For more than six decades after its birth in 1937, the North American AT-6 Texan and its offshoots (the Navy SNJ and the Canadian Harvard) were used throughout the world as advanced trainers, artillery spotters (in Korea and Vietnam among other theaters), and even as counterinsurgency and fighter-bombers by numerous developing countries. The last known military use of the Texan was by the South Africa Air Force as a trainer, in 1995, which gives it a working history of 60 years, a figure virtually unrivaled in the history of military aviation.
The reason there are so many T-6s still flying is in part because so many were built. From 1937 to the early 1950s North American and other manufacturers produced more than 16,000 Texans to satisfy the demand for advanced trainers.
Two other reasons we still have so many Texans flying is because they proved so versatile and economical to operate. After the war, when the need for advanced trainers was greatly diminished, existing T-6s were pressed into service in many other roles.
Today there are literally hundreds of Texans flying in private hands, and their value continues to rise. After the war, you could pick them up for a song. I bought four brand new in the late 1940s for $450 each. These same airplanes are now worth $150,000 or more. Large numbers of them can be seen flying aerobatics, formation flights and passenger hopping at air shows around the country.
The Texan was developed with the express intention of creating an advanced trainer as a last step for pilots before they graduated to fighters. With the introduction of the Texan, the stage was set for the most effective training system ever devised. The Navy used the rugged Navy N3N and Stearman/Boeing N2S (PT-17) for primary, the SNV (BT-13) for basic training and the SNJ (the Navy’s designation for the AT-6) for advanced fighter training. Thanks in large part to this lineup of training aircraft, the U.S. Navy graduated the world’s best trained Navy and Marine pilots the world has ever seen.
Versatility was key. For example, the SNJ was used by the Navy for gunnery training, carrier landing indoctrination and to provide all the skills needed by future Navy and Marine combat pilots to seamlessly allow them to step into single cockpit Corsairs, Wildcats, Hellcats or any aircraft then in use by the U.S. Navy. For example, Vought Corsairs had had their cockpit moved back several feet to allow more fuel to be carried, which greatly reduced the forward visibility. How to train these new Corsair pilots? A few trips around the pea patch flying the SNJ from the rear seat, which was even harder than flying the Corsair, solved the problem.