Flying a WWII Fighter/Trainer: The AT-6/SNJ Texan
It was probably the most unique Christmas gift that I have ever received: An acrobatic flight at the controls of an WWII-era fighter/trainer, the North American AT-6 "Texan". The gift from Wendy arrived as a pilot's flight manual for the T6-G. In and of itself, this was a cool enough gift, since I love aviation material in almost any form. However within the coversheet of this particular manual was an envelope with a certificate entitling me not only to a ride in the genuine article, but to actually fly it and perform aerobatics.
She had been waiting some time to see the look on my face when I opened this particular envelope, and I trust that she was not disappointed.
The T-6/SNJ (Air Force/Navy) "Texan" series evolved from a mid-'30s design from the relatively young North American Aviation Company for a two-place basic trainer, the NA-16. The original design by the soon-to-be legend designer Dutch Kindelberger was for an open cockpit, fixed gear mostly-metal monoplane with a 350 horsepower Wright radial engine. A small number of early models were purchased by the Army Air Corps. As the technology of the pre-war period evolved so quickly, so did the overall design, eventually becoming all metal and adopting most of the features that would eventually define nearly all of the aircraft of the WWII period; An enclosed cockpit, retractable landing gear, and more powerful engines with variable-pitch constant speed propellers.
Domestic sales were relatively slow during the plane's early gestation period, given the depression, tight defense budgets and the pacifist sentiment in the US in the late '30s. Although small batches were purchased by the domestic services, North American focused on foreign sales, selling various models, including pure fighter and bombers versions. They were especially popular in South America due to their nominal cost, performance, and versatility.
All this time, the design was refined until it achieved the form that most people recognize today. By 1939, the political situation in Europe had become obvious, and larger domestic orders began to come in. Soon the Army Air Corp and the Navy, along with the rest of the allied forces were purchasing the latest versions of the AT-6 by the thousands. Eventually over 20,000 were to be produced, serving nearly every air force in the world.
If you were to become a pilot during WWII, it was almost inevitable that you would have spent some quantity of your training hours in the AT-6. Training usually began with one of the primary trainers, such as the famous and ubiquitous Stearman biplanes, where pilots learned basic airmanship, such as taking off and landing again without doing harm to self or airplane. Basic training refined those skills, adding navigation and basic aerobatics.
If you weren't washed out in primary, then you graduated to either bomber or fighter school. If you were destined to be a fighter pilot, your next step would be the Texan.
At this point, you were introduced to advanced aerobatics, gunnery, and finally air combat maneuvers. The AT-6 was designed to be easy to fly and maintain. It could absorb a high degree of punishment by not-yet-proficient students, and yet had flight performance that was very similar to the hotter ships that trainees would soon be flying in combat.
The definitive AT-6/SNJ weighed in just short of 6000 lbs., and had a 600 hp Pratt & Whitney R-1340 driving a two-blade constant speed prop. Although some pre-war versions had some nasty stall-spin tendencies, the AT-6/SNJ is docile and handles predictably. Maximum speed (Vne) is 240 MPH. Stall is around 70. Cruise is 170-190. Range with full fuel is about 1,400 miles, also making it useful as a shuttle/liaison ship.
The AT-6 that I would be flying is the G model, one of thousands that were remanufactured from earlier models (mostly wartime "D" variants) by North American for the Air Force in the late '40s and early '50s. When the cold war renewed the need for new pilots and basic trainers to train them in, the AT-6 was a logical choice; It was solid, reliable, affordable, and could be made quickly available. Under the refurbishment program, the Air Force would provide older airframes to North American, and NAA would completely strip and totally rebuild them to the current "G" standard, effectively zero-ing out the airframe time and giving them new serial numbers. In effect, the Air Force would be getting a brand new plane, without the expense and delay of ramping up for new production from scratch. In fact, the need for more AT-6s put the Air Force in a rather embarrassing situation; In the massive move towards disarmament immediately following WWII, thousands of brand new and serviceable Texans along with tens-of-thousands of other aircraft (many with almost no hours on airframes and engines) were sold by a government anxious to get them off the books and government airfields. When the contract with North American was signed, the Air Force discovered that they did not have enough Texan airframes on hand to provide to NAA. The Air Force had to buy back over 1,800 T-6/SNJs from other governments and private owners, paying as much as $8,000 for aircraft that they had sold off only months earlier as surplus for as little as $400! (Your tax dollars at work!)
The T-6 served on for the Air Force through the fifties, and then longer with the various Air National Guards. They still serve in some foreign air forces. Thousands have filtered down to collectors and are still flown by warbird enthusiasts around the world. They race as an independent class at most air-races, and can be seen at nearly any airshow featuring antique or WWII aircraft. They are popular amongst warbird flyers in that they are far cheaper to operate than the fighter aircraft they prepared two generations of pilots for, yet are just as much fun to fly.
My flight was to take place at French Valley Airport near Temecula. Of course, it turned out that the month in which I could schedule for my flight, March, was the one where El Nino was at its worst. The weather during the days preceding my flight were amongst the worst that Southern California had endured in years. It looked inevitable that my flight would be delayed. But as my day came, the skies literally opened up. When we arrived at French Valley the weather was CAVU, with crystal clear visibility well beyond 50 miles. In fact, we could vividly see the snow on top of both Mt. San Jacinto and San Gorgonio, making a beautiful backdrop for my flight. Having thoroughly studied my flight manual, I was ready to go.
My plane pulled up, and and I prepared to board.
After getting seated, I was strapped into my parachute harness, which you are actually sitting on. The harness is then strapped to the seat. I received the quick and simple bail-out procedure; (A) release canopy, (B) release the harness-seat hook, (C) dive out behind the wing, and then (D) pull the D-ring. (The order is critical) If the parachute fails, I may return it and they will give me a new one absolutely free.
Once I'm briefed, the canopy is closes and we're off. My first observation about the cockpit is how high and straight you sit. Your body is very vertical, and there is no relcination at all. You are sitting so straight, that you almost feel as though you are leaning forward, even in three-point. My feet and the bottom of the cockpit seem a long way away. I get used to it quickly, although I can imagine that on a long cross-country trip, this would be exhausting. The cockpit isn't large, but I don't feel particularly claustrophobic.
I am in the front, and the instructor is in the back. While on the ground, visibility forward is limited, but no worse than any other taildragger I've been in. (and certainly no worse that the Cub from the back seat) The instructor in the rear has absolutely no forward visibility, and must zig-zag with the his canopy open in order to see where we are going when on the ground.
After our run-up, all systems are go and we take the runway. We apply power. Although there is 600 HP available for take-off, it's not hardly necessary, and considering the cost of rebuilding a engine, they make no apologies for nursing them. Military take-off power is 36 inches of manifold pressure at 2250 RPM. We use somewhere around 32.
After we climb about 150 feet, I raise the gear. (Most controls are duplicated in both cockpits, but those for the gear are not) After we clear the traffic pattern, the plane is all mine. I proceed to the practice area, between Lake Skinner and Mount Palomar. We climb conservatively at about 120 mph, 500 fpm, heading for 6000. Noise and vibration are no more than any general aviation airplane I've been in, and cockpit visibility is excellent.
The first thing I notice is how smooth and balanced the controls feel. Although I detect feedback, the actual pressure is very light, just like a fighter is supposed to be. I notice is how fast speed and g-forces build when you let the speed pick up in or before a turn. In most GA aircraft, the plane usually lets you know well before you are anywhere near pushing the envelope; you feel the plane protest through the controls before you'd actually feel any forces yourself. Not here. You feel like you are cutting through the air, as opposed to pushing through it as you do with most lighter and draggy general aviation airplanes. I practice some steep turns, to further learn the "feel" of the airplane, and eventually get the hang of controlling speed and attitude in turns. Any parameter (speed, attitude, altitude) that you let slip unchecked builds very quickly, requiring immediate correction before it gets out of control. I am soon able to keep ground objects on the wing tip without letting the other flight parameters get out of control. The other thing I learn quickly is biggest difference between this and other planes I've flown; that the flight envelope is allot bigger. In most GA aircraft, the range between stall and maximum speed is rarely more than 60 mph. In the Texan, it's about 170. It's like a whole universe being opened before you.
We then graduate to Cuban-8s; steep turns, almost rolls that make a figure-8 in the sky. My instructor makes it look easy. But speed picks up fast if you let it. Then it's time for some rolls.
Pretty easy, really. Nose down and pick up a little speed, about 160, then pull up a bit, just above the horizon. Then stick hard to the left and hold until you come back around. If you do it right, you're pointed in pretty much the same direction you were when you started. He makes it look easy. I'm just happy if I'm pointed in the same quadrant when it's over.
Then finally, the loop. Also pretty simple. Pitch down a bit and pick up some speed, about 180, then pull back. The g's happen quick, but aren't too bad, about 2, then up you go and they seem to lighten up past vertical, then....
Then over the top. I am fascinated at watching the ground on the wrong side. Then down, straight down, watching the ground come straight at you. The speed builds really fast. Now the pull-out, and you feel it, about 3.5 g's.
For some strange reason, it's not the unusual attitudes that make me feel woosy, but the g-forces beyond 2.5. No, I didn't get sick, (and with a video camera in my face, the last thing I'm going to do is get sick!) but I did feel the effects. After a couple of loops, my time was up and I turned the plane towards the west for the airport. I pointed the nose down a bit, and as the speed picked up to about 200, it didn't take long to get back.
We entered the downwind and the speed started to burn off as we leveled out. I dropped the gear, and verified that it was down and locked. (Although there are status lights on the panel, there are also little widows in the tops of the wings that allow the front seat occupant to visually verify gear position, and actually see the lock pin engage; this is what you rely on) We kept pattern altitude beyond the base turn, which I thought we had made rather early. "We're going to have to dive for that runway", I thought. Our speed continued to bleed off to about 110. As we start our turn to final, we're still 1000 feet up. But when the power comes off and the flap and gear are out, we drop fast; about 1000 fpm. That's another big difference between this and your typical GA plane; with higher wing-loading and without power and in an unclean configuration, these planes drop like a rock. Right at the threshold, we flare to a near three-point attitude, and the Texan easily settles on the gear. (this seemed much easier than the Cub, in which you have to wrestle it all the way to the ground, and then make it stick there) We make the first taxiway. It's over.
I'm tired. But it's another awesome entry in my logbook.
Addendum: Summer 2001
I recently heard from the new owners of the AT-6G I flew, which can now be found at Warbird AirVentures, which flies mostly in the southeast.
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