Pilot Journal
Thursday, May 29, 2008

In Love With The AT-6

Big and chunky looking, the surprisingly agile texan redefined the role of the advanced trainer

AT-6On the ground, a T-6 Texan looks anything but fun. The first time I flew a Texan, 20 years ago out of Santa Paula, Calif., with the late Doug Dullenkopf, I expected to have my hands full with a heavy, unwieldy beast.
" />

The tandem cockpits of the T-6 trainer are reminiscent of the airplanes they’re intended to train for, especially if the final product is another North American model. Back in the ’40s, the T-6 trained aviators for everything from P-40s and P-47s to P-51s and P-63s, so the cockpit was generic of military airplanes.

This restored Texan is one of just 350 T-6s still flying; less than 16,000 of the advanced trainers were built in the ’40s and early ‘50s.
By the standards of some fighters, the Texan’s cockpit is huge, easily large enough to accommodate a six-foot-six-inch pilot. There are switches and levers virtually everywhere, and Greene’s airplane reflects an accurate example of the original. Placards are mounted on practically every flat space, and they warn of everything from excess manifold pressure to proper use of the pilot relief tube.

Pilot and passenger sit tall in the Texan. You can easily rest your arm on the side rails abeam your rib cage. Visibility is good, provided you don’t mind staring around the “birdcage” canopy structure. The view out front, past the large radial engine, is essentially nonexistent until you’re in flight.

Engine start with any radial is always fun as all those cylinders slowly vote on whether to run. The engine typically comes to life one cylinder at a time, chug-a-putting smoke and oil and churning to full contentment over 20 to 30 seconds. Starting a T-6 is often an event at most airports, sometimes even gathering a small collection of Cessna and Piper pilots who marvel at the wonder of radials.

Taxiing is no particular challenge as long as you keep it slow and stay close to the brakes. Despite the T-6’s large size, it has a deserved reputation as something of a squirrel on the ground. S-turns are the rule with alternate looks out the left and right sides of the airplane to see what you’re about to hit. The airplane isn’t a pilot-eater, but you fly it from chocks to chocks, and it will keep your adrenalin pumping most of the time, especially in any significant crosswind.

Takeoff is similarly exciting, mostly because of the decibel count. The Texan sports a huge Hamilton Standard propeller, and at full power, the tips race up near the Mach, creating that flat, blatting sound so characteristic of T-6s. The airplane is remarkably unapologetic for its noise level, and any pilot who doesn’t appreciate it should perhaps consider taking up knitting.

This is a warbird, after all, but if you’re expecting great things during climb, you’ll probably be disappointed, despite the huge 254-square-foot wing. With power back to 32/2,000, the airplane will usually levitate at 1,000 fpm, little more than you’d expect in a Bonanza or Mooney.

Bill Greene’s Texan has won practically every warbird competition it has entered, including Grand Champion at EAA AirVenture.
In contrast, the Texan’s in-flight manners are nothing less than wonderful. Acro is more fun than dogsledding. The airplane performs seemingly effortless rolls and loops, and it manifests the typical military behavior of being on the edge of a high-speed stall most of the time. Vertical reverses (where you roll to knife edge, push top rudder and pull) are loads of fun, with the airplane swapping wings from hard left to hard right in about two seconds.

Speeds aren’t that impressive in any mode, cruise or aerobatics, but so what? Fellow contributor Budd Davisson, a warbird expert and acknowledged Texan lover, once wrote of the T-6, “The Texan is hardcore military, and the only difference between a Six and a fighter is [that] the number on the airspeed gauge is much lower. Numbers are only numbers. If you don’t have telephone poles whizzing past to give numbers some scale, they’re totally abstract, so you can play fighter pilot to your heart’s content in a Six.”

Cruise numbers in a T-6 (for those strange folks who waste time cruising in this airplane) are about the same as in a Piper Arrow—140 knots—and standard tanks (110 gallons) last for a little under three hours plus reserve. Stall characteristics aren’t necessarily that much of a challenge, as long as you’ve had a proper checkout, have plenty of altitude and have an appreciation for the airplane’s peculiarities.

“Because of the off-center alignment of the tail, you do get a little aerodynamic warning in high-speed stalls to the left,” says Greene, “but practically none to the right. If you get too slow, and the airplane breaks right, it may go over onto its back, and you’ll probably need two full turns to recover. That’s one reason the catchphrase among T-6 pilots has always been ‘No low, slow and pull.’ Stall characteristics could be hazardous to your health if you haven’t been properly trained—that’s the key. Once you have the feel of the airplane, the Texan’s stall is highly predictable. It’s just not necessarily gentle.”

Granted such tutelage, landings aren’t necessarily any great challenge as long as you accept that they’re not as easy as you think. Wheel or three-point “kerplunk” efforts work equally well. Just stay close to the brakes.

If you have a yen for a T-6 (and who doesn’t), there’s a limited supply available. The type was exported to some 34 countries, many of which maintained it as a trainer until a few years ago. Accordingly, the supply is sometimes aided and abetted by brokers who buy out those foreign air force inventories and return the airplanes to the United States.

Expect to pay $100,000 and up for a flyable airplane, mostly “and up.” There’s no telling what a gem such as Bill Greene’s might sell for. For better or worse, however, that’s not a problem, as Greene’s prizewinner isn’t for sale.


Add Comment