The T-6 Texan

** SNJs in formation. The North American
AT-6 and its offshoots were the most
prolific advanced trainers in U.S. military

__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.

I flew my first SNJ in 1945 during my Naval Cadet days during an orientation flight just after Japan surrendered. From the first instant I placed my right hand on the control stick and my left hand on the throttle/prop/mixture quadrant I knew that this airplane, an SNJ-6, had been built just for me. What an airplane! I was spoiled for the rest of my long life. Over the years I owned and rebuilt and sold a number of Texans. While I owned many airplanes over the years, the North American AT-6 and its close relatives remain my favorites.

No-Nonsense Texan
The creation of the AT-6 resulted from, as so often happens in times of war, a combination of luck and necessity. North American had been building the BT-9, which sort of looked like the Texan but had a lower powered engine and fixed landing gear. The engineers knew that the design of the BT (basic trainer) had a lot more potential then as a basic trainer and redesigned it as what is now known as the AT-6 Texan.

To get there, they installed a powerful 600 hp Pratt & Whitney R-1340 cubic-inch nine-cylinder radial engine, a Hamilton Standard constant-speed propeller; they switched to a narrow inward retracting landing gear and covered the rear of the fuselage with sheet metal. And the Texan was born.

I always told folks that the Texan was great because it had three of the best families of components ever designed: airframe by North American, round engine by Pratt & Whitney and propeller by Hamilton Standard. The combo spelled reliability and ruggedness.

The Texan control system followed typical military thinking of the era. The controls consisted of a combination of push rod and cables along with bell cranks to change directions. All pivot points were ball-bearing smooth and there was zero slop in the control system. The ailerons had anti-servo tabs to remove the load under certain maneuvers. Before the Texan could be transferred to civilian ownership the servo tab had to be disabled. The first thing the new owner did was to hook it up again. The velvet smooth ailerons were one of the high points of flying a Texan. The anti-servo tab acted as an aileron assist, which greatly reduced the force needed to move the aileron. The FAA figured that civilian pilots might get into trouble with almost zero resistance ailerons.

This is a no-nonsense military aircraft. The cockpit is a cavernous pit. It is wide open. The metal parachute seat and controls are mounted on two metal rails with the naked belly way below. There is no upholstery, period, just green protective paint on everything.

Flying the Texan
The AT-6 is anything but a pussycat. Under certain circumstances, usually when flown by ham handed pilots, the SNJ would revolt and take over the flight controls, sending the airplane into unexpected wild gyrations that instantly taught the embarrassed and terrified pilot, "Hey dummy, that's not the way I want to be flown." Yes, it happened to me on more than one occasion.

My first Navy instructor told me that the SNJ flew like a big Cub and he was right. If you have flown a Cub, then you know what the rudder is for: it keeps the airplane from skidding around the sky. When tackling a Texan, modern pilots trained in Pipers or Cessnas are in for a rude awakening. After takeoff you can’t put your feet on the floor. You have to fly a Texan, not fly in a Texan. It demands smooth delicate inputs and will reward you with an immediate reaction to them.

Not that all Texan pilots are created equal. Go to any airshow and Texans of all ancestry land on their wheels. At this point I am going to get the airplane drivers upset and just say it: Pilots who learned the proper way to land an SNJ do not make wheel landings. That is just asking for it. The only time I would resort to a wheel landing was when the wind was gusting hard down the runway. Crosswinds were better handled by making a full stall landing. The trick of landing an SNJ was to stall the airplane about a foot above the runway and let it fall tail first for a perfect three-point low-speed contact with the runway. Then you better keep full control of your fire-breathing monster until the tie-down chains are securely attached. Asking this simple question can stop any arguments: “How do you do a wheel landing on a carrier?” End of discussion.

The first time I flew an SNJ I didn’t lock the tailwheel and when I opened the throttle the plane made two complete circles on the runway. My instructor responded with. “ Now, that was fun, suppose you lock the tailwheel first.” The visibility forward is very restricted due to the huge cowled radial engine and the tail-low stance while taxiing. This is biggest difference between modern aircraft and the Texan. Once in the air you will find that the Texan is one of the smoothest airplanes you will ever fly. Just think about turning or climbing and the plane seems to read your mind.

After the War
After World War II the military discovered that it worked just as well to start cadets off in a Texan, first flight, first solo, first everything in a Texan. It just took a whole lot longer. The cadets taught this way were great pilots and it saved the military a lot of money in inventory and in time needed for instruction. The Navy finally adopted this method of teaching. Other airplanes followed the Texan including the T-34, T-28 and the T-34-C. The current flight trainer is the Beechcraft T-6 Texan II turboprop. This modified Pilatus is similar in many regards to the T-34 C. It was named in honor of the outstanding service that the original Texan had provided for so many years to our armed forces. The Texan is universally known as the Pilot Maker.

Today the Texan lives on in great numbers worldwide. The type was operated by dozens of different countries, and airworthy and static examples exist on six continents. There are an estimated 400 Texans of various designations flying in the United States alone. Every year at AirVenture Oshkosh, dozens of them show up, many of them participating in multi-ship formation fly-bys.

I guess the bottom line is that pilots really respect the breed. You are never going to conquer the Texan. In fact, you will soon learn to expect anything to happen at any time. It never quits teaching you. It is very much like having a pet tiger. You don’t own the cat. Instead it allows you to pet it, love it and to feed it and take very good care of it. If you don’t, you’d better look out.

The Texan legacy can never be repeated, as the circumstances that created the aircraft will never occur again. Combining versatility, ruggedness and economy, no other wartime aircraft has ever done more for its owner than the North American AT-6 Texan. It was just hard enough to fly to make it an excellent fighter trainer. It was such fun to fly that any pilot who flew it became part of the airplane. It exuded trust, you knew it would bring you home and it did. Every Texan pilot in the world would start to feel the tingling nerves the sweaty palms as you turned from base leg to final. Every landing in a Texan is equal to a PHD in aviation science. If you have been kind to your Texan, it will reward you with a smooth-as-glass full stall landing tail wheel down seconds before the mains are down.

And you and your Texan are at peace with the world.


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