T-1A Jayhawk 90-0406/XL at the Laughlin AFB Air Show on Sunday 17th October 1999. The 'XL' tail code is derived from the number 40 in roman numerals - when the USAF began assigning tail codes to training aircraft, the 47FTW was celebrating its fortieth anniversary, however it has since taken on the more modern 'excel' meaning. The 86FTS 'Rio Lobos' operates the T-1A within the wing, hence the tail band.
"Run for the border"! - so went the advertising slogan of our favourite fast food restaurant during those many unforgettable trips to the United States I undertook during the 1990s. Taco Bell - serving mexican-themed items such as burritos, tacos, and the wonderful innovation the 'Mexican pizza' - would be a regular lunch-time stop in between mega spotting sessions, primarily in the south-west USA, as we would 'run for the border' in gaps of traffic or en-route from airport to airport, satisfying our hunger and quenching our thirst with hot sauce and 'free-refilled' Mountain Dews! If one of those airports involved Orange County/John Wayne south of Los Angeles, we would even have the opportunity to pay homage to the company's headquarters in Irvine, California on the airports' outskirts! The slogan became even more significant for us however during the NBAA Convention trip of late 1999, when on Saturday 16th October, seventeen days into one of our longest sojourns 'state-side' which had seen us traverse the country from Dallas to Seattle to Chicago to New York/Philadelphia/Washington to Atlanta and then back to Dallas, we truly were 'running for the border' on our first Jayhawk hunt!
The T-1A Jayhawk came about as a result of an upgrade to the United States Air Force's pilot training programme in the mid 1990s, previously known as Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT), where all student pilots followed the same 'single track', beginning on the Cessna T-37 Tweety Bird and then transitioning on to the supersonic Northrop T-38 Talon for advanced training. The latter aircraft, whilst an excellent trainer, had presented shortfalls in preparing new pilots for multi-crew cockpits associated with tanker and transport aircraft - in the T-38 student pilots would be trained to handle problems and emergencies on their own, fine for fighter/bomber types, but for the 'heavies' such events are handled by a team effort. The Specialised Undergraduate Pilot Training (SUPT) which replaced UPT in the 1990s sought to address this, whilst also generally improving the efficiency of pilot training, giving those pilots destined for service on types such as the C-17 and C-135 an excellent platform to give graduates an enhanced orientation to, and mission awareness of, tanker/transport types. The Tanker/Transport Trainer System contract was awarded to Beech Aircraft in February 1990, after similar 'proven' designs from Cessna, Lear and British Aerospace had been considered, the T-1A becoming a derivative of the company's Beechjet 400, itself a design the company had acquired from the Mitsubishi Aerospace MU.300 Diamond executive jet - the first production T-1A, the first of 180 aircraft ordered by the USAF, made its maiden flight at Beech Field, Wichita on 5th July 1991, and was delivered to the service in January 1992. The 'Beechjet' required several significant modifications to 'missionise' it as a military trainer for SUPT - the landing gear was strengthened to withstand the frequent take-offs and landings inherent in student pilot training, while the forward fuselage, tail and wing leading edge surfaces were strengthened for improved bird-strike protection during low-level flying. As well as many internal configuration modifications, the primary external distinguishing feature would be the three cabin windows on either side of the fuselage, as opposed to the five on each side of the 'stock' executive jet version of the aeroplane.
At this point it may be worth pointing out that there isn't actually such a bird as a Jayhawk, it being a mythical 'cross' between two birds, the noisy blue jay and the quiet sparrow hawk (on dangerous ground here knowing how many 'twitchers' there are out there!). The name came to prominence just before the American Civil War, when militant abolitionist groups in Kansas became known as Jayhawkers. Following the admission of Kansas as a free state (from slavery) in 1861, the term became synonymous with the state of Kansas, the birthplace of the Beechjet at Beech Aircraft's Wichita site. Our quests to hunt out the Jayhawk in numbers would involve substantial 'detours' from our normal state-side trip planning, primarily of major airliner hubs, taking us to some extremely isolated parts of the vast country, but making some lasting and vivd memories.
The first of four lines of 47FTW T-1A Jayhawks at the north end of the ramp at Laughlin AFB on the grey morning of Sunday 17th October 1999. The 'forty-seventh' was based at RAF Sculthorpe and RAF Alconbury between 1952 and 1962 as the 47BW operating B-45s and later B-66s, but was re-designated the 47 Flying Training Wing and activated at Laughlin AFB, Texas on 1st September 1972. Laughlin AFB is named after First Lieutenant Jack T.Laughlin, the first resident of Del Rio, Tx. to be killed during World War II when his B-17 was brought down by ground fire over Java on 29th January 1942.
I had come across the T-1A Jayhawk for the first time at the Nellis AFB 'Golden Air Tattoo' on Friday 25th April 1997, two examples being present, while a third was seen two days later at the final El Toro Airshow, however our first encounter with the fabulous T-1A in numbers saw us leave the Dallas/Fort Worth conurbation on the evening of Friday 15th October 1999 - originally intending to night-stop in San Antonio, 275 miles south, we were beaten by distance and subsequently only got as far as Austin, about 80 miles short. Completing the journey south the following morning, and after a quick circuit of San Antonio International Airport, leaving many of the area's other varied aviation attractions until later that weekend, we headed west into pretty much nothing-ness towards Mexico. En-route however was the Hondo Municipal Airport, one of two homes of a much less succesful training aeroplane in the USAF inventory, the Slingsby T-3A Firefly (a variant of the T-67 assembled by Northrop/Grumman at Hondo), the entire fleet of which had been grounded in July 1997 after three fatal accidents whilst serving in the USAF Enhanced Flight Screening Program (and which have now been broken up), forty-five examples with dual civil/military identities and 'RA' tail codes on the white USAF training colour-scheme being seen in storage, followed by a short detour to the airfield at Uvalde, the home of Sierra Industries and their Citation re-engining program. Arriving at the border town of Del Rio at 'sundown', we were finally in position however for the Airshow at the adjacent Laughlin AFB the following day.
Overnight the poor weather which had seemingly followed us around the USA during the previous two weeks had moved in, and we awoke not to the expected beautiful Texas morning, but to heavy rain. This presumably kept many airshow-goers at home, although with such a small local population anyway (50,000), we had the airshow static almost to ourselves. With a total of thirty-three T-1As visible, including the aircraft that had been seen at the El Toro show of two years previous - not a bad start - as well as a large number of T-37s and T-38s, there was little else to do but shelter from the rain actually inside aeroplanes themselves, what turned out to be quite a pleasant experience, chatting to crews of C-5s, C-17s etc. who were pleased there was at least somebody on the airfield interested in their aircraft, whilst hanging around to see what the flying display might bring. In the end however we gave up and set off back to San Antonio late morning, with more T-1s in mind. On the way however there was the huge Lackland/Kelly AFB infrastructure to explore, an unusual amalgamation of Air Force Reserve C-5A and Air National Guard F-16 areas, alongside a massive Boeing facility, with nine KC-10s and two C-17s parked outside and with one of the largest hangars I have ever seen, and a sprawling museum area situated alongside highways etc. Next was Randolph AFB however to the north-east of the city, another large base laid out rather unusually for a military airfield, almost like a large civilian airport with two parallel runways, its buildings and flightlines situated in between. On one side was the longest line of a single aircraft type I think I have ever seen, T-37s stretched out on a flightline almost the length of the western runway, however the base's east side held what we were really after, another sixteen T-1As being identified amongst numerous T-38s. We spent the following morning also at Randolph, sitting at the end of the easterly runway to hopefully await many T-1 movements - a further three new aircraft were noted, as well as six RA-tailcoded Boeing T-43As which had recently moved in from Mather AFB, California, and who's mission as navigator trainers is now also undertaken by the T-1A fleet. We left San Antonio on the morning of Tuesday 19th October 1999 for our second visit to Chicago of the trip, a long day 'in transit' on our way back home with fifty-one T-1As added to the log book, as we formulated plans to hunt down some more the following year.
T-1A 92-0330/RA of the 99FTS/12FTW returning to Randolph AFB on the grey morning of Monday 18th October 1999 after another training mission.
The first day of October 2000 saw us arrive in Los Angeles for another two-week stay in the US, a trip that would see us go from the LA area to Seattle to Dallas to New Orleans (for that year's NBAA) to Chicago and finally to New York. The weekend immediately prior to the NBAA convention in what was a new city for us (and one that we failed to get to for the same event during the mid-September of 2001), was rather conveniently scheduled for the airshow at Vance AFB in Oklahoma, another T-1A base, but again a location quite off the beaten track. Friday 6th October saw us leave Seattle for the long flight to Dallas/Fort Worth, connecting onto my first ever flight in a 'Jungle Jet', American Eagle ERJ-145 N643AE taking us north on a short thirty minute, but rather bumpy hop to Oklahoma City. We were to see our first VN-tailcoded T-1A on arrival, as a single machine was presumably escaping the airshow weekend at the state's capital. After a look at the rather interesting, but ultimately frustrating Tinker AFB, with fleeting views of numerous B-1s under maintenance and very distant glimpses of E-3/6s, we made our way north to a night-stop at the unlikely-named Enid, Oklahoma, approximately 100 miles north-west.
The first production T-1A 91-0077/VN MSN TT-1 of the 32FTS/71FTW at Vance AFB on Saturday 7th October 2000.
The Vance AFB show was attended on the morning of Saturday 7th October, and while twenty-one different T-1As were noted (including one of the pair previously seen at Nellis), we still felt rather disappointed at the return, judged against the numbers thought to be based. In compensation - and again as the airshow didn't appear to show too much potential for the rest of the day - we set off north on a previously un-anticipated side trip, over the state line, to the world's centre of executive jet manufacturing, and the home of the T-1A, Wichita, Kansas. Still to this day my only ever visit to Wichita and its Intercontinental Airport - home of Cessna and Learjet - and Beech Field, the manufacturer's 'own' airfield, no T-1As were noted, although calling in at Enid-Woodring Municipal Airport immediately after leaving the Vance show, another 'exiled' VN-tailcoded T-1A was seen.
Unfortunately this was my final encounter so far with the beautiful T-1A, the machine becoming my seventy-sixth example. The type still serves with the Flying Training Wings at the three locations I have been fortunate enough to visit, Laughlin Tx., Randolph Tx., and Vance Ok., as well as with the 48FTS/14FTW at Columbus AFB, Mississippi.
Of the 180 delivered, only two have been lost, an excellent record for a training aircraft, 91-0093 being damaged beyond repair after a runway overrun at Keesler AFB, Mississippi on 16th August 2003, the airframe subsequently being moved to the USAF Aeronautical Systems Center at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio for use in ground tests, while 93-0633 was written off on landing at Lubbock, Texas on 21st May 2008, the two crew escaping with only minor injuries - the T-1A has never been involved in a fatal accident, an exemplary record, one which will hopefully continue throughout the rest of its service life. Both machines had been seen by us on that first major encounter with the T-1A at Laughlin AFB, and while the entire remaining fleet of 178 aeroplanes are still in service, the 104 I still need to see are still out there in 'out of the way USA'. The subject of another 'Jayhawk Hunt' in the future? - or maybe I will wait until there is no need to train pilots anymore, and all are neatly lined up at AMARG after de-activation!
Acknowledgements: World Air Power Journal.