-38’s highest profile role has been as the chase plane for various USAF programs and NASA. The chase plane’s role is to keep pace with another craft carrying out a mission and observe the other craft to detect any anomalies or problems, such as checking to make sure landing gear is properly deployed. The chase plane is also responsible for photographing the mission where possible.

Above, the T-38 can be seen keeping an eye on the NASA 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft as it brings Discovery to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum on April 17, 2012.

The NASA astronauts also fly the T-38 both to enable them to quickly commute between Houston and Cape Kennedy, as well as to keep their flying hours current. Sadly, several astronauts have lost their lives in T-38 accidents, most notably when Elliot See and Charlie Bassett crashed into the McDonnell building where their Gemini spacecraft was being prepared. C.C. Williams perished in a fatal crash which eventually led to Alan Bean being selected to fly on Apollo 12 (the Apollo 12 mission patch has 4 stars, one commemorating Williams).

Northrop T-38 Talon

Speed: 858 mph
Ceiling: 50,000 ft
Armament: none
Crew: 2

Republic P-47D Thunderbolt

The Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, affectionately known to its pilots as “The Jug”, was the largest single engine piston fighter of World War II. Weighing in at a ponderous 17,500 lbs fully loaded, the Thunderbolt was a surprisingly nimble and deadly adversary in both the European and Pacific theatres, largely due to the performance of its Pratt & Whitney R2800 Double Wasp engine.

Some pilots approached the speed of sound in a power dive with the P-47 and the big fighter became the first piston engine aircraft to exceed 500 mph. Flown by USAAF aces Robert Johnson (27 kills) and Francis “Gabby” Gabreski (28 kills), pilots knew that their plane could deliver a lethal blow while taking tremendous punishment. Many times the Jug would limp home when any other aircraft would have succumbed to the damage. Johnson recounts flying home nearly blind from a severed hydraulic line in a badly shot up P-47 in his book “Thunderbolt”.

Republic P-47D Thunderbolt

The 13-foot Curtiss propeller is clearly visible in the above photo — pilots had to be cautious as there was only 6 inches of clearance between the propeller and the ground during landing and takeoff.

The Jug also carried a formidable array of eight .50in machine guns (four in each wing) and was capable of hauling up to 2500 lbs of bombs, Later variants were equipped with rockets for ground attack and drop tanks to extend the range. A prototype of the P-47 first flew in May, 1941 and over 15,000 P-47’s were built. These rugged planes served in various air forces well into the 1950’s.

Republic P-47D Thunderbolt

Pictured here is a P-47D from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum at the Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Center. This version featured the teardrop canopy that gave the pilot greater visibility, particularly to the rear.

Republic P-47D Thunderbolt

Speed: 433 mph
Ceiling: 49,994 ft
Armament: 2,500 lbs of bombs, 8 .50in machine guns
Crew: 1

The Ar 234 “Blitz” (Lightning) jet aircraft was developed for the Luftwaffe and first flew in 1943 and first saw combat in 1944. Far advanced compared to Allied aircraft, the twin engine jet easily outpaced the piston engined fighters of the day. However, much like the Me 262, the Blitz arrived too late in the war to have a tangible effect on the outcome. Primarily used for reconnaissance, the Ar 234 was able to race over Allied positions unmolested. It was also able to function as a bomber (the B-2 variant), but only one unit, KG (Kampfgeschwader or Bomber Wing) 76, was outfitted with the Blitz before the war’s end.

It is frightening to think how history might have played out had larger numbers of Ar 234’s and Me 262’s been available earlier in the war. The Allied forces had nothing that could match their speed and would not have been able to assert the air superiority necessary to carry out D-Day or the bombing of Germany.

The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum at the Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Center houses the only remaining example of the Ar 234 B-2 bomber, pictured above. It was restored between 1984 and 1989 and has been painted in KG 76 colors and fitted with underwing liquid fuel RATO (Rocket Assisted Take Off) units.

Arado Ar 234 B-2 Blitz

Speed: 459 mph
Ceiling: 32,800 ft
Armament: 4,400 lbs of bombs, 2 20mm rear firing cannon
Crew: 1