Hundreds of Warbird T-34 Mentors Are Still Going Strong
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.
Built to Replace a Legendary Taildragger Trainer
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.
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.
Mentors Trained Pilots in Air Force Blue
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.
Continued Service at Bases and With CAP
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.