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T-3A Firefly

The T-3A Firefly is a propeller driven aircraft used by the U.S. Air Force's Air Education and Training Command to screen pilot candidates by exposing them to military style traffic patterns, aerobatics and spins. It replaced the T-41 aircraft which is incapable of performing these maneuvers. It also teaches students takeoffs and landings, stalls, slow flight, ground operations and mission planning.

The T-3A is a Federal Aviation Regulation Part 23 aerobatically certified aircraft. It enables students to learn basic military style maneuvers which will be refined and built upon in future aircraft. The instructor sits in the left seat and the student in the right seat. The cockpit has dual throttles, stick controls, electric elevator trim and a sliding canopy. The aircraft has a fully composite structure, an integral fuel tank in each wing and tricycle style, fixed landing gear. The fuel is automatically transferred by an engine-driven pump.

On 29 April 1992 the Air Force announced it had chosen a variant of the Slingsby Firefly as its enhanced flight screener aircraft. The T-3A is the newest version of Slingsby Aviation's T-67 Firefly line of military training aircraft. The prototype began flying in the summer of 1991, and the Air Force accepted delivery in February 1994. Of the total fleet of 110 T-3s which originally cost $32 million, 57 were stationed with the Air Force Academy's 557th Flying Training Squadron in Colorado Springs, with another 53 with the 3rd Flying Training Squadron in Hondo, Texas. Final assembly of the British-made T-3 was done in Hondo by Northrup Grumman.

The T-3 fleet was grounded in July 1997, following an inexplicable engine failure in Colorado, while the Air Force and Federal Aviation Agency conducted flight testing and any recommended modifications are completed. The flight suspension was primarily to determine the cause of several unplanned engine stoppages. Three instructors and three students were killed in crashes since the plane went into service in 1994. Two crashes were the result of pilot error, while a third occurred because of a stall condition from which the pilot was unable to recover.

The predecessor T-41 was incapable of performing the aerobatics and spins that were the hallmark of the T-3. The T-41 suffered on fatal accident. In August 1974, there was a dual fatality T-41A accident at Castroville, Texas, involving two T-41As assigned to the SATP training program at Hondo. An IP and student were both killed when another T-41 cut them off from above while turning onto final approach and his prop severed the control cables in the empennage. The story is documented in Walt Shiel 1996 book Cessna Warbirds in the T-41 chapter.

The T-3's engine had failed 66 times at takeoff or landing, and the Air Force grounded 57 of the planes on 10 occasions due to problems with the engines, fuel systems and brakes. The problem, the Air Force believed, was in the fuel-to-air ratio. When the pilot throttled back, the engine would quit, causing the plane to crash. AEDC engineers offered to help isolate the problems by deriving low-rpm mixture ratio from exhaust gas emissions measurements on the T-3As. The project's scope included the quantification of the engine mixture ratio over the range of throttle setting and ambient temperature conditions expected during a typical T-3A flight. Engineers surveyed aircraft located at Waco, Texas, Hondo, Texas and at the Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colo.

On 18 September 1988 Air Education and Training Command announced plans to place its fleet of T-3A Firefly aircraft in minimal maintenance statu, while flight testing and aircraft modifications continued. The Air Force was studying the feasibility of installing a crew recovery system in the T-3 prior to resuming flight-screening operations. If the studies determined a crew recovery system was compatible with the T-3A aircraft, installation of the recovery system would take a minimum of two years. The flight operations suspension extended beyond the time initially projected because of the crew recovery system studies and other unexpected delays in engineering, modification processes and FAA certification. While the T-3A fleet was held in minimal maintenance status, most of the remaining civilian instructor and maintenance staff for the T-3A fleet were released.

Without the benefit of T-3 flight screening, attrition rates for Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training [SUPT] climbed above 15 percent. The Air Force considers an 8 to 10 percent attrition rate acceptable. To reduce the climbing attrition rate and increase pilot production, the service instituted an introductory flight training program in October 1998 that brought attrition down to 8.8 percent. The privately run Introductory Flight Training uses private flight schools to screen pilot candidates. More than 150 flight schools nationwide may be involved in the training program, mostly near colleges and universities with Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps detachments. Pilot candidates at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colo., receive their training in the local area. After completing the expanded IFT program, pilot candidates enter Air Force SUPT. The success of this program persuaded the Air Force to drop the T-3 from service.

The Air Education and Training Command at Randolph AFB announced on 12 October 1999 that the T-3A Firefly would be dropped by the Air Force, after having been grounded for more than two years. The Air Force replaced its enhanced flight screening program with commercial training and eliminated use of the T-3A Firefly to screen and prepare pilot candidates for Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training. An expanded Introductory Flight Training Program that provides pilot candidates Federal Aviation Administration-certified flight instruction through commercial pilot training schools replaced the flight screening program.

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Page last modified: 07-07-2011 02:38:07 ZULU