The Military Way of Flying the Texan/SNJ

By:       Norm Goyer

They didn’t call the Texan the Pilot Maker because it was a pussy cat to fly, in fact, just the opposite, it was and is, not an aircraft for the faint of heart. Cessna 172 and Piper Warrior pilots should not jump in and go fly. Unless you have had some intensive instruction from an accomplished Six pilot/instructor.

The North American AT-6 Texan, Navy SNJ, Canadian Harvard and Australian Wirraway are acknowledged as one of the most significant aircraft in the history of aviation.

Of all the aircraft I have flown, The Texan is my all time favorite; it’s a REAL airplane. I was arranging my research library recently and came across a copy of the original Army Air Force Training Manual for the AT-6 series of aircraft. The AAF version of the North American AT-6 Texan was first flown in 1937. The Texan is often referred to as “the most universally used aircraft in history.” I wouldn’t advise calling it “only a trainer” to the Aussie pilot who shot down a Japanese Zero or the Air Force pilot who shot down a North Korean aircraft while flying Texans. It was also used by many third world countries as their only fighting aircraft, when equipped with multiple machine guns and bomb and missle hard points under the wings. The first Texan (AT-6A) had a retractable rear canopy, with the gunner facing backwards firing a 30 cal machine gun on a swivel mount. The last Texans (AT-6F/SNJ-6) had a clear rear canopy and fewer cross braces on the sliding canopy which greatly improving visibility. Canada also built hundreds of Harvards their version of the Texan. The Harvards differed outwardly by having no wheel covers; they did gathered too much mud, snow and ice. The control stick had the British style round control stick top and a floor board mounted compass, more like a gimbal mounted ship compass. Australia also built Wirraways, their version of the Texan. The Wirraway had a fabric covered rear fuselage rather than metal covered. Every version of the Texan were outstanding aircraft. There is a saying amongst military pilots, that if you could handle a Texan you could step into any single engine fighter in he world without any dual and fly it safely; most were far easier to
fly than the Texan. They furthered their claim by stating that the advanced trainer should have been the Mustang because it was so much easier to fly than the Texan.

I have owned four Texans, an SNJ-4/AT-6D, the most widely produced version, an AT-6G which had been rebuilt from an AT-6D for Korea. The changes were many and in my opinion the “G” model was the least fun to fly, it was much too heavy. But I did like the larger gas tanks and improved radio side-shelf installation. My favorites were the two SNJ-6/AT-6F that I restored in California. I owned the first two back in Massachusetts and flew them out of Atwood Airport in Northampton, Massachusetts and Turners Fall Airport near the Vermont state line. I considered any flight I made a waste of time if my SNJ didn’t scare the hell out of me. I learned more about flying, while tooling around the High Desert, than in any aircraft or with any instructor I ever had. I even had the opportunity to maintain and fly a a modified AT-6D, Hollywood Zero featured in “Tora Tora Tora” , “Baa Baa Black Sheep”, Disney’s “Pearl Harbor” to mention a few. This Zero look-alike flew like a Texan. but the retractable full-swivel tail wheel made me long for the lockable tail wheels on my Navy SNJs.

Texans race in their own class at the Reno Air Races and used in aerobatic acts. They are large, loud and the crowds love them.

I flew my Sixes mostly from grass runways on the East Coast and hard top runways on the west coast. There is no comparison, the Texans love grass and hate crosswinds. Now my pet peeve, Civilian Texan pilots who checked out in a Texan rather than having learned to fly in the service, seem to prefer wheel-landings because they are far easier to perform. The Texan was not designed to wheel land, it was designed for full-stall landings at a minimum airspeed. Flying the plane onto the ground, as in a wheel landing, only means, you have not landed the airplane, it is still flying with the wheels on-the-ground, barely. Of the four Texans I have owned, three of the new owners rolled them up in a ball making wheel landings. The moment of truth usually occurs when the tail comes down, the empennage (tail) is blanked-out by the huge wing and the airplane looses control input for a few critical seconds. If the wheel landing were made in a crosswind, then the possibility of a high-speed ground loop is very possible with severe damage. If you make a crosswind full-stall landing at minimum airspeed and you loose it, the plane might go around, drag a wingtip, but the damage is usually minimum.

This photo shows Wirraways being constructed in Australia during World War II. An Aussie pilot shot down a Zero while flying a Wirraway.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to fly an SNJ-4 and all the joys of flying a “Real Airplane” instantly returned. Long live the Texan and the new turboprop trainer, the Texan II.

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