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The T-28 Trojan: North American Aviation’s Next and Last Great Prop-Driven Trainer

Entire Generations of Aviators Learned to Fly in This Versatile Radial Engine Classic

Official US Navy photograph

When during late 1947 North American Aviation (NAA) began development what would eventually become the T-28 Trojan trainer, they could not possibly have known that their next trainer design would serve in multiple roles for more than 30 years with nearly 30 countries around the world. NAA’s previous trainer design, the hugely successful T-6 Texan, would be replaced in both United States Air Force (USAF) and US Navy/Marine Corps service by the Trojan.

Image courtesy Boeing

The first T-28 prototype was actually designated XSN2J-1- later changed to XT-28. This development of the T-6 was configured as a taildragger like the T-6, but all subsequent prototype and production T-28s were equipped with tricycle landing gear. The XT-28 first flew on September 24th 1949. Subsequent USAF suitability testing, performed at Eglin Air Force Base (AFB) by the 3200th Fighter Test Squadron during mid-1950, resulted in contracts being issued for the first of what would become a total of 1,948 T-28 airframes (all models) built between 1950 and 1957.

Official US Air Force photograph

Jet-powered aircraft were in service and the T-28 was the first trainer designed to train pilots to fly those early jets. The initial version of the Trojan, the T-28A, was powered by an air-cooled 900 horsepower Wright R-1300-1 Cyclone radial seven piston engine turning an Aeroproducts two bladed propeller. The four-stack exhaust configuration of the T-28A resulted in the A model never sounding like it was running smoothly, but that didn’t stop the USAF from taking delivery of some 1,194 T-28As between 1950 and 1953.

Official US Air Force photograph

In USAF Air Training Command (ATC) service the T-28A was reported to be somewhat sluggish in flight but honest, predictable, and generally easy to fly and maintain. During the mid-1950s with the USAF transitioning to jets the Air National Guard (ANG) began flying T-28As while runways were being built to accommodate the new jets. Replaced in the USAF pilot training role by the combination of the piston-engine Beech T-34 Mentor and the jet-powered Cessna T-37 Tweet, Air Force T-28As were all but retired by the end of the 1950s with many stored in the desert outside Tucson in Arizona.

Official US Navy photograph

Meanwhile the Navy was looking at the T-28 but with significant changes to the power plant. Navy T-28B and T-28C variants would be powered by the beefier air-cooled 1,425 horsepower Wright R-1820-86A or -9HD Cyclone radial nine piston engine turning a three bladed Hamilton Standard propeller. The T-28B flew for the first time on April 6th 1953. Weighing in at a little more than 8,000 pounds the Bravo was capable of 300 knots (346 miles per hour) and a service ceiling of 37,000 feet.

Official US Navy photograph

All Navy T-28s sported lower-profile canopies than those fitted to T-28As. Navy engine cowlings were modified to fit the larger R-1820 engine and a total of six engine exhaust stacks. Bravos also had smaller castering nose wheels and an under-fuselage speed brake- designed into but unused on the T-28A. Like the T-28A, Navy Bravo models were capable of weapons delivery training employing sighting systems and underwing hard points for mounting gun pods and bomb and missile pylons. All T-28 wings were configured with a pronounced dihedral.

Photo by the author

T-28Bs were the workhorses of Naval Air Training Command (NATC) for decades. Trojans were used for the basic, advanced, instrument, tactical transition, and aerial gunnery syllabi of flight training. T-28s equipped nine VT (training) squadrons at Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola and another two VT squadrons at NAS Meridian for several years. For many student aviators the next step in the pipeline toward Wings of Gold was another NAA product, the North American T-2 Buckeye jet trainer.

Official US Marine Corps photograph

Almost every NAS or Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) had a T-28 or two assigned to it. Attack Squadron ONE TWO TWO (VA-122) Flying Eagles on the West Coast and VA-42 Green Pawns on the East Coast used T-28s as instrument trainers for a time. Trojans were also employed as drone controllers, air station utility, and proficiency training aircraft with utility and composite squadrons. The USAF and US Army also operated limited numbers of Bravos, primarily as test and test chase aircraft and for research.

Official US Navy photograph

The tailhook-equipped T-28C variant first took to the skies on September 19th 1955. The Charlie was lengthened, strengthened, and adapted so it could land aboard aircraft carriers. The 299 T-28Cs built by NAA (and the 72 T-28As converted to Charlies) were equipped with smaller diameter propellers in order to better deal with nose dipping caused by tailhook engagement and run out of the arresting cable. Landing gear oleo travel was increased to better absorb the shock of landings and seldom-used catapult launches. Due to their strengthened airframes Charlies were not quite as spritely as Bravos, being three miles per hour slower with a 1,500 foot lower service ceiling, slower rate of climb, and reduced range.

Official US Navy photograph

The throaty snarl of Trojan engines powering student aviator-flown T-28s could be heard almost continuously along the Gulf Coast during the late 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and into the early 1980s. Entire generations of Navy and Marine Corps pilots learned to fly in T-28Bs and made their first carrier landings in T-28Cs- many of them aboard the Blue Ghost– the training carrier USS Lexington (CVT-16). Whether wearing the early bright yellow or the later white and red/red-orange colors of NATC aircraft, Navy and Marine Corps T-28s seldom fail to stir fond memories among those who learned to fly in them. The last T-28s in Navy service were retired by VT-27 Boomers at NAS Corpus Christi during the Spring of 1984.

Official US Navy photograph

Remember all those retired Air Force T-28As? Many of them were rebuilt to a new standard- the T-28D. Commonly referred to as the Nomad, these counter-insurgency (COIN) attack aircraft saw combat in Southeast Asia for much of the war. Equipped with various versions of the R-1820 engine and strengthened wings, Nomad’s carried various combinations of gun pods and bomb racks. Armor was installed to protect the crew and together with the other modifications this resulted in a top speed of 299 knots (345 miles per hour). Some of the Nomads were also equipped with ejection seats.

Image courtesy Boeing

The first T-28s to see combat were actually converted former Navy T-28Bs. As part of Operation Farm Gate the USAF’s 4400th Combat Crew Training Wing (CCTW) deployed to South Vietnam in 1961 to train South Vietnamese pilots, who operated T-28Ds throughout the war. The USAF equipped several Special Operations Squadrons (SOSs) with T-28Ds and AT-28Ds and operated them from bases in Southeast Asia until the type was finally retired from combat use in 1972. France operated T-28S Fennecs as COIN attack aircraft. Interestingly the Fennecs were powered by the same version of the R-1820 used to power the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress.

Official US Air Force photograph

In addition to the United States Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps, T-28s and derivatives thereof have been operated as trainers or in combat by Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Ethiopia, France, Haiti, Honduras, Japan, the Khmer Republic, Laos, Mexico, Morocco, Nicaragua, the Philippines, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, South Vietnam, Tunisia, Taiwan, Thailand, Uruguay, Vietnam, and Zaire.

Official US Air Force photograph

Today T-28s are popular warbirds around the world. Although not miserly when it comes to fuel consumption, T-28s are still light on the controls, easily flown, and good warbird values. There are usually several of them for sale at any time- from meticulously restored examples to essentially stock aircraft ready for flight or restoration.  There is even a lot of 40 stock unassembled Navy surplus T-28Bs and T-28Cs, many with full logbooks, available for sale as an entire lot or individually. Once (justifiably) famous for leaking oil from that big old radial engine, available upgrades and updates have eliminated most of the mess.

Photo by the author

The North American Trainer Association (NATA) is an excellent networking resource for owners. The Trojan Horsemen and the Trojan Phlyers flight demonstration teams are popular airshow attractions flying their T-28s. The T-28 may not be flush-riveted or shapely (it is in fact huge!), but it performs better than many other piston-engine warbirds- and it has two seats!

Official US Navy photograph

Bill Walton

Written by 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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