No one knows for sure how many pilots have learned to fly on the legendary North American AT-6 HARVARD/TEXAN. The hundred thousand benchmark has certainly been exceeded. No other training aircraft has had a longer career, than this single-engine low-wing monoplane. The predecessor of the HARVARD had it's maiden flight in April 1935, under the designation NA-16 (NA simply stands for North American). The NA-16 still used a fixed undercarriage and was powered by a Wright R-975 WHIRLWIND radial engine rated at 400 HP. The classic design as a low wing monoplane with tandem seats was among other features responsible for it's success. With this configuration the new trainer fitted perfectly in it's role, as it fulfilled the requirement for an aircraft very similar to the current development of modern military aircraft.
Various Air Forces were equipped with the AT-6, amongst others it was the standard training aircraft for the newly formed Federal German Luftwaffe. Altogether 135 aircrafts (HARVARD Mk. IVs), licence produced by the Canadian company Canadian Car & Foundry were purchased in 1957. The official designation within the Luftwaffe was NAA 57. The German pilots called it the TEXAN (instead of the more common known name HARVARD) – a clear indication for the tight knots between them and their new found American allies. One of the biggest operators of the SIX (outside US) was the South African Air Force (SAAF). The first batch of three aircraft were delivered in March 1940 for evaluation (HARVARD Mk.I). Between 1942 and 1945 the SAAF received no less than 633 HARVARD Mk. IIs as well as Mk. IIIs. They formed the Joint Air Training Scheme which was responsible not only for pilot training of the SAAF, but also for thousands of young pilots coming from the whole Commonwealth.
A vast majority of these aircraft were purchased under the Lend & Lease contract, which means that they were returned after the end of World War 2. Nevertheless a huge number remained in the SAAF service and were not merely used as basic and advanced trainers, but also as light attack aircraft (COIN = counter insurgency). Most of theses aircraft saw action within the Angolan conflict. In the Korean war some HARVARD/TEXANS were converted and renamed as T-6 MOSQUITO respectively as LT-6G and were used in the close air support/surveillance role within the USAF. The French Air Force used the AT-6 for combat missions in Algeria (one of these aircraft equipped with unguided rocket pods is exhibited in the Mus‚e de l'Air et de l'Espace at the Le Bourget airport).
The very last active AT-6 was withdrawn from service within the SAAF on the 26th of October 1995 – after more than 50 years of uninterrupted service. This record can be explained by the fact, that the Republic of South Africa was restricted from purchasing modern military hardware by the sanctions which had been imposed by the United Nations until the begin of the 1990's. The SIX is classified as a very reliable aircraft. The vast majority of all accidents which have happened with this plane were due to pilot error or sloppiness of maintenance. One reason for the reliability of the AT-6 is its Pratt & Whitney WASP R-1349-AN-1 9-cylinder radial engine. This 550 HP strong powerplant propels a two-bladed Hamilton Standard metal prop with constant speed, which provides the AT-6 with her remarkable sound. As the speed of the propeller tips reaches supersonic it generates an ear-deafening sound. The AT-6`s configuration is rather conventional. A steel tube frame is the matrix, the wings are self-supporting. The covering is done with aluminium, only the control surfaces are covered with fabric. The stable landing gear is mounted in a forward position, which reduces the danger of ground loops. The pilots seat is positioned relatively high and provides the pilot with a more or less good visibility – at least while flying. The instrument panel is built similar to the ones from military combat aircraft, which gives the young pilot a run when he converts to the real thing.
The information about the total amount of manufactured AT-6s differs between 16.000 and almost 21.000 aircraft. One reason for this big deviation is the fact, that the AT-6 wasn't only manufactured by North American Aviation Ltd., but was also license built by several companies in several different countries (UK, Australia, Canada, Australia, Sweden, etc.). Many AT-6s were used as a kind of spare part dispenser and/or rebuilt by using different airframes (cannibalisation). Another criteria for aviation historians is the fact, that the HARVARD was built in more that 200! different subtyps and variants, with, sometimes, only minor differences to be seen from outside. Also the various designations, even within the US -Forces are more than misleading. The original term used by the manufacturer was NA-26, the first aircraft, which was delivered to the USAAF was named BC-1 (BC stands for Basic Combat). A bit later it was renamed as AT-6 (AT stands for Advanced trainer). The US Navy named their aircraft as SNJ. The British gave her the name HARVARD, in Sweden she was called Sk14 and in Canada she was named (for a short time) YALE. Less known is the fact that the Imperial-Japanese Navy used modified AT-6s (under the designation K5Y1) as well as the former Luftwaffe, which seized some of the HARVARDS purchased by the French Government between 1939 and 40 for the Arm‚e de lAir as well as the A‚ronavale. According to unconfirmed sources app. 200+ aircraft where flown with the Iron cross on their wings.
The AT-6 isn't difficult to fly, nevertheless she is no sweet-tempered machine, who forgives a pilot every error. Especially crosswinds can cause serious trouble to untrained novice pilots while landing. This airplanes weights over 2,5 tons which requires careful handling at all times. An error is accepted (if even) with reluctance. This begins even before one starts the engine. The right primer determines, if your exhaust generates lots of black smoke or bright flames (neither is good). When the radial is running (oil-pressure, oil-temperature and the cylinder-head temperature provided), the trims as well as the prop are correctly adjusted one can head on (towards the next problem). Due to the sheer size of this aircraft ground handling is a bit tricky. Significantly older models do have a fixed tail wheel. The visibility outside the cockpit is limited while taxying , this is why S-turning is essential. If one is in the starting position (not to forget to fix the tail wheel) increase the manifold pressure up to 2,48 bar, which corresponds to 2250 rpm. If the rotation speed is correct one can hear this clearly by the propellers sound (when the propeller blade tips reaches supersonic speed it generates a remarkable noisy sound). When releasing the brakes the aircraft accelerates smoothly. After reaching app. 300 m (depends on the load, headwind etc.) the tail lifts off gently (never force the tail to lift off, otherwise you might get a nasty surprise)
Shortly after the tail is off, the aircraft takes off almost automatically. For the climb the manifold pressure is reduced to some 2,0 bar, which means an engine speed of app. 2000 rpm. After retracting the landing gear as well as the flaps the HARVARD is in its element. The most economic speed of the AT-6 is between 250 – 270 km/h, which is reached at a manifold pressure of 1 ,8 bar and an engine speed of 1750 rpm. At full manifold pressure and level flight the Harvard achieves some 340 km/h max speed. The AT-6 is also capable of aerobatic flying, nevertheless one should always have enough airspace between the SIX and the ground when doing aerobatics (which is actually recommended for any kind of aerobatic flying). When one decides to land this should be done in typical military style: flying over the runway and bank at 60 degrees making a 180ř turn. When you are back in level extend the landing gear. About 2 miles away from the landing point bank again and put the flaps down (between 40 – 45ř; this doesn't actually reduce the airspeed but brings you to the right angle of descent). The airspeed should be reduced to app 150 km/h (take care, the aircraft will stall at 112 km/h). When touching down, watch out for crosswinds ! This short explanation of how to fly an AT-6 doesn't cover all aspects and details of this remarkable aircraft. Every pilot, who learned to fly on a HARVARD still remembers some features of his machine and will probably not completely agree with some of the settings or other informations provided above. A quite interesting fact , that most pilots agreed with is that the Harvard was much more demanding to fly then sophisticated fighter aircraft, like the North American P-51 MUSTANG or the Grumman F-8 BEARCAT.
Although the AT-6 is not any longer in active service, some 300+ aircraft are still in airworthy conditions. Former SAAF HARVARD were in especially good conditions when they were withdrawn from service, so they found their way into private hands. Another reason, why so many HARVARD are still flying, is their relatively low operating costs. One flying hour costs between 300 – 600 Euros (depending on the price of fuel, spare parts are of cause extra). Apropos spare parts: due to the fact that the HARVARD was used almost worldwide a huge stockpile of spare parts is still available. A few private aerobatic teams flying HARVARD still wow millions of spectators all over the world , like the Australian Southern Knights, the US American GEICO Skytypers, the Canadian Harvard Aerobatic Team or the South African Flying Lions, just to mention a few.
A very significant collection is based on the Zwartkop AB in South Africa. The HARVARD CLUB (est. in 1992) owns no less than 10 Aircraft of this type, used mainly for pleasure flights. These aircraft are part of the National Heritage of South Africa, which is equivalent to the German preservation order. All AT-6 are former SAAF aircraft, which still wear their SAAF colours. A pleasure flight lasts app. 20 – 30 minutes and costs no more than 1800 ZAR (South African Rand, which is according to the current rate of exchange some 170 Euro). By paying this mite the passengers pays no more than the actual price for the fuel. All pilots as well as the maintenance team are volunteers, who have lots of fun and joy to work with these historical aircraft. The aircraft's condition is absolutely fine, safety and maintenance is the highest priority. Whoever plans a visit to Johannesburg or Pretoria should not miss out a visit at Zwartkop (as there is an incredible museum as well, featuring almost all aircraft flown by the SAAF). Due to the huge rush it is highly recommended to book the flight at least a week in advance. More details can be found on the HARVARD CLUB`s website: http://www.theharvardclub.co.za/.
The North American AT-6 HARVARD/TEXAN is for sure one of the legends of aviation. In contrast to most of the other famous aircraft there are still plenty of AT-6 in airworthy conditions, which can be seen at several airshows (worldwide). As the SIX is a double, passengers can book a pleasure flight on these warbirds. If one can also see the beautiful South Africa scenic passing by underneath the great experience can not be excelled, especially if the whole story doesn't cost that much!
This article is dedicated to Laurie Kay, who past the way much too early in 2013. Laurie was a great human being, a real gentleman and a fantastic aviator. I was lucky to fly on the backseat of a HARVARD with Laurie on the controls, an experience I will never forget!
If you want to get further information about the SAAF`s AT-6 Harvard we highly recommend the following book:
+++ Facta Nostra Vivent Memories from the South African Air Force Central Flying School 1922-1995 +++
Authour: Andrew Embleton
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