Thousands of retired sailors have had second careers as teachers. Now a piece of military hardware is going to get the same chance.
One of the Navy's last two T-39 Sabreliner planes was loaded onto a truck Oct. 20 and carted off to be the centerpiece of a new civilian aviation maintenance vocational school, which is slated to open in the fall of 2015.
The aircraft — which carries the Navy Bureau number 165520 — will begin its second career at the George Stone Technical Center, a two-year public college in Pensacola, Florida.
The center is creating a new aircraft maintenance curriculum for next year that is undergoing the certification process by the Federal Aviation Administration to be allowed to prepare students for the FAA's Airframes and Power Plant licensing, which is required to work on commercial aircraft.
"We are quite excited about having this fully functional aircraft for our students to train on," said T.J. Rollins, the technical center's principal. "It's a fully capable airplane for our students to practice on as they work toward their certifications and licenses. Just a few months ago, it was flying as a trainer for Navy navigators, and now it will continue to be a trainer, but [for] maintainers."
The other aircraft flew off to the so-called "bone yard," where the military stores old aircraft at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base near Tuscon, Arizona, where it will sit for eternity — or until it's scrapped.
Before its donation, the T-39 had been flown a total of 20,557 hours. Of its 48 years of service, the plane spent a total 2½ years aloft.
The aircraft was developed in the mid-1950s for the Air Force as a trainer and a small transport aircraft, later becoming one of the original corporate jets on the civilian market.
The Navy's first T-39s were used as a radar trainer for pilots of the F3H Demon fighter in the early 1960s, but the Navy adapted the airframe to train its cadre of naval flight officers, according to Cmdr. Samuel "Smokey" White, commanding officer of Training Squadron 4, the last Navy squadron to fly the Sabreliner.
"Three versions of the T-39D were used throughout the 1960s, '70s and '80s," White said. "One without radar for high altitude instrument navigation training and low altitude visual navigation training ...; a second variant, equipped with the APQ-126 radar from the Vought A-7 Corsair II, for training primarily bombardier/navigators, as well as reconnaissance attack navigators and electronic countermeasures officers in attack aircraft; and a third variant, with the APQ-94 radar from the F-8 Crusader, for training radar intercept officers in fighter aircraft."
Now, the Navy trains NFOs for tactical jets by using the same aircraft they use to train pilots, the T-45 Goshawk. But in the NFO training, it's the students who sit in the back seat while a pilot drives from the front seat.
NFOs slated to go to P-3s, P-8s and the E-6B Mercury "big wing" aircraft first learn their jobs in high-tech simulators before reporting to their respective fleet replacement squadrons, where they'll fly their designated jets.
A timely phone call
The aircraft donation came about after a chance meeting between a sailor and Steve Harrell, the Escambia County School District's curriculum coordinator for workforce education.
"I asked him what he did for a living, and he said he worked on airplanes at the naval air station," Harrell recalled. "I told him about the aviation maintenance program we were developing and he suggested that we try to get one of the T-39s the Navy was retiring, simply by asking the Navy if we could have it."
Most retired aircraft released to the private sector become part of museum displays outside of naval bases.
Harrell made a few phone calls and ended up talking to John Appicelli, the assistant officer in charge for the Chief of Naval Air Training detachment at NAS Pensacola.
That was in February. By October, all the required approvals had been achieved, Harrell said, and the aircraft was transferred to the school.
"It's very possible that this aircraft could even continue to train those in the Navy," Harrell said. "We plan to offer an accelerated certification program for those in the military who already have a lot of training and experience, and we're hoping that sailors from the base might take advantage of the program."
The Navy's civilian credentialing program, known as Navy COOL, pays for certifications, but only the tests that actually grant the certification.
The school is in the process of getting certification for the GI Bill and other veterans programs, and it's possible sailors could use Navy tuition assistance at the school, too.
When the Navy handed over the T-39, it was a fully functional aircraft with all its systems intact. Technically, it was still fit to fly, Rollins said. And though it's not expected to take to the skies anymore, all those systems, including the avionics, hydraulics and the engines, will be available for students to take apart, inspect and repair.
Rollins and Harrell say the T-39 will live on as a centerpiece of the new GSTC aviation maintenance course.■
Mark D. Faram is a former reporter for Navy Times. He was a senior writer covering personnel, cultural and historical issues. A nine-year active duty Navy veteran, Faram served from 1978 to 1987 as a Navy Diver and photographer.