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Airplane with attitude

Strapping on the T–6

Mention “Beechcraft trainer” to the typical general aviation pilot and perhaps the T–34 Mentors will jog memories. Based on Beechcraft’s Bonanza, they served as U.S. Air Force and Navy trainers from 1955 to 2000.
Photography by Mike Fizer and courtesy Textron Aviation
Photography by Mike Fizer and courtesy Textron Aviation

Or maybe, just maybe, the Beech Skipper will come to mind. The two-seat Skipper was one of Beech’s less-prominent designs of the late 1970s boom times, and it served in the Beech Aero Club network. On a good day, a Skipper could turn in 100 knots.

The T–6C Texan II is no Skipper.

It could eat a Skipper for breakfast and get rid of it by noon.

It’s a fire-breathing, fully aerobatic, plus-7/minus-3.5-G, 275-knot multi-role trainer powered by a 1,100-shaft-horsepower Pratt & Whitney PT6A-68 engine. It comes with a Martin Baker ejection seat, six underwing hardpoints, and cockpit displays identical to those in the F–16 Fighting Falcon and F/A–18 Super Hornet. As you can guess, it’s built for the military market, and it’s been a big hit, with 250 T–6C sales since 2009, when that version began production.

The Beechcraft T–6 line (not to be confused with the North American T–6, a World War II-era trainer) began in 2000, with the T–6A, a pure trainer with steam gauges. With the T–6B, head-up displays (HUDs) were added. In all, more than 1,000 T–6s now serve in the militaries of 12 nations, plus two NATO schools. The T–6C is the current top-of-the-line model and comes under Textron Aviation’s Defense and Special Missions Division, along with the AT–6 Wolverine. The Wolverine shares many features with the T–6C, but it is heavier (it’s armored), has more power, and is designed for combat in light attack and armed overwatch missions. I wrote about the AT–6 in the April 2020 Turbine Edition of AOPA Pilot (“On the Prowl”).

Flying upside down (click on image for slideshow)

The author, somewhere over Kansas, in mid-roll. The red clevis pin in the door handle is a reminder that the ejection seat is armed. The T–6C cockpit has a HUD similar to those used in operational fighters, plus a three-screen Esterline display system. The weapons display is at the left, the PFD is in the center, and engine information is at the right. To jettison any wing-mounted hardware, press the red button surrounded by black and yellow stripes. T–6C Texan IIs are the most popular military platform in the world, serving in 12 nations, including the United Kingdom, Canada, Israel, New Zealand, and Argentina. Textron Defense’s Chip Schellhorn, giving a preflight briefing on the T–6C’s systems and procedures. The T–6C demonstrator in the Beechcraft delivery center’s spotless showroom, ready to be tugged to the ramp. Post-flight, Tom Horne and Chip Schellhorn (front and rear seats, respectively) celebrate before heading to a debriefing session.

I wondered: What would it be like for an ab initio student to learn to fly in a T–6C? This year, I got my chance. Soon enough, I was suited up and doing a T–6C walkaround with my instructor for the day, Chip Schellhorn, Textron Defense’s director of aftermarket sales. Like others in the division, Schellhorn (call sign “Smails”) has a military flying background, having served for 11 years as a naval aviator, and flown F/A–18 Super Hornets.

To the untrained eye the T–6C looks identical to the Wolverine. Both airplanes have roots in the Pilatus PC–9 design and have 80 percent parts commonality. The original T–6 was developed in the 1990s, then won the Joint Primary Aircraft Training System (JPATS) contract. That made it the common training platform for U. S. Air Force, U.S. Navy, and U.S. Marine pilots. Prior to JPATS, pilots would have to progress through several trainer types. For example, Schellhorn’s father joined the Navy in 1970 and trained in a T–34B Mentor, T–2A and T–2B Buckeyes, and the TA–4 Skyhawk before entering fighter pilot ranks.

Textron says that the T–6C can cover a range of objectives, running from first flight through basic, instrument, formation, dynamic formation, and tactical flight training—which includes air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons training. Then comes advanced jet training. In the U.S. Air Force, that step is completed in the T–38 Talon; the Navy uses the T–45 Goshawk.

Long story short: The T–6C can take a pilot from “the street to the fleet”—and at an operational cost of just $500 per hour, instead of prices like $10,000 per hour for pilots to climb the learning curve in jets.

My learning curve began with a briefing from Schellhorn. First came a review of the Martin-Baker ejection seat, which always focuses the mind. I was wearing a flight suit and a harness, which clips into the ejection seat and was cinched down at the shoulders, waist, and calves by restraints designed to keep pilots attached to the rocket-powered seat, and prevent their legs from flailing on the way out. Want out? Pull the black and yellow release cord down at your crotch. The canopy blows, the rocket fires, you shoot up to the tune of 16 Gs, the canopy opens, the seat pack falls away, and you ride the harness back to Earth. “Don’t worry,” said Schellhorn, er, Smails, “In two seconds you’ll be out and under the chute.” The system will even work if you’re parked on the ground, which is why it’s called a “zero-zero” seat. “One swing under the chute, and you’re on the ground,” said Smails. “And if you’re in inverted flight, the system will right you before the chute deploys.”

I puzzled over Smails’ call sign, but never got a satisfactory explanation. It has something to with the movie Caddyshack, of that I’m sure. I’m afraid I’ll get my own call sign, which has me worried. The way I understand it, your fellow pilots give you your call sign—and it’s usually because of something you did that was clumsy or otherwise embarrassing. That, or an incisive critique of a personality quirk.

Luckily, the airplane is straightforward, so I was off to a good start. For example, engine start takes just three steps: master switch on, boost pump on, crack the power lever until you see a green “start ready” annunciation on the engine indicating and crew alerting system (EICAS) screen, and hit the starter switch. The Pratt comes to life automatically, and then it’s a matter of turning on the generator, powering up the avionics, trim system, air conditioning, and oxygen systems. There’s an onboard oxygen generating system (OBOGS), so there’s no need to worry about running out of oxygen—you wear the mask full-time—and no need to fill oxygen bottles at the end of a flight.

The flaps (with takeoff and full flap detents) and gear controls are over on the left sidewall panel, the audio panel is right in front of the control stick, and the parking brake is over on the right. The three-screen liquid crystal multifunction panel displays were set up, left to right, to show tactical situation data, a primary flight display, and EICAS information, but they can be interchangeably configured to show a choice of information on any screen. Above the displays is the upfront control panel, and its two large keypads are for setting up com, nav, and transponder entries, plus configuring the panel displays and calling up air-air or air-ground targeting modes. Topping off the avionics stack is the digital SparrowHawk HUD. It can be set up to duplicate the HUDs used in the F–16 and F/A–18. All the avionics are from CMC Esterline, a Canadian avionics manufacturer.

Controlling all that equipment is easy, thanks to the T–6’s concentration of switches on the control stick and power lever. With your hands on the throttle and stick (HOTAS) you can use your fingers to trim the elevator, rudder, and ailerons, lock up a target, trigger machine guns, drop bombs, and even activate the nosewheel steering for taxi. Again, all this comports with the equipment on our fighters.

There are two last items before taxiing out: pull out the T-handle clevis pins that safety the ejection seat and canopy-fracture systems. The seat’s pin goes into the canopy latch so the ground crew can confirm the seat’s armed. The canopy fracture pin goes into a box behind Smails’ left shoulder. The canopy fracture system is for use when you’re on the ground and, say, smoke fills the cabin and launching the seats isn’t advisable. This system uses an integral explosive cable to instantly shatter the canopy.

I clicked on the nosewheel’s “power steering” and taxied away. It was twitchy but I dampened down the swerving by the time we back-taxied on Beech Factory Airport’s Runway 1. Click off the steering for takeoff, stand on the brakes, bring up the power (there is no condition lever), release the brakes, and we shoot down the runway. At 85 KIAS, begin pulling aft stick, lift off at 90, get gear and flaps up by 150, and climb out at 140 to 180 knots. I saw 4,000 fpm and took up an easterly heading to 16,000 feet in a practice area.

Smails was talking earlier about how well the T–6 handled in slow flight, so back came the power and soon we were near the stall and banking. The stick shaker woke up a few times, but we had aileron control—even after the airplane went into a stall. Sixty-degree-bank steep turns were a breeze, and the view outside was spectacular, made all the more so by a scattered stratus layer below.

Next up were wingovers, aileron rolls, loops, and spins. For the loop, the target airspeed is 230 to 250 knots, followed by a 4-G pull-up—not something I’d done in a while. Over the top there was a momentary stick shaker, then it was down the back side. I tried my best to stay on heading, but during the 4-G pull-out I could see that I came off track by around 20 degrees. That concerned me less than the vestibular goings-on at the moment. Earlier, Smails suggested I eat a banana. (“It tastes the same going down as it does coming up.”) But I’m happy to say that this was a barf-free flight.

The air-to-air combat scenario was a challenge. This is a virtual exercise where an instructor can put up to 10 enemy aircraft at once on a display screen. These show up as small “bricks,” and from his backseat perch Smails could make them turn this way and that, simulating evasive moves. My job was to lock up the “bogeys” using the dedicated HOTAS controls on the power lever. That means jinking this way and that until the “ladder” symbol is on the target. Then the target turns into a triangular symbol within a circle. Steer close to that, squeeze the trigger, and with any luck you’ll get a “kill.” I wasn’t lucky that day, and my luck didn’t hold up with the air-to-ground bombing either. The “no-drop scoring” software kept track of my virtual sharpshooting accuracy on yet another display, obviating the need for firing real weapons and sparing any actual airplanes or silos from being blown up in combat training. I’m pretty sure I flunked, though. Smails consoled me by explaining that it takes practice, something that a military student would have in great supply by the time he or she reached this final stage of T–6C training.

The weather came down to 2,000 feet overcast, so this gave me the chance to fly an ILS approach to the Newton, Kansas City/County Airport’s Runway 35. The airplane excels in instrument conditions and it helps that you have three separate sources of nav guidance—from a planview on a panel display, an HSI on the PFD, and the HUD. I flew the HUD. It was very intuitive—just nail the crosshairs to stay on localizer and glideslope. To the right you can see your altitude, at the left of the HUD there’s your airspeed, and there’s angle of attack guidance as well. ILS approaches are flown at 120 knots fully configured, slowing to 110 knots on short final, a flare at 105 knots, and a touchdown at 100 knots. There’s no reverse thrust. Oh, and no autopilot, either.

For the return to Beech Field, we flew an overhead approach. For this, you fly over the landing runway, tooling along at 200 knots. Halfway down the runway, pull a couple Gs to turn downwind, go to idle power in the turn, lower gear and flaps on downwind as speed bleeds off, then turn to final when abeam the numbers. This gives you 120 knots as you roll out on final. It’s a maneuver meant to minimize your time in the air when that close to the ground, and it looks cool, too.

During the debrief, some of the Textron Defense team recalled their times delivering T–6s to foreign customers and making ocean crossings using the optional external fuel tanks—which give you an extra 800 pounds of fuel. These trips happen frequently. The T–6C’s popularity issues from the fact that it’s docile and easy to fly, yet challenging to fly precisely. To help with that, Textron provides instructor pilots to teach the customers’ instructors, plus a lot of other support, such as simulation, spares, mechanic training, and kits for night vision, weapons, and much more. Sometimes, support staff are embedded with customers’ air operations.

Then we ventured into the hypothetical. Is there a general aviation market? It’s a macho airplane, with speed, range, a pressurized cabin, and even luggage capacity. The cockpit is military to the max. It can power anti-G suits. It’s aerobatic, would draw gawkers on every ramp, and dummy weapons pods would only add to the appeal. And it’s new—not an aging warbird. It’s not certified for civilian use, so features such as the OBOGS, the weapons software, and ejection seats would certainly raise eyebrows. Would taking them out be the answer?

So, of course, the T–6C would appeal to general aviation customers. But how many? With deals to client militaries, price varies depending on the details of each transaction. But there are individuals who could, and would, ante up the necessary millions. Raise your hand if you’re up for an airplane with attitude.

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Thomas A. Horne

Thomas A. Horne

AOPA Pilot Editor at Large
AOPA Pilot Editor at Large Tom Horne has worked at AOPA since the early 1980s. He began flying in 1975 and has an airline transport pilot and flight instructor certificates. He’s flown everything from ultralights to Gulfstreams and ferried numerous piston airplanes across the Atlantic.

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