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T-Bird  (part 1)

by  Wm. "Turbo" Tarling

[ Airforce Magazine - Spring 2002 - Vol 26 No 1 ]


T33 T-Bird

In April 2002 the T-33 Silver Star was retired after more than 50 years of stellar service to the RCAF and the Canadian Forces. Of the thousands of pilots who flew the T-Bird over the years, few are as familiar with the aircraft as "Turbo" Tarling.  With 7,653 flying hours logged in the T-33, Tarling holds the world's record. In the following pages Turbo Tarling shares his fond memories of one of the great aircraft of the 20th Century.

0n the morning of Jan 8th 1944, a small, graceful jet aircraft slowly gathered speed across the dry lakebed in the Mojave Desert and lifted into the air. The plane was the Lockheed XP-80, affectionately nicknamed LuLu-Belle, and the prototype of the P-80 Shooting Star. Conceived by design genius, Clarence "Kelly" Johnson, Lockheed Aircraft's chief research engineer, the P-80, later the F-80 Shooting Star became America's first operational jet fighter. But the best was yet to come.


With the foresight of Kelly Johnson and the persistence of Lockheed test pilot, Tony LeVier, a single-seat P-80B was lengthened, a tandem cockpit covered by a single clam-shell canopy, and the new trainer was designated the TP-80C. This was soon changed to TF-80C and in May 1949 it was changed again to T-33A. Although the T-33 was considered to be just a dual-control Shooting Star it became universally known as the "T-Bird." Tony LeVier made the first flight in the prototype T-33 (TP-80C serial number 48-356) on March 22nd 1948 and the rest is history.


Lockheed built 5,691 T-33s, Canadair built 656 under licence and Japan built 210, making the T-33 Lockheed's best selling jet aircraft. While the F-80 was undeniably graceful and handsome, the longer T-33 with its large canopy and wing-tip mounted Fletcher fuel tanks was beautiful. Not only was the aircraft beautiful, it had better performance as a result of the increased fineness ratio of length to width, and more lift from the larger canopy. Perhaps the most apt description and greatest compliment for the T-33 was that it "looked right."


The Lockheed T-33 was powered by the 4,600 lb thrust Allison J-33 engine, whereas Canadair selected the 5,100 lb thrust Rolls-Royce Nene 10 for the Canadian version. This turned out to be a perfect match of a superb airframe and a rugged, reliable engine - after nearly 50 years they are still a perfect match.


When Canadair secured its licence to build the Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star in Canada it was decided to rename the new trainer Silver Star a combination of Silver Dart and Shooting Star. The 656 Canadair-built T-33 Silver Stars were numbered 21001 to 21656.


By the mid-1950s the graduating courses from the RCAF flying training schools, consisting of RCAF and NATO pilots, were often too large to be accommodated at just one advanced flying school (AFS). They were frequently split up and sent to at least two of the three AFSs at RCAF Stations Gimli, Portage la Prairie and MacDonald, all in Manitoba.


Pilots who were selected for jet postings after AFS graduation then took a three week jet instrument rating qualification (JIRQ) course at Saskatoon, Sask, on the T-33, followed by either a Flying Instructors School (FIS) course on the T-33 or operational training on the F-86 Sabre or CF-100 Canuck.


A flight line full of yellow, slightly portly Harvards was a pleasant sight, but a flight line of sleek, silver T-33 Silver Stars was a truly impressive sight. Gone were the tail wheels, propellers, fabric covered control surfaces, external antennae, radio wires, and ADF housings and sliding greenhouse canopies. Replacing them were modern tricycle undercarriages, slender tapered noses with sculpted air intakes, metal hydraulic boosted controls, internal antennae and huge, hinged clamshell canopies. The Silver Star looked eager to fly.


The pre-flight external check on theT-33 was straightforward but there were noticeable differences from the Harvard. Undercarriage locks and tip tank pins had to be removed and stowed. A red stripe around the rear fuselage indicated the location of the engine turbine. There were warning decals for the ejection seats and canopy jettison - all features unique to jet aircraft.

T-33 Cockpit control panel

Over the years the instrument panel of the T-33 was modified and upgraded many times.  Shown here is the configuration in use in 1963.


The cockpit was compact, exciting and intimidating with its unfamiliar equipment, instruments and ejection seat. There were red-guarded switches, red and amber warning lights, and warning decals generously distributed around the cockpit. The seats and canopy had their own safety pins to prevent inadvertent ejection or jettisoning. The small cockpit was quite comfortable for pilots "of average stature" but taller or heavier pilots found it cramped.


The strap-in procedure was almost a ritual and it had to be performed correctly and quickly; the instructors had little patience with students who dawdled, especially in the prairie winter.


A G-suit connector was on the floor to the left of the seat but the students were not issued G-suits; only the instructors had the option of wearing them. Most didn't, but for those who did (mostly ex-F-86 pilots), their explanation was that it reduced fatigue from their many flights and besides, the students had to develop a feel for the plane and the G forces involved. Since the T-33 was stressed for more than seven Gs, could it be that the instructors secretly feared that without the G-suit some "strong-like-bull" student might embarrass them by actually pulling seven G's and blacking them out?


Armament switches were on the left rear console although they were inactive. They were followed by the fuel switches, throttle, flap lever and temperature control rheostat. On the left wall were the unique landing lever, aileron booster on/off control, fuel high pressure cock, oxygen regulator and the inevitable row of circuit breakers. On the right console were the IFF (Identification Friend or Foe), 12-channel VHF radio, light controls and switches and the start-control panel. On the side were more circuit breakers, the seat adjustment switch, a manual canopy crank and a map case.


The instrument sub-panel was home for the oxygen-flow blinker and quantity gauge, hydraulic pressure, parking brake, fuel quantity counter and fuselage gauge, jet assisted take-off (JATO) warning switch, fire-warning test switch, and the infamous "Panic" button. Officially the bomb rocket tip tank and tow jettison button, this recessed button could only be activated by punching through the protective paper cover. Psychologically, the panic button was a constant reminder that jet flying was serious business and that you had to think before pushing or pulling something in the cockpit.


Mounted on the control column was a moulded multi-function handgrip which was to become the standard grip for almost 30 years in the RCAF/CAF. Sharing top billing was the four-way electric elevator/aileron trim button and a tiptank jettison button, left-centre was the air-start ignition button, bottom front was an optional-function button which was later used for radio mute in flight, and in the front was the gun trigger.


Finally, there was the instrument panel itself. By the mid-1950s it had already undergone a major re-arrangement - the gunsight had been removed and a clock and G-meter had replaced a checklist in the very centre of the panel! The panel represented an honest attempt at improvement but by today's standards it fell way short. Upper left was the standby compass; bottom left were the Mach meter, 3-pointer altimeter and turn and bank indicator. Upper right were the attitude indicator (artificial horizon) and fixed-card ADF; lower right were the VSI, exhaust gas temperature (EGT), and the dual-scale RPM gauge.


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