Smoke On Go

85 years of the T6 Harvard

With its distinctive rasping sound from the propeller and generating large amounts of smoke, the Harvard still flies in our skies today.

Images: Jeff Latham

Designed by North American Aviation (NAA), the T-6 is known by a variety of designations and names depending on the model and the operating air force. AT-6s were manufactured in a North American factory in Dallas, Texas and it is for this reason the aircraft is also called the Texan.

The US Navy refers to it as the SNJ. However the British Royal Air Force and most of the British Commonwealth countries all call it the Harvard. Lesser known names include the Mosquito, The Window Breaker and The Pilot Maker.

Early years

In 1937, NAA won a tender for 174 trainer aircraft with retractable gear for the USAAF. Designated ‘basic combat trainer’, the T-6 aircraft was metal-framed on the wings and tail unit with fabric-covered control surfaces and powered by  a Pratt & Whitney radial engine.

British interest in the Texan design was piqued as early as 1938 when they first ordered 200 aircraft for service in Southern Rhodesia to be used for training under the Commonwealth Air Training plan. In December 1938, the British Commonwealth received its first Harvard Mk Is and these aircraft are considered by many as the first true Harvard.

The Harvard is powered by the Pratt & Whitney R-1340 Wasp producing 600hp.

Although the T-6 was designed as a transition trainer, the aircraft also won honours during combat in WWII and in the early days of the Korean War. Harvards and Texans trained several hundred thousand pilots in 34 different countries over a period of 25 years.

The Harvard and the South African Air Force

Harvards arrived in South Africa in late 1939. At that stage the SAAF was using the de Havilland DH82 Tiger Moth as its basic trainer. Training on the Harvard began in 1940. By July 1944, 633 Harvard Mk IIA and III aircraft had been shipped to South Africa for use by the Joint Air Training  Scheme schools. However, only 555 Harvards survived by October 1945, made up of 379 MkIIAs and 176 Mk IIIs.

300 Harvards were shipped back to the UK in 1946 with the remainder being purchased by the SAAF. An additional 65 American T-6 Harvards were purchased from the US during 1952 1956.

These 10 aircrafts were declared cultural treasures and can be identified by the following SAAF numbers: 7024, 7028, 7059, 7152, 7156, 7166, 7306, 7592, 7643 and 7661. A contract exists stating no less than six aircraft will always be kept in their original SAAF colour schemes.

“The National Monuments Commission hereby declares 10 Harvard aircraft to be cultural treasures on account of the historical and technical importance thereof…”

‘The Flying Lions’ aerobatic formation team

Using the Harvard, the Flying Lions Aerobatic Team is the most well known South African formation aerobatic team around today, performing at many airshows around the country. Originally formed by Arnie Meneghelli in 1999 with Scully Levin, the team first flew as a three-ship team and later as a four-ship team. A fifth aircraft is always present as a backup.

The team is currently sponsored by Puma Energy and four of the aircraft are ex-SAAF aircraft with numbers 7475, 7695, 7188 and 7609. The fifth aircraft is an ex-Mozambique T-6G, aircraft number 1754. Pilots are Scully Levin, Ellis Levin, Arnie Meneghelli and Sean Thackwray.

Last of the T-6s

In 1952, the last orders for the T6 were placed by the USAF and 121 aircraft designated NA-195 and NA-197 were supplied, ending the manufacture of the Harvard. Today, more than 600 T-6 Texans remain in airworthy condition. Most are based in North America. A total of 15,495 T-6 Harvard/Texan aircraft were manufactured.

Flying a Harvard is not for ‘Wussies’ – Ellis Levin, the Puma Flying Lions

Starting her requires a bit of dexterity, and for the first few starts you will feel like you need an extra hand. Once you have set the brakes to on, you hook your right leg around the stick and use your leg to hold the stick fully back. With the mixture fully rich, pitch fully coarse and the throttle cracked a quarter inch or so, you can start wobbling the manual fuel pump which is located slightly forward and below your left thigh.

Once you have acquired fuel pressure, you need to maintain the pressure by continuing to wobble the pump while at the same time priming. Once the priming is complete, maintain the fuel pressure and engage the starter motor. As the oil pressure rises you can move the pitch to fully fine and gently throttle back to idle. She will “splutter and fart” a bit during the start cycle but eventually smooth out. Set 1,000RPM when the start is complete. Hardest part over!

Taxiing requires small rudder inputs to keep her straight but nonetheless you need to be pretty cat foot. A Harvard has a lot of inertia, so once you get her going in a direction, a bit of effort is required to stop her from going in that direction or changing her direction completely.

For take-off get the cards stacked in your favour. Make sure you have her lined up straight and that you are sitting as high as possible. There are adjustable seats in the Harvard, and although I am fairly tall, I always have my seat set at the maximum up position.

Open the throttle carefully with a count of four. If you whack the throttle open too quickly, she will splutter and cough and the engine may even cut. Small rudder applications are required to keep her straight as she gently accelerates down the runway. Despite having a 550-horsepower engine she is somewhat underpowered and is not considered a high-performance war bird. At 40 knots you can raise the tail. A slight swing to the left due to gyroscopic precession can be expected which is easily countered with right rudder. Rotate at 70 knots. After you are safely airborne, cleaned up and climbing away, climb power can be set, which is 26 inches, 2,000RPM.

When landing a Harvard there are two options, the wheeler or the three pointer. It seems that wheelers are the choice of most pilots, three pointers being done on occasion for fun or practice. The wheeler technique is pretty straightforward.

Arrest the rate of descent by levelling off just above the ground, chop the power and slowly increase the angle of attack as the speed bleeds off. Let her settle before the angle of attack becomes too great, causing you to land in the three point attitude. As the main wheels touch, check forward on the stick. More and more forward stick will be required to keep the tail up as the speed bleeds off. Eventually the tail will start coming down regardless and you can relax the forward pressure.

This is when the “shit usually hits the fan”. As the tail comes down the nose swings to the right. Again, this is caused by gyroscopic precession. With the low speed and the engine at idle, your rudder isn’t as effective as on the take-off roll.

You need to really have your “finger out” as a lot of pilots have let a Harvard get away from them at this point of the landing roll. Some manage to bring it back from the brink of a ground loop, others don’t.

Harvard Specs

Crew: Two
Range: 1,175km (630 n/miles)
Length: 8,83m
Maximum speed: 208mph (335km/h, 181knots)
at 5000ft. (1,500m)
Cruise speed: 145mph (233km/h, 126 knots)
Wingspan: 13m
Weight: 1,886kg
Engine type: Pratt & Whitney R-1340 Wasp
rated at 600hp (450kW)
Armament: Provision for up to 3 × 0.30in
(7.62mm) machine guns




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