Retired Sabreliner Lives On


Northrop Grumman will let a 1972 Sabreliner live on after retirement, though it won’t be sleeping in and playing golf. The twinjet has been donated to Maryland’s Anne Arundel County public schools as an “aviation training aid … to support AACPS’ new Aviation Maintenance Technician program for high school students pursuing formal certification in airframe or power plant maintenance,” according to the company.

To be based at Tipton Airport near Fort Meade, this Sabreliner was an “aerial detection and characterization target for radar development” that was retired in 2018. “This particular Sabreliner has both historical significance to Northrop Grumman and practical applications as a training aid for AACPS—so its preservation is a win-win for us and the county,” said Jeanie Wade, vice president, operations, Northrop Grumman Mission Systems. “N160W has played a role in every significant Northrop Grumman air-to-air and surface-to-air radar development program for the past 30 years. We’re glad to see AACPS adopt it to train the next generation of aviation technicians.”

According to Northrop Grumman, this Sabreliner was only lightly modified for its test role, making it a good candidate for a training aid. In its life previous as a test article, it was an executive transport for Westinghouse. 

Designed by North American, the Sabreliner began life as dual-role aircraft for the U.S. Air Force, acting as both transport and training. It first flew in 1958 and received its FAA type certificate in 1963. Designated the T-39 by the military and powered by a variety of engines including the original GE J85 and Pratt & Whitney JT12A, more than 800 Sabreliners were produced through 1982. 

Marc Cook
KITPLANES Editor in Chief Marc Cook has been in aviation journalism for more than 30 years. He is a 4000-hour instrument-rated, multi-engine pilot with experience in nearly 150 types. He’s completed two kit aircraft, an Aero Designs Pulsar XP and a Glasair Sportsman 2+2, and currently flies a 2002 GlaStar.

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  1. I also flew the T-39 version for 3 years in Europe. Simple solid aircraft that either worked or was hard broke, nothing in between. No automatic gee-whiz stuff to act up. While this aircraft “lives on” so to speak, it would be even nicer if she could fly.

  2. While I think this is a great idea, it will most certainly not prepare future A&Ps for current technology in the field. It will certainly serve as a basic tool to gain interest from people and set the hook to become technicians. I don’t mean to be critical at all, but by the time they get into the field this experience won’t be current by a long stretch.
    I recall my own experience so many years ago at ERAU. The equipment we were repairing in class were remnants from the 40s and 50s. It didn’t help much when we got to the field and never saw anything like them because they were outdated. It was an ironic experience when a D-18 crashed locally and they brought the remnants to our hangar for the NTSB. There sat the very same parts we were disassembling in class.

    • Joe I hear what you say and experienced the same in A&P training during the early ’70s. However, in this case if students learn nothing else from this airframe, they’ll develop a great understanding of airframe corrosion, its why’s and its wherefores.

  3. Unfortunately, old run-out machinery and aircraft are what is available to schools trying to train new A&P students. You just don’t see companies like Boeing, Textron, etc. donating modern aircraft, propulsion, or navigation systems to schools. The sheer cost is the main reason. Automotive mechanic training schools can afford to purchase or borrow current technology cars and trucks, but the expense factor is much lower for them. Unless the aviation community, including government agencies, can find a way to provide modern training aids to the A&P schools, we will be stuck working on retired antiques and junked out parts.

    IMHO, one of the reasons for the shortage of aircraft mechanics is that it takes too long, costs too much and requires too much apprentice time to become a licensed A&P. If you are mechanically or electronically inclined, there are other career paths that can be achieved much quicker, cost less and offer a good living wage. I also question the rationale for schools to train every student on things like jet engines and complex hydraulic systems if the student is only interested in working on small aircraft. Why don’t they create a tiered system like pilots have so you can be legal to work on basic aircraft first, then graduate with additional training to a higher tier and more complex aircraft? As an airplane owner, I would love to be able to legally work on my own plane, but have no interest in working on 787s or even to work on some other person’s 172. But the system is not set up for me to do that and still hold down a day job. With the approaching shortage of A&Ps, allowing pilots to do much of the day-today work on their own planes would alleviate the load on the dwindling supply of mechanics and allow them to concentrate on the more complex projects. Just my two cents….

  4. “aerial detection and characterization target for radar development”

    Not sure exactly what that means. In the late 70s or early 80s, I remember an FAA FlightCheck Sabreliner performing as a target to check our radar at Tulsa TRACON, and we discovered that our radar, which always passed with flying colors when we were painting the ubiquitous FlightCheck DC-3s that the FAA had used for decades, was no longer all that great. (Hint: If you’re looking for a stealthy aircraft to penetrate an enemy’s radar defenses, don’t take a DC-3.)