The North American T–6 Texan checkout has been a rite of passage for generations of pilots—and it’s as humbling, bewildering, gratifying, and exciting today as it ever was.
The imposing airplane mercilessly punishes sloppy or improper technique with tire squealing, bouncing, and/or roaring go-arounds. It also provides incomparable sounds, sensations, and a sense of being part of an honored legacy when things go right. I recently got reacquainted with the T–6/SNJ by taking one on a 1,200-nm ferry flight, and then hopping in the backseat and checking out AOPA colleague Mark Evans.
It was an unusual turnabout since Evans is a seasoned corporate pilot with multiple type ratings and far more flying time than me. He came with the advantages of a tailwheel endorsement, lots of radial-engine experience, boundless enthusiasm, and a healthy respect for the airplane. His disadvantage was many years flying corporate jets. Why is jet time a liability? Because pilots accustomed to high wing loading and tricycle landing gear develop “elephant feet.” This affliction causes jet pilots to apply heavy, ponderous rudder pressure instead of the quick, jab-like taps a lightly wing-loaded tailwheel airplane demands. Jet pilots also tend to slap throttle levers around like foul-tempered interrogators instead of giving them the gentle, kid-glove treatment they deserve.
After Evans sat through my favorite T–6 truisms: “This airplane was built by 18-year-olds for 18-year-olds”; “It has more personalities than Sybil”; and “Don’t flare any higher than you’re willing to fall,” we got down to aviating.
He made my job easy by keeping the airplane arrow straight during the 14-second takeoff roll and not exceeding the manifold pressure limit of 36 inches. (This particular airplane has an oversized supercharger that makes it easy to over boost.)
“No elephant feet for me,” he said. “I’ve got my dancing shoes on.”
Anyone’s first stall series in a T–6 is an eye-opener—even when you know what to expect. A coordinated power-off stall breaks straight ahead with lots of buffeting to let you know it’s coming. But in a steep right turn at cruise power, the stall breaks sharply and the right wing drops well beyond 90 degrees of bank. The pilot has to force himself not to use aileron to pick up the down wing. Recovery requires lowering the angle of attack (forward stick, no matter the airplane’s attitude) and using “top” rudder to lead the return to level flight.
Positive-G aerobatics are a delight, especially in the warm Florida air with the front canopy open, and the unusual attitudes are a confidence boost to new T–6 pilots who get to experience the magnificence of the airplane throughout its full, three-dimensional range.
Three-point and wheel landings each present their own challenges. When botched, however, the fix is the same: takeoff power and go around for another try. When the landings work, they are sublime things of beauty.
In the 1940s, T–6s were advanced trainers used to teach military pilots the lethal arts of air combat maneuvering, aerial gunnery, and ground attack. In the 1950s and 1960s, they became primary trainers, and many thousands of aspiring young Air Force, Navy, and Marine pilots made their first flights in these demanding aircraft. Today, restored T–6s are prized by civilian warbird pilots and collectors, and a few firms such as Stallion 51 and Warbird Adventures in Kissimmee, Florida, and Gauntlet Warbirds in the Chicago area, specialize in producing twenty-first–century T–6 pilots.
(After two flights with me, Evans finished his checkout with Steve Larmore at Stallion 51.)
For an instructor, the rear cockpit of a T–6—despite its complete lack of forward visibility—is a peerless perch. You’re well aft of the pivot point, so you feel every bit of yaw; you’re behind the trailing edge of the wing, so downward visibility is fantastic, and the sliding canopy provides instant air conditioning. The only hard part, and it’s a big one, is allowing students to make mistakes without letting them go too far—and that’s a very fine line.
I once met an accomplished World War II aviator whose flight jacket carried many decorations. But the one he said he treasured most was a small, blue oval indicating he had given 1,000 hours of dual instruction in T–6s without a mishap.
And that, he said, was a claim few instructors of the day could make.
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The truth about radials: Their low, rumbling sound, symmetrical appearance, and illustrious history give radial engines an undeniable mystique. From Charles Lindbergh’s flight to Paris until the jet age, radial engines evolved to ever more powerful and high-flying variants. For pilots, operating these sometime cantankerous beasts can be demanding.
Before starting, radial engines require turning the propeller by hand to clear the lower cylinders of pooled oil. On large radials, that can be a workout in itself. Actually starting these engines is a black art requiring closely timed adjustments of the primer, magnetos, throttle, and mixture control. Once flying, radials are intolerant of throttle jockeying and power mismanagement. But when operated properly, these air-cooled engines reward pilots and passengers with smooth, reliable, rumbling sounds and sensations that connect them to an earlier era.
There are lots of sayings noting the plain truth that radial engines are leaky and tend to spew oil. “Fill it with oil and check the fuel.”
“If there’s no oil leaking out, there must not be any inside.”
“It’s not leaking oil. It’s just a radial engine marking its territory.”
“Oil was cheap and plentiful when radial engines were designed—and so was soap and water.”
The bottom cylinders tend to pool with oil, and it gets pushed out the exhaust pipes when the engine starts. Internal tolerances are fairly loose, and some leakage is expected. Fortunately, their designers anticipated this fact and installed voluminous oil tanks, most of which measure oil in gallons—not quarts. —DMH
More than 15,000 of the various North American T–6 models were built. The Air Force called them T–6 Texans, the Navy SNJs, and in the United Kingdom and Canada, they were known as the Harvard.
Photography by Chris Rose