Irritating the Wasp: The Legacy of a South African T-6 Harvard
It could be the laziest of days at the airport, but when the distinctive sound of a T-6- or a flight of them- rolls across the horizon, an excitement crackles like heat lightning. After all, a North American T-6 knows how to make an entrance- she’s been perfecting it for nearly eighty years.
Now, imagine that the arriving T-6 is decked in a tangerine-colored paint scheme and some unfamiliar insignia- you will find yourself wondering: What’s the story?
Did you know that the North American T-6 aircraft was the workhorse of the South African Air Force (SAAF) until the late 1990’s? In their program, they were of course primary trainers, but also acro, night, IFR, gunnery, ordnance delivery… and any other task that could be made to suit. After they were retired, they were sold to private individuals worldwide.
N7693Z, a C-model, was brought home to the United States. After the long journey west, she was reassembled and began a new, much different chapter: It was time to have some fun.
T-6: The Pilot-Maker
The T-6 Texan served many roles in the Army Air Force and Navy; It was known then, as it is today, as the “Pilot Maker”. This particular aircraft, N7693Z, was manufactured by North American Aviation in Dallas as an AT-6C-NT (CN 88-11637) and received by the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) on 25 January 1943. She was assigned USAAF serial number 42-3933 and served in the USAAF from January 1943 until May 1950. 3933 was sold to the SAAF sometime in 1953 and after service in South Africa returned to the United States in 1995. It’s interesting to note that South Africa was a member of the Commonwealth and the air forces of the Commonwealth referred to the T-6 as a Harvard, regardless of what the data plate said.
The T-6 Pilot Maker and the Pilot
The airplane now belongs to a passionate aviator, Dr. Arnold Angelici. Dr. Angelici has loved aviation since childhood. He became a private pilot in 1994, continuing with his instrument rating the following year. He spent his early flying hours in Cessna 172/182s, an airplane he still regards with fondness. In fact, when queried about his favorite planes, he lists the Cessna 182RG among older, more nostalgic breeds, like the Fairchild PT-19.
In the late 1990’s, Angelici decided to take a sabbatical from internal medicine, shifting his focus toward aviation. He spent two years at Wright State University in Ohio in the Aerospace Preventative Medicine program, graduating into a contracting aviation market that was reeling from the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Undaunted, he went to work with the FAA in 2003 and has remained, currently serving as the Deputy Regional Flight Surgeon for the Southern Region. His love of aviation makes him a compassionate leader in his field – he genuinely wishes to help people in the aviation med spectrum.
Angelici relocated to Oklahoma in 2003. Amid the move and obtaining currency in the local rental aircraft, he crossed paths with the local Commemorative Air Force wing. He sponsored a PT-19 and began flying the relic in formation clinics. The T-6 was the common platform used for the formation groups, which sparked a new interest for Angelici. He claims that he “didn’t know much but was awestruck” at the fresh challenge of precision formation flying. It was only a matter of time before he found himself purchasing his own T-6- an orange-adorned beauty that had spent her career training eager young SAAF pilots.
Angelici had enjoyed his time at the controls of the PT-19 as he found it to be an honest and forgiving platform. However, the T-6 put him through the paces, challenging him. A difficult plane, it stretched his abilities in that maddeningly satisfying way that only authentic stick-and-rudder flying can. Angelici points out that the T-6 “doesn’t look elegant on the ground. But once airborne, it’s one of the best flying airplanes.”
It was not long before he was entirely charmed with his new, old airplane. While not an A&P, he befriended a group of mechanics and pilots and devoted himself to all matters of caring for a complicated piece of machinery. He describes some of the costly but necessary maintenance required to keep a design from 1938 airworthy to modern standards. An overhauled engine was a substantial expense, as was updating the avionics. However, Angelici views his experience as an owner with great love and patience, stating, “this airplane is special, like a family member. You learn the pedigree, the history, and you care for all of that.”
Which brings us to the bright orange markings and the foreign insignias (bearing the national emblem of the castle of Good Hope, Cape Town, SA), something he would never change. “She has a history, she’s been in those colors for 50+ years, and I don’t want to erase the memory.” In his reverence for her history, he has collected some unique memorabilia. In addition to complete logs, he has a number of special photographs. The photos include one taken on the day she was retired from service back on November 17, 1995. Amassed on the ramp at the SAAF air base in Langebaanweg, SA., a group of approximately 55 Harvards shut down simultaneously – imagine the lovely, stunning cacophony of sound produced by those Pratt & Whitney R1340 AN-1, nine cylinder radials???
Friends make T-6 aircraft ownership even better
Another truly special moment in the legacy of this airplane came when he met, through a complex circuit on social media, a South African pilot named Tony Shapiro that had soloed in N7693Z in 1984. The gentleman, now a 777 captain, traveled with his wife from South Africa to meet Angelici in Georgia – and to be reunited with the airplane that had made him a pilot. Angelici arranged for two friends, Max Hodges and John Skipper Hyle, both CFI’s, to take Mr. Shapiro for several flights, an epic occasion for all.
Angelici loves flying the T-6, especially in formation. He attends shows and clinics throughout the season and plans to race at Reno in 2021. He is a truly passionate aviator that views himself as a caretaker for a significant piece of history- one he hopes to help keep alive. Not that it isn’t an enjoyable task- irritating the wasp, slang for the special sequence that is starting the big ole radial hanging on the nose of these head-turning planes.