KAI T-50 Golden Eagle: The Supersonic Trainer That Took Out Rebels In the Philippines

Photo Credit: 대한민국 국군 Republic of Korea Armed Forces / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0
Photo Credit: 대한민국 국군 Republic of Korea Armed Forces / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0

The KAI T-50 Golden Eagle is one of few supersonic trainers in the world and the first developed for the Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF). Further variants have been designed to transform this premiere trainer into a light-strike aircraft, with it seeing operational success in the likes of the Philippines. Over 200 T-50s have been produced and delivered around the world, and the aircraft has recorded well over 300,000 flight hours.

Development of the KAI T-50 Golden Eagle

KAI T-50 Golden Eagle taking off
KAI T-50 Golden Eagle test flight, 2005. (Photo Credit: Chung Sung Jun / Getty Images)

Korean Aerospace Industries (KAI) collaborated with Lockheed Martin to develop the advanced trainer known the T-50 Golden Eagle. Following its development, the aircraft was intended to replace any aged models still active with the ROKAF, such as the Northrop T-38 Talon and Cessna A-37 Dragonfly.

The program to develop the aircraft was originally codenamed “KTX-2.” After some financial issues and a temporary suspension, the T-50’s first design was completed in 1999. The funding needed to manufacture the aircraft was then divided, with KAI taking on 17 percent, Lockheed Martin funding 13 percent and the remainder being supplemented by the South Korean government.

In February 2000, the aircraft was formally designated the KAI T-50 Golden Eagle. Production began the following year and has continued to this day. The prototype’s first flight was in August 2002 and, not long after, the ROKAF signed a production contract for 25.

The T-50 has been utilized to prepare pilots for flying other aircraft, such as the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, the F-35 Lightning II and the Boeing F-15K Slam Eagle.

Based on the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon

Eight KAI T-50 Golden Eagles in flight
KAI T-50 Golden Eagles demo flight, 2010. (Photo Credit: Korea Aerospace Industries / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0)

The KAI T-50 Golden Eagle strikes a remarkable resemblance to the Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon. This is likely because the company makes a licensed version of the American aircraft, designated the KF-16. However, the T-50 is smaller than the F-16, making up only 80 percent of the latter’s overall size.

The T-50 is a tandem, two-seater aircraft with a large glass canopy for clear visibility. This feature also offers protection, as it can withstand impact against four-pound objects striking at 400 knots. The T-50 also has a single vertical tail fin and is powered by a single General Electric F404-102 turbofan engine, capable of 78.7 kN of thrust.

The trainer has a maximum speed of Mach 1.5, and it can reach an altitude of over 14,600 meters. Its fuel capacity of 2,655 liters is spread over seven internal fuel tanks, providing it with an operational range of 1,150 miles.

As the original T-50 operates as a trainer, it doesn’t have the capability of mounting weaponry, nor does it have advanced radar. These elements are available in other variants. Instead, it uses triple-redundant, digital fly-by-wire technology and an AN/APG-67(v)4 pulse Doppler radar system.

‘Fighter lead-in’

KAI TA-50 in flight
KAI TA-50 at the Singapore Airshow, 2010. (Photo Credit: Kentaro Iemoto / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.0)

The TA-50 variant of the KAI T-50 Golden Eagle is considered a “fighter lead-in” version of the original supersonic jet. It serves as the in-between variant of three, offering deployment as both a fighter trainer and a light-attack aircraft. As such, the TA-50 can be armed, unlike its predecessor.

The TA-50 uses Elta EL/M-2032 advanced fire-control radar, and is designed to wield a variety of weaponry, including precision-guided weapons, air-to-surface missiles (Hydra 70, AGM-65 Maverick) and air-to-air missiles. It can also be fitted with the three-barrel version of the M61 Vulcan, firing 20 mm link-less ammunition.

Additionally, the TA-50 can be mounted with utility pods, which are designed to improve either the aircraft’s reconnaissance abilities, targeting assistance or electronic warfare. Based on which is fitted, reconnaissance and electronic warfare types are designated RA-50 and EA-50, respectively.

Light-strike capabilities

KAI FA-50PH taxiing down a runway
KAI FA-50PH with the Philippine Air Force. (Photo Credit: Philippine Air Force Public Information Office / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

The most advanced variant of the KAI T-50 Golden Eagle is the FA-50, which took its maiden flight in 2011. It has light-strike capabilities, and is designed to perform both day and night operations. Like the TA-50, the FA-50 is equipped with the EL/M-2032 fire-control radar, but has a greater range than the lead-in aircraft.

The FA-50 features a number of other enhancements that make it an outstanding light-combat jet. It has a higher internal fuel capacity and better avionics, and it can employ a large number of underwing ordnance. This includes air-to-air missiles, air-to-surface missiles, cluster bombs, general-use drop bombs, precision-guided bombs and unguided rocket pods.

There have been two updates made for the FA-50. The first is Block 10, which offers software upgrades for the aircraft to use the Lockheed Martin AN/AAQ-33 sniper targeting pod. The second is Block 20, providing the aircraft with a telescopic probe solution for inflight refuelling capabilities. It also provides a conformal 300-gallon fuel tank for increased range, as well as upgrades to the aircraft’s avionics system.

Conducting missions in the Philippines

Two KAI FA-50PHs in flight
KAI FA-50PHs with the Philippine Air Force. (Photo Credit: Philippine Air Force / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

The KAI T-50 Golden Eagle and its variants are operated by a number of different nations, including South Korea, Iraq, Indonesia and Thailand. However, it’s the Philippine Air Force (PAF) that’s utilized the FA-50 in a wide array of air missions, showcasing its capabilities as both a lead-in trainer and a light-combat jet.

The PAF acquired 12 FA-50s, and it wasn’t long before they were participating in missions. On the night of January 26, 2017, two attacked terrorist hideouts in Butif, Lanao del Sur, Mindanao, marking the first combat flight ever conducted by the aircraft.

In June 2017, multiple FA-50PHs conducted airstrikes on the city of Marawi, after it had been overtaken by Maute terrorists. The following month, one was responsible for the accidental deaths of two Philippine soldiers after its bomb landed off-target. Several others were injured.

On December 25, 2020, six bombs were dropped on the base camp of the New People’s Army in the Daguma Mountain Range, resulting in the deaths of three rebels.

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These are just a few instances where the aircraft participated in operational missions. Several others have been conducted since it entered service with the PAF.

Samantha Franco

Samantha Franco is a Freelance Content Writer who received her Bachelor of Arts degree in history from the University of Guelph, and her Master of Arts degree in history from the University of Western Ontario. Her research focused on Victorian, medical, and epidemiological history with a focus on childhood diseases. Stepping away from her academic career, Samantha previously worked as a Heritage Researcher and now writes content for multiple sites covering an array of historical topics.

In her spare time, Samantha enjoys reading, knitting, and hanging out with her dog, Chowder!