Laughlin AFB is one of USAF’s five major primary training airfields, located in remote Del Rio, Western Texas it’s is ideal for training flights. It is home to the 47th Flying Training Wing (FTW) that forms part of the Air Education Training Command (AETC). Ian French and Mark Forest visited the base to photograph flight operations on its extremely active flight line.


The airfield was originally commissioned during the Second World War for use as a B-26 training base and was named after Jack T Laughlin, the first local pilot to lose his life during the war whilst undertaking a combat mission over the Makassar Strait near Borneo. The airfield was stood down at the end of the war but was reopened in 1952 to train pilots for the Korean War. Originally the training was undertaken with the F-80 Shooting Star, the F-84 Thunder jet and the T-33 but this was soon streamlined to just the T-33.

In 1957 the Air Force transferred the base to the Strategic Air Command and the now based 4080th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing flew the U-2A and RB-57D Canberra. The based U-2s were heavily involved in monitoring the Cuban Missile Crisis and were thrown into the public eye when Francis Gary Powers and his U-2 was hit by a Soviet SA-2 missile during ‘Operation Overflight’. After being kept as a prisoner of war while his U-2 was placed on display to the world, Gary was eventually traded for a KGB agent in 1962.

In 1961 Laughlin AFB was expanded to include an Air Training Command undergraduate pilot training programme and the 3646th Pilot Training Wing was reactivated to accommodate the unit’s T-33 and T-37 trainers.

In 1972 the 47th FTW was reactivated to absorb Laughlin’s flying training activities. This wing was originally a bomber wing based at Biggs AFB in Texas before moving to Barksdale AFB in Louisiana, Langley AFB in Virginia and RAF Sculthorpe in the UK where the wing had a nuclear bombing capability in the form of the North American B-45 Tornado.

Current squadrons and aircraft types

Today the 47th FTW operates the T-6A Texan II, the T-38C Talon and the T-1A under the following units:

85th Flying Training Squadron – T-6A “Tigers” (yellow tail stripe)
86th Flying Training Squadron – T-1A “Rio Lobos” (black tail stripe)
87th Flying Training Squadron – T-38C “Red Bulls” (grey tail stripe with either a yellow or red bulls head)
96th Flying Training Squadron – this is a reserve squadron with a mix of all three types
434th Flying Training Squadron – T-6A “Panthers” (red tail stripe)

T-6A “Texan II”

This is a single-engine, twin seat trainer designed for teaching USAF and USN students the basic skills of flying, this is carried out under a training program known as Joint Primary Pilot Training (JPPT). The T-6A became operational in May 2000 and over the next ten years T-6As were delivered to training bases across the United States. By 2010 production was completed and a total of 446 aircraft were delivered to the USAF at a cost of $4.27 million dollars each.

The T-6A is manufactured by Raytheon Aircraft and is the military trainer version of the Beech/Pilatus PC-9 MKII. It features tandem seating with the instructor and student positions being interchangeable, a side opening one piece canopy, pressurised cockpit, anti-G system ejection seat and advanced avionics package. The engine is a Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-68 Turbo-Prop which can deliver 1,100 horsepower with a maximum speed of 320 mph. The aircrafts range is 900 nautical miles and a max ceiling of 31,000 feet. As the T-6A has an excellent thrust-to-weight ratio it can perform an initial climb of 3,100 feet per minute and is fully aerobatic.

T-38C “Talon”

The T-38 is a twin-engine, two-seat supersonic jet trainer used by the AETC to prepare pilots for front-line operational fighter and bomber squadrons. T-38 pilots advance on to the F-15, F-16, F-22 and, in the future, F-35 fighters. For bombers they will fly either the A-10 or B-1B. Between 1961 and 1972 the USAF had in excess of 1,100 T-38 aircraft delivered but with airframes ageing during the 1990’s an upgrade program named “Pacer Classic” was developed to introduce major upgrades and modifications to existing airframes. In 2001 the AETC began receiving the T-38C model that included structural and avionics upgrades, propulsion modernization and engine inlet/injector modifications to increase take-off thrust. The “Pacer Classic” program will see the service life extended to 2020 for the T-38C. The “Talon” also has had an excellent safety record throughout its service and is also an economical trainer to fly.

The T-38 was manufactured by Northrop and is powered by two General Electric J85-GE-5 turbojet engines with afterburners producing 2,900 pounds of thrust, a max-speed of Mach 1.08 (812 mph), ceiling of over 55,000 feet and a range of 950 nautical miles.

T-1A “Jayhawk”

Used in the advanced phase of undergraduate pilot training, this twin-engine, swept wing, medium-range jet trainer enables pilots to train for airlift and tanker aircraft as well as providing navigator training for the USAF, USN and USMC. The T-1A entered service in 1992 with student training beginning in 1993. A total of 178 “Jayhawks” have been delivered to the USAF with a unit cost of $4.1 million per aircraft.

Manufactured by Raytheon, the T-1A is the military version of the Beech 400A. The cockpit has seating for an instructor and two students and the aircraft is powered by two Pratt & Whitney JT15D-5B Turbofan engines that each deliver 2,900 pounds of thrust. The max-speed is Mach 0.7 (538 mph), with a ceiling of 41,000 feet and with a range of 2,222 nautical miles. Unlike the Beech 400A, the T-1A has an additional fuel tank and enhancements to its structure protecting against bird strikes.

The 47th FTW Today

Laughlin AFB is one of the busiest airfields in the USA with a flying operation that each year exceeds 80,000 flying hours and 54,000 sorties. Laughlin provides undergraduate pilot training for the USAF, Air National Guard, Air Force Reserve and allied nation air forces. Some fifteen classes of 20-25 pilots graduate annually and approximately 15,000 USAF pilots have been trained to date. All pilots train initially on the T-6A JPPT program before then being streamed for the four training paths – Fighter/Bomber, Airlifter/Tanker, Turboprop or Helicopter.

As is standard practice at the USAF flying training bases, twin parallel runways are used with one being dedicated to the T-6As and the other for T-1As and T-38Cs. On a normal flying day both runways are in constant use by the 235 aircraft on strength here (80 T-38Cs, 50 T-1As and 105 T-6As all marked XL)

Thanks must be given to Senior Airman Maysonnet of the 47th FTW Public Affairs Office for a very informative visit of Laughlin’s training squadrons and Jon Astley for co-ordinating/photography on the visit.