Flight test: North American Aviation T-6 Harvard

PUBLISHED: 15:00 22 April 2020 | UPDATED: 15:00 22 April 2020

North American Aviation T-6 Harvard

North American Aviation T-6 Harvard

Keith Wilson

A big ol’ beast with a bit of a reputation, does the Harvard still make sense as a trainer for would-be warbird pilots in 2020? Words: Bob Davey - Photos: Keith Wilson

Despite a rise in the number of eastern bloc military aircraft in the west in the ’90s, for many GA pilots the most accessible WWII ‘warbird’ remains the North American T-6 trainer, christened Harvard by the British.

So does the T-6 still make a good training machine for GA pilots aspiring to fly warbirds−or, with all the other tailwheel aircraft available, is there perhaps a better/cheaper way?

To rephrase the question, why do underwriters always ask you how much T-6 time you’ve got when getting insured to fly a WWII fighter? The subject came up recently because I wanted to put a friend on the policy for my Yak-3 (an aeroplane Bob will be writing about very soon, we hope−Ed).

I explained to my insurer this guy’s list of achievements−I won’t list them all here, but they include 1,000-plus hours of instructing on high performance tailwheel aircraft, and international aerobatic competition wins. “How many hours does he have on the T-6?” was the reply.

North American Aviation T-6 HarvardNorth American Aviation T-6 Harvard

Actually the answer is “enough!” because he’s just started instructing on one, but it raised the question again. In fact the more detailed insurance requirement for playing fighter pilots is five to ten hours on the Harvard with a rear-seat checkout.

The T-6’s back seat is roughly the same distance from the propeller as a Spitfire or P-51 Mustang’s and the view out is worse than from either of these−or even the Yak-3/9. One hackneyed old wives’ tale is that if you flew a Spitfire for five hours you’d probably be good enough to fly a Harvard.

Another one is that the only reason the Harvard was put in front of the Spitfire or Mustang on the training course was that the Harvard was cheaper to crash! Let’s go see if it’s true.

And so we find ourselves at Earls Colne with G-TSIX (yes, really). Although guns and bombs were bolted to them sporadically, the T-6 is actually a military trainer like the British Tiger Moth, Miles Magister and higher-powered (and long forgotten) Master counterparts.

North American Aviation T-6 HarvardNorth American Aviation T-6 Harvard

G-TSIX is a famous machine: built in 1942 in North America, it was allocated to the RAF and saw service in South Africa and Portugal before being campaigned on the UK airshow circuit for decades.

It was bought recently by Kevin Barber of anglianwarbirds.co.uk Through his company, Anglian Flight Centres, Kevin has also bought Earls Colne airfield to go with the aeroplane, alongside a Yak-52 and a Tiger Moth. Operating this trio is just the beginning of what Kev plans to do with this wartime military airfield, located in Essex, close to the Roman Garrison city of Colchester. An excellent place it is too, with a great atmosphere, nice cafe and friendly faces.

Scaling up the side

After a thirty-minute briefing with camera ship pilot Peter Brand and T-6 instructor Nigel Willson−and photographer Keith Wilson, of course−I find myself scaling up the side of what turns out to be a remarkably original 1942 aircraft with beautiful, unrestored patina, particularly inside the cockpits.

North American Aviation T-6 HarvardNorth American Aviation T-6 Harvard

In my book all old aircraft should be like this: take a close look at Keith’s detail shots. There are many original components, even Portuguese placards from fifty years back in its history. And I wish someone would invent magazines that you could sniff to go with the words. Put it this way, if the cockpit aroma of G-TSIX was available in a bottle, I’d wear it.

Getting into a T-6 really is a climb−I have to admit to getting a bit of vertigo. To get into the rear cockpit you grab the little four-inch footstep blade for the front cockpit that sprouts from the side of the fuselage, then pull yourself up onto the wing, turn round and put all your faith in the purchase of one foot on the steeply inclined wing while reaching with the other for the similarly small and sharp footstep blade on the side of the rear cockpit, then swing yourself inside.

The steps wouldn’t pass today’s ’elf ’n ’ safety regs but I figure that since they have been there for 75 years it’s better to not be a wuss and trust them.

Today I’m not going in the back but in the front to experience what it’s like to be the PIC (in this case U/T−under training−with Nigel of course). The cockpits are predictably massive inside and at first glance it would seem that some of the levers and knobs have been stolen from a ship or a steam train.

North American Aviation T-6 HarvardNorth American Aviation T-6 Harvard

It’s a typical North American product, though with everything laid out in a logical way. There are some oddities: for example the flight manual says you can only get forty gallons in each wing tank with the tail down, whereas with the tail up you can get 46 in (I wonder how that can be).

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Service abroad

This AT-6C-NT Texan was constructed for the USAAF in November 1942 in Dallas USA. It was shipped across the Atlantic, allocated to the RAF as a Harvard IIA, and later served with the South African Air Force until 1969.

Then it was sold to the Portuguese Air Force, used as a gunnery trainer at Sao Jacinto, until 1978 when it was struck off charge. In 1979 it was shipped back to the UK and placed on the British Register and given the apt registration – G-TSIX. The current paintjob is in US Navy SNJ markings as 111836/JZ.

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My estimation is that the weight on the tailwheel of a T-6 is around a third of a ton so unless you’re flying with a contestant from World’s Strongest Man competition or carry a crane in your flight bag, knowing that you can get in more fuel if you lift the tail is not a lot of use.

North American Aviation T-6 HarvardNorth American Aviation T-6 Harvard

This cockpit layout of this early model doesn’t have much commonality with the North American P-51, which followed the T-6 in production. (Later T-6s had a standardised cockpit layout to help ease the transition from trainer to ‘pursuit ship’.)

With Nigel standing on the wing to advise, I go about getting the engine started. First, check the parking brake T handle is pulled out (which means it’s on); right electrics panel battery switch on; check the propeller lever is set fully coarse and the throttle is closed; and mixture lever to rich, fuel to left tank.

Then wobble the fuel pump for pressure, four primes on the Ki-gass primer, one full prime on the throttle and set to one inch open. Here’s where you need at least three limbs: hold the stick back with right hand, operate the floor-mounted starter with either foot, and once four blades go past flick the mags to both with the left hand.

Once the engine fires and oil pressure is present, move the propeller to full fine and set 1,000rpm with the throttle. I notice that the throttle doesn’t actually have much travel to control such a big engine, just like a Merlin-engined Spitfire. A few ancillaries to bring on line, including the generator and avionics and we are ready to go, once Nigel clambers into the back.

North American Aviation T-6 HarvardNorth American Aviation T-6 Harvard

I am acutely aware of not blowing away any aircraft behind me as I gingerly open the throttle to persuade this brute to move. Initially we track forward and I am pleased how accurately I am steering, until I realise that the tailwheel lock is engaged!

Pushing the joystick forwards releases it, transforming us into what feels like an overloaded supermarket trolley. This thing wants to go anywhere except where I point it, and in this respect it’s considerably more difficult than a P-51. Initiating a turn in any direction is easy, but stopping it requires full opposite rudder and plenty of opposite toe brake−you don’t need to use brake in a Mustang.

One old wives’ tale looking like it could be true then. Bring the stick back and it all gets sensible again as the tailwheel lock drives home. Think of a disc of metal fixed horizontally around the shaft of the tailwheel leg with a hole in it.

Above it hovers a pin - when tracking straight the pin lines up and drops down into the hole, locking the tailwheel. Move the stick all the way forward in the cockpit and the pin rises out of the hole, unlocking the tailwheel.

North American Aviation T-6 HarvardNorth American Aviation T-6 Harvard

The engine run up is pretty standard: I open up to 1,600 rpm, check the mags, carb heat and propeller function, then I advance the throttle to see if I can get the same manifold pressure as there was with the engine off, assuming I’d remembered to look (ahem, I didn’t, so I glance at the altimeter scale in inches.)

With the run-up and vital actions complete I taxi onto Earls Colne’s narrow tarmac and run forward a few feet with the stick back to make sure the tailwheel is locked again before opening up slowly to 36 inches manifold. The nine-foot diameter propeller’s tips go transonic at around 2,400rpm. That’s why noise abatement departures are at 2,250rpm.

The aircraft is now growling and shaking with power but outside the scenery doesn’t do much at first. I raise the tail for a better look forward, catching the gentle gyroscopic left swing with right rudder.

Finally at eighty knots she is ready to fly and as I pull the stick back I have to be sure that the aircraft is going to stay airborne as it bounces intermittently on the tarmac, lest I put the gear up too early.

North American Aviation T-6 HarvardNorth American Aviation T-6 Harvard

I push the hydraulic power lever to the rear of the throttle quadrant and down to energise the hydraulics for thirty seconds, and then lift and raise the big undercarriage lever sprouting from the left shelf (in contrast to the later T-6s’ floor-mounted ‘out-and-up’ lever à la P-51).

Two little mechanical sliding tabs bottom left of the main panel show the wheels retracting but there are also two lights and two transparent viewing panels in the tops of the wings, through which you can confirm the undercarriage legs have reached the end of their travel by seeing the red-painted lock tabs move out of the way. Talk about belt and braces…

Light and well harmonised

We are climbing at 1,000fpm now and 120kt seems to be a good compromise between climb angle and view ahead. Keep this machine in trim and the controls are surprisingly light and the fact that I’m not thinking much about how to fly the aeroplane means that the control harmony between ailerons, elevator and rudder must be near to perfect.

North American Aviation T-6 HarvardNorth American Aviation T-6 Harvard

At the same time, any change of power and/or speed requires you to move your feet and apply rudder trim to keep the ball in the middle. Of course poor Nigel is sitting way back behind the G of G and can feel every time I’m out of balance−lucky for me he didn’t bring a sawn-off broom handle to prod me with, like instructors sometimes did in WWII.

Before we can enjoy some aerobatics we have to chase after the Cessna 182 camera ship. I set 24 inches at 1,850 rpm and it gives us 140kt (and just over 25 gallons per hour fuel consumption) which seems a good speed to operate at, albeit a bit slow if your eyes are set on fighters.

Only later do I find that the 182 is at maximum continuous power to maintain this with the windows open and Keith hanging out the back! Well, they only had to say…

We’re in the middle of summer and it’s hot in here, so I pull my canopy back. There’s an arm rest too and I really like parking my left elbow there, enjoying the breeze between takes. At this speed there’s little noise or added vibration with the canopy back but this is not what the T-6 is about.

North American Aviation T-6 HarvardNorth American Aviation T-6 Harvard

When the camera ship waves us away I close the lid, bring the power up to 36 inches at 2,250 rpm and watch the ASI nudge past 180kt as we find some clear airspace for those aeros and some general handling.

At this power we are burning 56gph (255 litres per hour) so it’s just as well the aircraft is hired wet! A more reasonable 30 inches and 2,000 rpm gives 35gph and is the normal aerobatic power setting.

A note about the fuel here: while the right tank will burn down to empty, the normal supply from the left tank draws from a stand pipe and it will burn down to sixteen gallons only. Turning the selector to ‘Reserve’ deselects the standpipe allowing the tank to burn down to empty.

I do my first barrel roll at 170. It’s from straight and level, pulling up until the heels of my boots are on the horizon then rolling right. At the top of the roll the aircraft is nice and flat, not slicing through the horizon, so I hold the stick over and feather it out at the bottom to regain the same altitude. I do another one to the left with the same outcome.

North American Aviation T-6 HarvardNorth American Aviation T-6 Harvard

I think everyone knows about the vice of the T-6 whereby the down-going aileron can effectively increase the angle of attack and stall the wing, so I try a few more rolling/pitching couples at varying airspeed but never feel it trying to bite. Its all about airspeed and the T-6 just needs plenty of it.

Next I try a clean stall and G-TSIX does it perfectly, without a wing drop−this aircraft must be perfectly rigged because you often hear of Harvards dropping a wing at the stall, but not today.

The buffet starts at seventy and the g break at sixty, with no drama. In the recovery I gently increase thrust and don’t mind losing the height to baby the engine, as we started at 5,000ft.

I try a few linked manoeuvres as we start to head back to the circuit, with my last aileron roll at less than 2,000ft, my confidence is increasing all the time and I’m really starting to ‘get’ the aircraft.

North American Aviation T-6 HarvardNorth American Aviation T-6 Harvard

Like all aeroplanes with a high wing loading the T-6 needs to be flown fast, and trying to save a few oil dollars operating at low power settings gives completely the wrong impression. For the same reason I wouldn’t like to fly a Boeing 737 clean much below 200kt, a T-6 isn’t particularly pleasant at the speed of a PA-28.

You don’t make prolonged descents with the throttle closed with these large air-cooled engines, so instead I use half throttle and a long descending curve at high speed and with some g to scrub off the energy over the airfield.

Then I hit the hydraulic power plunger and select undercarriage down (limiting speed 120kt) and flaps down (115kt), holding the out-of-trim forces. I fly base at 100kt, ninety on finals, 85 over the hedge and flare before closing the throttle (not the other way round in aircraft with high wing loading).

The main wheels touch down about one second before I thought they would which gives me a little surprise but I just nudge the stick forward and make it a wheeler. Nige observes later it is because the oleos extend with weight off them that wheels touch sooner than expected and it often catches people out.

North American Aviation T-6 HarvardNorth American Aviation T-6 Harvard

As we roll out I can feel the aeroplane wanting to dive off to the side of the narrow strip−particularly to the right−and I am careful to lower the tail slowly to avoid a shunt: the landing’s never over ’til you’re at walking pace.

I bring the aircraft to a standstill before disconnecting the tailwheel lock with forward stick and carefully taxying off the runway onto the grass.

How does it compare…?

The P-51 and Spitfire are definitely easier and more directionally stable than a T-6 on the ground. The Yak-3/9 I don’t know yet because I’ve not flown it, but I’ve been told the stability is better, and the visibility worse than from a Harvard.

North American Aviation T-6 HarvardNorth American Aviation T-6 Harvard

Later I asked a few friends with a lot more warbird time than me what they think about the questions I posed at the top of this article. Generally they agreed that the T-6 is the default but there are even better ways to transition to fighters.

For example doing a certain amount of T-6 circuit flying but doing the solo stuff in a Pitts S-2 or similar as well, all the better to cope with the higher approach speeds, power-to-weight ratio and wing loading of the fighters.

Types like the Extra 330 and Sukhoi 29 spring to mind (the latter especially appropriate for radial-engined tailwheel fighters.)

Veteran Pilot contributor Maxi Gainza says the best way into a Yak-3 would be via the T-6 and then Yak-11, if you can get hold of one. The latter is basically a similar airframe to the Yak-3 but with 700hp instead of 1,200.

North American Aviation T-6 HarvardNorth American Aviation T-6 Harvard

I know of one current Spitfire pilot who went straight onto the fighter from high performance tailwheel/aerobatic aircraft after its owner had ‘a long chat’ with the insurers.

If you are in any doubt I would highly recommend a ride in the T-6, both to find out if you like it and to see if you’ve got what it takes before wasting too much money on the dream of becoming a warbird pilot.

Likewise, you might sample the Pitts S-2, Extra 300 or 330, Yak-52 or Yak-11. If you get the opportunity to fly any of these aircraft, jump to it. Why wouldn’t you!

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