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Texans, Harvards and Yales–Learn About The Plane That Trained The Boys Who Won The War


On April 1st 1935 the North American prototype that would become the T-6 Texan first took flight.

The United States Army Air Corps (USAAC) referred to them as T-6 Texans. The United States Navy called them SNJs. The British Commonwealth called them Yales and Harvards. More than 17,000 T-6s were built worldwide and they were used to train hundreds of thousands of pilots. Given that so many of them were built it’s fitting that more than 550 lovingly restored and maintained examples are still flying today- and their sound is unmistakable. That snarl heard as a T-6 (or more than one) fly past is unique.

Because most pilot training began in the cockpits of biplanes like the Boeing-Stearman Kaydets and the Naval Aircraft Factory N3N Yellow Perils, the T-6 was considered an advanced trainer when the first of them were introduced in 1937. Later it would become the first aircraft flown by many fledgling aviators before they began flying Beechcraft T-34 Mentors, North American T-28 Trojans, or Beechcraft T-34C Turbo Mentors as they progressed toward earning their coveted wings. Eventually replaced entirely in the US military pilot training pipelines by those same Mentors and Trojans, Texans remained in use into the 1990s. No matter where it was flown or by whom; no matter whatever else it was called, North American’s T-6 trainer was also called the Pilot Maker.

The genesis of the Texan was the North American NA-16 prototype. That aircraft, modified as the NA-26, was North American’s entry for the USAAC’s Basic Combat aircraft competition held during March of 1937. The NA-26 design went into production as the first T-6. From then the aircraft was developed with added features, more powerful engines, different canopy designs, and various armament configurations. It wasn’t until the NA-78 design that the name Texan was used. Texans were also license-built by Canadian Car and Foundry and Noorduyn of Canada. Even Mitsubishi in Japan looked at building them before the war. Kyushu Aircraft Company used the NA-16 design as the loose basis for a limited-production intermediate trainer, the K10W1 (Allied reporting name “Oak.”)

T-6s were used primarily as advanced pilot trainers, but they also saw use as gunnery trainers, close air-support aircraft, forward air controllers, artillery spotters, crop dusters, fighter-bombers, mail carriers, pylon racers, and experimental testbeds. As forward air controllers during the Korean War, T-6 Mosquitoes flew 40,000 mostly low and slow (and exceedingly dangerous) sorties to find enemy positions and mark them for attention by fighter-bombers. The basic Texan design was also the basis for three fighter designs- the North American P-64 and the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation (CAC) Wirraway, and when further modified, the CAC Boomerang.

The essential T-6 Texan is powered by a Pratt & Whitney R-1340 Wasp engine turning a two-bladed Hamilton Standard propeller. It’s been said that because the airframe was built by North American, the engine by Pratt & Whitney, and the propeller by Hamilton Standard, the Texan was “the best built airplane that ever was” because those companies were considered to be the best at designing and building their prospective products. Put them all together and you’ve got one very strong airplane. It’s a common sentiment among T-6 owners and fans that the airplane is (at least) 15% over-engineered- not bad for a design penned 82 years ago.

Navy SNJs trained prospective Naval Aviators to do more than just match their number of takeoffs to landings and fly competently in between them. They also taught them to land on aircraft carriers. The skies over the Florida panhandle teemed with snarling SNJs for many years as future stick jockeys began the process that would eventually lead to flying in the fleet (or ending up “haze gray and underway”). When carriers like the USS Monterrey (CVL-26) cruised in the Gulf of Mexico off Pensacola in Florida for carrier qualifications, SNJs with tailhooks bolted on would fill the carrier’s landing pattern. They resembled nothing as much as giant snarling yellow bees flying back and forth between their Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola hive and the carrier deck.

Texans have seen plenty of combat through the years. Although not flown in combat during World War II (they were too busy training combat pilots to be), Texans fought during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, the 1946-1949 Greek Civil War, the Korean War, the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya, the Algerian War, the Portuguese Colonial War, the Revolucion Libertadora in Argentina, the Ifni War in Africa, the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War, and the Vietnamese War.

Past operators of the Texan / Harvard include Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Biafra, Bolivia, Brazil, Cambodia, Canada, Republic of China (Taiwan), Chile, Colombia, Republic of the Congo, Cuba, Denmark, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, France, Gabon, Germany, Greece, Haiti, Hong Kong, Honduras, India, Indonesia, Iran, Israel, Italy, Japan, Katanga, Lebanon, South Korea, Laos, Mexico, Morocco, Netherlands, Mozambique, New Zealand, Norway, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Paraguay, Philippines, Portugal, South Africa, Southern Rhodesia, South Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Soviet Union, Sweden, Switzerland, Syria, Thailand, Tunisia, Turkey, United Kingdom, United States (Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard), Uruguay, Venezuela, Yugoslavia, and Zaire. South Africa holds the record for T-6 time in service- from 1940 to 1995. That’s right. 55 years.

Today T-6s are frequent participants at air shows. With so many of them flying in civilian hands it’s not surprising that Texans routinely outnumber every other warbird at many of the well-attended events like the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) AirVenture every summer in Oshkosh Wisconsin. Texans have also been used as pylon racers at air racing events since 1968. The GEICO SkyTypers use T-6s for their eye-popping sky-filling aerial graphics simply because there isn’t a better aircraft that meets their somewhat unique requirements; the Texan is easy to fly in formation and it can carry all the smoke oil they need. The AeroShell Aerobatic Team also flies T-6s.

Thanks to organizations like the Commemorative Air Force, the EAA’s Warbirds of America, the North American Trainer Association, and the T-6 Racing Association, pilots who are bitten by the T-6 bug or just want to get into flying warbirds have support and training options the likes of which few other potential warbird owners have. There are networks of Texan owners and familiarity flights available to just about anyone who can climb into the cockpit. Parts for T-6s are both plentiful and less expensive than those for other warbirds, again in large part because so many T-6s were built to begin with.

T-6s have starred many times in movies and television since the 1940s but their roles have been primarily as stand-ins. Movies like A Yank in the RAF (1941), Patton (1970), Kelly’s Heroes (1970), Midway (1976), A Bridge Too Far (1977), Operation Pacific (1951), The Flying Leathernecks (1951), PT-109 (1963), Where Eagles Dare (1968), and several others have featured T-6s playing the roles of both American and foreign fighter and attack aircraft. One exception is the movie Red Tails (2012), in which Texans were used in the role of…Texans.

Perhaps the best known stand-ins are the cosmetically-altered T-6s modified to look like Japanese Zeroes specifically for and used in the live flying scenes in the 1970 movie Tora! Tora! Tora! The movie The Final Countdown (1980) featured a showdown between two of the Tora! near-Zeroes and two VF-84 Jolly Rogers F-14A Tomcats– with predictable results. The Japanese fighters seen weekly in the 1970s television series Baa Baa Black Sheep were also Tora! aircraft. Several of these ersatz Zero fighters, along with some of the other fake Vals and Kates also modified for the movie, are still flying today and often play the part of the Zero in aerial combat re-enactments at airshows. Sharp eyed Avgeeks can tell the differences between the real Zeroes and the fakes. Can you?

It is no coincidence that the Beechcraft T-6A, the current primary training aircraft used by the United States Air Force and the United States Navy, along with eight other countries and counting, is named the T-6A Texan II.

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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.