Written 2000T-33 Mk3
Photo John Dibbs


The Lockheed T-33 has become one of the best selling jet trainers of all time, probably second only to the MiG 15-UTI.  I was lucky enough to fly my first T-33 during my Test Pilot course at Edwards Air Force Base, USA.  This particular aircraft was operated by an American company called Calspan and was a variable stability NT-33 aircraft; the aircraft was modified to give the embryo test pilots some experience of different jet characteristics.  In no way could it be described as a conventional T-33.  My first experience of a 'conventional' T-33 was during the School visit to the Canadian Test Centre.  Even this aircraft was not an American standard aircraft because the Canadian aircraft were fitted with Rolls Royce Nene 10 engines instead of the Allison engine Also, because this was a one-off training test sortie I did not get the chance to fully explore the aircraft's 'fun' qualities, mainly concentrating on being able to write a good test report!

It was not until last year that I had a proper chance to fly the aircraft, both the American and Canadian versions, in a less constrained way.  These sorties gave me time to explore the aircraft in greater detail and included general handling flying, formation flying and display flying.  They also left me with a glowing impression of the aircraft and an understanding of why previous T-33 pilots sing its praises so highly.


T-33 HISTORY  (back to top)

The T-33 has its origins in the first practical American jet fighter:  The Lockheed P-80 (Lockheed Model 80).  The XP-80 made its first flight on 8 January 1944.  Since Britain was the leader in turbojet engines at the time the XP-80 utilized an early variant of the de Havilland Goblin H-1 engine, that produced only 2,460 pounds (1116 kilograms) of thrust.  However, even with this relatively small amount of thrust (by today's standards) the XP-80 achieved a top speed of over 500 mph.  Without doubt Lockheed had produced a winning design.  The War ended before the P-80 could be put into combat; however, two aircraft reached Italy, just before VE Day, for combat testing.  In June 1948 the 'P', for pursuit, was changed to 'F' for fighter, hence the F-80.  At about the same time the aircraft was named the 'Shooting Star'.



The new jet age brought its problems, particularly when deciding on the best way to prepare a piston pilot for these new, faster jet aircraft.  There were quite a few accidents as pilots transitioned from aircraft like the Mustang to F-80.  The new USAF was slow to realize the need for a jet trainer and were still training pilots for the new jet age on the 600 horse power, T-6 Texan (Harvard to us).

Lockheed realized very early on that this way of training the new jet pilots was inadequate and that a jet trainer was desperately needed.  Indeed, as early as 1944 MVF Short, vice-president military relations, suggested that there would be a need for a jet trainer, and that the P-80 could serve as the basis for one.  The reply that he got was "hell, Mac, the P-80 is the best fighter they've got; why make it a Dodo?"!  It was more than two years later before Lockheed was willing to risk $1 million putting Short's idea into action.


A Simple Conversion  (back to top)

Project engineer, Don Palmer, used a P-80C (48-356) as the prototype two-seater.  The conversion was kept as simple as possible.  Palmer added a 38.6 inch (98.04 centimetre) plug ahead of the wing and a 12 inch (30.5 centimetre) plug behind.  Even with these extensions it was still necessary to reduce the fuselage fuel capacity from 207 US gallons (784 litre) to 95 US gallons (360 litres) in order to make enough room for the instructor pilot's position.  Total internal fuel capacity of the two-seater was 353 US gallons (1,336 litres), compared to 425 US gallons (1,609 litres) of the F-80C.

The original engine was the Allison J33-23 engine; however, later aircraft were fitted with the J33-35 engine producing 4,600 pounds (2,087 kilograms) of thrust.  Dual controls were also added and the whole cockpit was covered by a single-piece canopy.  The electrically operated canopy was hinged at the rear.  A gunsight was added to the front cockpit for the two 0.5 inch nose guns.

By March 1948 the conversion of the P-80C was complete and the Jet Trainer, as it was then known, made its first flight on the 22nd of the that month, from Van Nuys airport, in California.  Lockheed test pilot Tony LeVier was at the controls - but when he landed nobody expected his verdict:  "It not only flies better than the single-seater, its faster!".  This phenomena has since been seen on several other aircraft, including the Hunter and the Boeing 747, and is known as 'Area Ruling'.  The effect is caused by the elongation or changing of shape of the cockpit, which causes the air to flow around the cockpit easier, thereby producing less drag - the overall effect is that it flies faster for the same thrust!


Military Acceptance  (back to top)

The USAF liked what they saw and the aircraft (Lockheed Model 580) was designated the TP-80C on 11 June 1948, followed by another name change to T-33A on 5 May 1949.  Unusually, it was also named Shooting Star, like its predecessor; however, the name has been universally supplanted by the unofficial nickname 'T-Bird'.  The USAF accepted their first production T-Bird in August 1948.  The aircraft was an instant hit with all the pilots that flew it and it was to become Lockheed's biggest selling jet ever, second only to the P-38 Lightening in terms of numbers produced.  It quickly became the centrepiece of USAF flight training; over 27,000 American pilots received their initial jet training on the T-33!

The USN similarly saw the advantages of the aircraft and 50 of the first batch of aircraft were transferred to the Navy as TO-1s (later TV-1s).  They later received a further 699 T-33As from the USAF, which were designated TV-2s (eventually re-designated T-33Bs).  In the meantime the Navy ordered a follow-on aircraft, which was built as the Lockheed Model 245.  It was similar to the original T-Bird but had a redesigned tail and dorsal fin, and was fitted with an arrestor hook for carrier operations.  It entered Navy service in January 1956 as the T2V-1 and was named the SeaStar.  It was the first American production aircraft to have a boundary layer control system, comprising blown flaps and slats.  It was also fitted with a larger Allison J33-24 engine producing 6,100 pounds (2,767 kilograms) of thrust.  In 1962 the aircraft was re-designated the T-1A.


Foreign Interest Was Immense  (back to top)

Foreign interest in the T-bird was great and many were supplied to other countries via the Military Assistance Program and foreign sales.  The aircraft saw service, in various forms, in more than 30 different countries.  The German Luftwaffe was the biggest foreign customer for the T-33 and also took Canadian built versions of the aircraft.

An attack version, designated AT-33A, was delivered to many developing nations; the aircraft being seen as a low-cost alternative to the more sophisticated attack aircraft.

Licences were granted to Kawasaki in Japan and Canadair in Canada to build the aircraft and they added 210 and 656 aircraft respectively to the total Lockheed build of 5691 aircraft.  The Canadian aircraft were named Silver Stars and were powered by the Rolls Royce Nene 10 engine, producing 5100 pounds (2313 kilograms) of thrust.  The last T-33 remained in USAF/Air National Guard service until 1988.  However, it has remained in service with many other nations' military forces for far longer.  Indeed, the Canadian T-birds have only recently come under the 'axe' due to defence cuts and the last flight of a Greek T-33 took place on 19 January 2000, from Souda in Crete!.


A DELIGHT TO FLY  (back to top)

As a primary trainer the purist might say that the T-33's tandem design is all wrong because it is impossible for the instructor to watch what his student is actually doing while flying.  When you move on to the role of advanced trainer then there is benefit in having tandem seating (the student should be able to fly reasonably well by now) because the important factor is building the student's confidence by giving him the feeling that he is in the front of a fast jet and more on his own.  To me the training debate was not important, the aircraft just looks right, particularly for a civilian operated vintage jet - the trainer equivalent of the Hunter.

For general flying the tandem seating is excellent and gives a feeling of freedom.  For display flying and formation it is also ideal because there are no 'blind' spots looking across the second cockpit.


Getting Started  (back to top)

When getting ready to fly the aircraft the external checks are very similar to any other aircraft, with a few exceptions.  The normal external checks include undercarriage, panels, leaks, pressures and general condition checks.  Additional checks include a cocking mechanism on the undercarriage doors that must be checked locked (otherwise it ruins your day when the gear is retracted!), but most important of all the armament doors, on the nose, must be checked to ensure they are fully locked.  If one of these doors opens in flight the result could be catastrophic if speed is not reduced quickly.  Indeed, on take-off the speed needs to be kept to around 135 knots (155 mph) and any turns performed into the open door if control is to be maintained!  In up and away flight the speed allowance is slightly more generous and needs to be kept below 180 knots (207 mph), until configured for landing.

Gaining entry into the cockpit is now the next problem.  The canopy is simply opened, electrically using an external switch.  However, without an appropriate ladder, you have to climb up onto the wing and then contort your body to get a foot hold on the back cockpit before climbing around the ejector seat into the front cockpit.  This can be a major problem at an airshow, without any steps available, adding nothing to the image of the steely-eyed fast-jet pilot!

Once in the cockpit, it has that glove-like feeling.  The switches and controls are familiar and fall to hand easily.  One of the most important preliminary items to check is that the fuel counters are set.  These are manually set dials that are used to show the total fuel onboard - vitally important because not all the fuel is shown on the fuel gauge and once the engine is started these counters cannot be reset. With the engine started they count down from their pre-start value to indicate total fuel remaining.  If they have not been set correctly only the fuel gauge is reliable and this only indicates the last 95 US gallons (357 litres) of fuel, which, when you are using about 300 US Gallons (1127 litre) per hour, does not give you a warm comfy feeling!  The rest of the pre-start checks are conventional and basically involve a 'left-to-right' check to ensure all is in order.

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