Go to any western airshow or museum, and inevitably you will come across a T-6 ‘Harvard’. Most of the SNJ’s and AT-6’s were manufactured in the Dallas Texas North American factory. For this reason, the AT-6 is also called the ‘Texan.’ We explore ‘the world’s best built aircraft’.
Designed by North American Aviation, the T-6 is known by a variety of designations and names depending on the model and operating air force.
The United States Army Air Corps (USAAC) and USAAF designated it as the AT-6, the United States Navy as the SNJ, and the British Commonwealth air forces called it the Harvard.
Lesser known names include the Mosquito, The Window Breaker and The Pilot Maker.
In 1937, North American Aviation won a competition for a fixed landing gear basic combat trainer for the USAAC, designated as the NA-26 that called for 174 aircraft.
Production models were known as the BC-1 with a few notable changes.
The metal-framed BC-1 had a metal skin on wings and tail unit, fabric-covered control surfaces and mainly fabric-covered fuselage. There was a Pratt and Whitney R-1340 nine cylinder Wasp radial up front, and an inwardly retracting undercarriage.
With demand spurred on by the urgent needs of WW2, the aircraft was produced in several versions and flew with many arms, with production continuing long after WW2.
Based on NA-77 and NA-78 designs, the USAAC designated the aircraft as the AT-6A (Advanced Trainer), and the U.S. Navy as the SNJ. (The S standing for ‘Scout’, N designation was for trainer, J was for North American with the 1 representing the first trainer built for the Navy), the most common of these being the SNJ-3, SNJ-4, SNJ-5 and SNJ-6.
Fitted with a landing hook (Arrestor gear), SNJ’s played an important role in the development of the modern aircraft carrier when it was utilized in 1953 to test day/night touch-and-go and arrested landings and takeoffs.
USAAC aircraft used the Pratt & Whitney R-1340-49 Wasp radial engine, while the R-1340-38s powered the Navy aircraft. The USAAC received 1847 AT-6As, while the Navy received 270 SNJ-3s. It was re-designated T-6 in 1948 by the new United States Air Force (USAF), with the United States Navy (USN) following suit much later in 1962.
Although the AT-6 was designed as a transition trainer between basic trainers and first-line tactical aircraft, training several hundred thousand pilots in 34 different countries over a period of 25 years, the T-6 also won honours in World War II and in the early days of the Korean War.
Although designed as a low-cost trainer with all the characteristics of a high-speed fighter, but not as fast as a fighter, the T-6 was easy to maintain and repair, had more manoeuvrability and was easier to handle. A real pilot’s aeroplane, it could roll, do Immelmanns, loop, spin, snap and perform vertical rolls.
It was designed to give the best possible training in all types of tactics, from ground strafing, bombing and aerial dogfighting. Thus it contained versatile equipment such as bomb racks, IFR flying instrumentation, gun and standard cameras, fixed and flexible guns, and just about every other device that military pilots had to operate.
British interest in the Texan design was piqued as early as 1938 when it ordered 200 under the designation Harvard Mk I for service in Southern Rhodesia training under the Commonwealth Air Training Program. The Harvard Mk I (5,000+ built) design was modelled after the early BC-1 design, the subsequent Harvard Mk II utilised the improvements of the AT-6 models. In 1944, the AT-6D design was adopted by the RAF and named the Harvard MK III. This version was used to train pilots in instrument training in the inclement British weather and for senior officers to log required airtime.
Much to the chagrin of the Air Force High Command, the Harvard “hack” was often used for non-military activities like joy-riding and unofficial jaunts across the English countryside.
NAVAL AND OTHER VERSIONS
SNJ-1 versions of the BC-1 went to the US Navy, while deliveries of the BC-1s to the RAF started in December 1938, these aircraft being called Harvard 1s by the British Commonwealth. The BC-1A, and subsequent versions, had a revised rudder shape, blunt wingtips and a metal-covered fuselage, with one exception, which had a wooden fuselage.
The AT-6B and the AT-6C (SNJ-IV and Harvard 2A) was redesigned with, among other changes, a wood rear fuselage in case of strategic material shortages during WW2.
However there were no shortages and the standard structure was reverted back to metal. The AT-6D/SNJ-5/Harvard III, which with AT-6A and C versions and their SNJ and Harvard equivalents formed the basis of nearly all WW2 contracts.
During 1946, the Canadian Car and Foundry company developed the Harvard Mk IV trainer to the specifications of the T-6G and produced 285 T-6Js under the same design for the USAF Mutual Aid Program.
The T-6G, saw major improvements in increased fuel capacity, an improved cockpit layout, as well as a steerable tailwheel. U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy forces in the Korean War modified the Texan under the LT-6G designation and employed it in combat for forward air control of propeller and jet-powered strike aircraft.
Spain utilized the armed T-6 in combat during the Sahara conflict for patrol and counter-insurgency operations. France made extensive combat use of armed T-6 aircraft during the Algerian conflict. Although the U.S. retired the T-6 from active duty by the end of the 1950’s, several nations, including Spain, South Africa, Brazil, China, and Venezuela, utilized “the pilot maker” as their basic trainer well into the 1980s.
A total of 15,495 aircraft were manufactured.
The start of the Second World War in 1939 caught the SAAF totally unprepared. New flying schools had been established at Pretoria, Germiston, Bloemfontein and Baragwanath, while a training command under Lieutenant Colonel W.T.B. Tasker would oversee the SAAF’s overall training programme.
The South African Air Force received their first T-6s in October 1942 to be used by the Joint Air Training Scheme. By July 1944, 633 Harvard Mk IIA T-6s and IIIs had been shipped to South Africa with another 555 (379 MkIIAs and 176 Mk IIIs) to arrive by October 1945. Another 65 (AT-6Ds and 30 T-6Gs) were ordered between 1952 and 1956.
The T-6 remained in service until 1995 as a basic trainer, mainly as a result of the United Nations arms embargo against South Africa’s apartheid policies. They were later replaced by Pilatus PC-7 MkII turboprop trainers.
With the establishment of the Joint Air Training Scheme (JATS), 38 South African based air schools would be employed to train Royal Air Force, SAAF and other allied air and ground crews. Aircraft and other equipment required for the training was provided to South Africa free of charge by the United Kingdom. Under this scheme, the SAAF, by September 1941, increased the total number of military aircraft to 1,709 while the personnel strength had grown to 31,204, including 956 pilots. During its five year existence, the JATS was ultimately to turn out a total of 33,347 aircrew, including 12,221 SAAF personnel.