Modern military trainer aircraft are a lot wider and bulkier than the previous generation. Especially the canopy looks oversized.

Boeing/Saab T-7 (left) next to Northrop T-38

You can see this in the Boeing/Saab T-7 Red Hawk, Alenia Aermacchi M-346 Master (developed from the Yakovlev Yak-130) and Hongdu JL-10.

Development for these aircraft was started in the late 90s / early 2000s. All of these aircraft have a secondary light combat role. They are supersonic capable.

The seating position is staggered, probably so that both pilots (or student / instructor) have good visibility. This might explain the enlarged canopy. The wider cockpit is likely more comfortable and enables longer missions as well.

Additional avionics and increased fuel capacity may explain the overall increase in volume.

There seem to be some underlying reasons for these designs, but they are unclear to me.

What prompted these changes in the designs?

  • $\begingroup$ The helmets have grown bigger with helmet-mounted targeting, night vision and all that equipment which can be attached to a modern helmet. That requires more space, hence the canopies have become wider and higher. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 7, 2021 at 23:30
  • $\begingroup$ I wouldn't say the current gen trainers are that bulky (compare the T-38 to its subsonic contemporary, the T-37 Tweet), more that the T-38's supersonic capabilities forced them to be slender) $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 7, 2021 at 23:46

1 Answer 1


You mentioned the oversized canopy for two, staggered for better visibility, and really that is the main feature that stands out. Consider that trainers are typically quite a bit smaller than their full combat brethren and this feature is even more out of proportion. Also, full sized combat 2 seaters generally have a Weapon System Officer in the back seat, so good forward visibility isn't as crucial as it is in a pilot trainer so less upward stagger of the back seat is needed.

The human body doesn't scale up and down like an airplane design, it is the constant that must be designed around. Think about it, you are fitting two 6 foot tall people in a fairly small plane vs often one in a larger plane; naturally the space for the bodies will be a much larger overall percentage of the size of the trainer.

If you were to compare a 2 seat trainer next to a larger 2 seat combat aircraft like the F14 Tomcat, (with its huge engines...) I think you would find that the cockpit areas are actually pretty similar in size. They are just more pronounced in the smaller plane.

Other than the cockpit area they really aren't "bulky" at all. In fact the two pictured are VERY compact and streamlined, by just about any standard.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Also the F404 is larger than the two J85 engines in the T-38. $\endgroup$
    – Gerry
    Commented Mar 7, 2021 at 20:02

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