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The Mentor: Beechcraft’s T-34 Primary Trainer Was A Well-Played Gamble

Hundreds of Warbird T-34 Mentors Are Still Going Strong

Official US Navy Photograph

Beechcraft initially developed the T-34 Mentor (model 45) primary trainer from the popular Model 35 Bonanza as a private venture by Walter Beech. The Mentor featured a single horizontally-opposed reciprocating engine driving a two-bladed propeller, low mounted wing, standard tailplane design (the Bonanza’s V tail was considered), roomy tandem cockpit with dual controls under a bubble canopy affording excellent visibility, and retractable tricycle landing gear. The T-34 Mentor was the first American primary trainer aircraft to be equipped with tricycle landing gear.

Official US Air Force Photograph

T-34s were intended to replace the North American T-6/SNJ/Harvard taildragger primary trainers still in widespread use when the first Mentor was flown during December of 1948. Initially the T-34 was locked out of the competition between two taildragger prototypes- the Temco T-35 Buckaroo (developed from Temco’s Swift) and the Fairchild XNQ/T-31. At first the Fairchild design won out, but the government as well as the competing armed service were involved and the contractors evidently forced a second evaluation. This time around Beechcraft walked off with the contracts, albeit for two slightly different versions of the same basic airframe.

Official US Navy Photograph

The USAF Flew a Slightly Different Model T-34 Than the Navy

Entering service in 1953, T-34As were built for the United States Air Force (USAF); T-34Bs were slated for United States Navy/Marine Corps (USN/USMC) service. The export model was the T-34A-based B45. The primary differences between the A and the B were adjustable rudder pedals, one additional degree of wing dihedral, and lack of steerable nose wheel on the B. Total production of the reciprocating engine-powered T-34/B45 was 1,904 aircraft, ending in 1959.

Official US Air Force Photograph

The USAF procured a total of 450 Mentors, using them as primary trainers at “contract” air training bases such as Spence and Bainbridge Air Bases in Georgia, Moore and Hondo Air Bases in Texas, and Bartow and Graham Air Bases in Florida. After completion of Air Force primary training, students would transition into the North American T-28A Trojan for their intermediate training syllabus. But when the Cessna T-37 Tweet entered service in 1957 it largely replaced both the T-34 and the T-28 propeller-driven trainers in USAF Air Training Command service. The last of the USAF Mentors left active training service during the early 1960s.

Official US Air Force Photograph

The Air Force Auxiliary, AKA the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) operated T-34s both during and after the USAF used them for training. While many former USAF Mentors went to foreign operators, several T-34As equipped Air Base flying clubs for many years. The CAP found that while the T-34 was not ideal for search and rescue work (because of the low-mounted wing) and maintenance issues became burdensome later during CAP service, they still operated their Mentors until retirement in 2003. We’ll get back to the maintenance issues later.

Official US Marine Corps Photograph

423 brightly painted yellow and later red and white Navy/Marine Corps T-34Bs were utilized as primary trainers at places like Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola in Florida and NAS Corpus Christi in Texas. The T-34B trained thousands of Naval and Marine Corps Aviators between entering service in 1953 and bowing out in 1977 when it was finally replaced by the heavily modified T-34C Turbomentor- but that’s another story. The next step after the T-34B in the Naval Air Training Command syllabus for most prospective Aviators was the North American T-28B/T-28C Trojan. The T-34B continued to serve as a Navy Recruiting Command flight familiarization platform until they were finally retired in 1994. Like the USAF T-34As, T-34Bs flew on with Air Station flying clubs.

Official US Air Force Photograph

T-34s (actually licensed B45s) were also built abroad. Canadian Car and Foundry built 125 of them. Fuji Heavy Industries in Japan built 173 more. FMA of Argentina built an additional 75 airframes. Foreign production ended in 1958. Foreign operators of the T-34/B45 included Algeria, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, France, Gabon, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, Morocco, Peru, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Taiwan, Turkey, Uruguay, and Venezuela. Some of these countries still operate their Mentors in some capacity.

Official US Air Force Photograph

Stock T-34s Are Rare For Good Reasons

Several hundred of the T-34As and T-34Bs built by Beechcraft are still flying in private hands today. However, very few of these warbirds are in stock configurations. Many have had engine and attendant propeller upgrades. Avionics upgrades such as Electronic Flight Instrumentation Systems (EFIS) and GPS have brought the 1950s-vintage T-34 into the 21st century. But the maintenance issues mentioned earlier have grounded either some or all of the T-34s still flying at one point or another. Airworthiness Directives (ADs) have brought about required wing spar modifications and other structural changes to the Mentors still in use. These ADs did not come without cost.

Official US Navy Photograph

There were three fatal crashes by commercial air combat operators from 1999 to 2004. Sky Warriors, based in Atlanta, Georgia and Texas Air Aces in Tomball, Texas both used T-34s for mock aerial combat. Customers were able to strap into over-taxed T-34s and go at it with no previous flying experience required. The structural failures that caused these mishaps were traced and ADs issued for main wing spars and fuselage carry-through spars. It took thousands of man hours to inspect and overhaul the T-34 fleet, but the issues have largely been resolved. Today there are no longer any combat simulation companies using T-34s for their mock dogfights.

Image courtesy San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives

Today’s T-34 has a reputation for being an easy plane to fly. Other upsides to the T-34 are (relatively) low operational cost, a low landing speed of 65 knots, great 360 degree visibility, and (again relatively) low cost to acquire. The airplane is reputed to have no bad flying habits with well-balanced flight controls and gentle and straight forward stalls. Pilots say it’s light on the controls and very responsive- especially with one of the newer (read more powerful) engine/propeller combinations. The T-34A is FAA rated as an acrobatic aircraft while the B is rated in the utility category. So if you want do advanced aerobatics, buy a T-34A.

Image courtesy Nikon Twitter Account

The Beechcraft T-34 Mentor is used by airshow sensations like the Lima Lima Flight Team  and solo aerobatic pilot Julie Clark. Organizations such as the T-34 Association and EAA Warbirds of America are excellent resources for those who are interested in ownership of a T-34 or just fans. If you’ve read this far here’s a surprise for you. Uploaded by our good friends at AirshowStuffVideos, this is a great look at a mass T-34 gathering that took place in Manitowoc, Wisconsin just before EAA AirVenture 2016. Enjoy these sights and sounds!

Official US Navy Photograph

Written by Bill Walton

Bill Walton

Bill Walton is a life-long aviation enthusiast and expert in aircraft recognition. As a teenager Bill helped his engineer father build an award-winning T-18 homebuilt airplane in their Wisconsin basement. Bill is a freelance writer, an avid sailor, engineer, announcer, husband, father, uncle, mentor, coach, and Navy veteran. Bill lives north of Houston TX with his wife and son under the approach path to KDWH runway 17R, which means they get to look up at a lot of airplanes. A very good thing.

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