An Aeronautical Mr. Chips
It always happens. The last engine clanks to a halt, the last chock is in place, and the usual gang of airport bums, pilots, enthusiasts, doting admirers, greasy mechanics and all, assemble for the traditional bull session that follows a successful day of aviating. Soon the conversation revolves around the “most important” airplane ever. With the War Deuce crowd it is always the same, the vaunted P-51 Mustang has a vocal following, as does the F4U Corsair, and the P-38 Lightning. The belt and suspenders crowd, otherwise known as the multi-engine boys, counter with carefully crafted arguments about B-17s, B-29s, and the ugly B-24. The more erudite quote General Eisenhower and his comment about the C-47. No one, however, speaks up for what has to be the most overshadowed airplane ever built, the North American Model 16 and its follow-on variants, known far and wide as the AT-6, SNJ, or Harvard.
Exploring the historical record, one finds that more than 16,000 of the type were constructed, from the prototype NA-16, which first flew in 1935, to the last Harvard IV, which rolled off the assembly line in Canada in 1952. Few then would have realized that upon this single type, more than any other, the entire Allied war effort would depend for the thousands of combat pilots necessary for our success in WW II. Built to last, and last, and last, the airplane served as an advanced trainer for the air forces of more than fifty nations. The last of the type in military service belonged to the South African Air Force, these being retired in the 1990s after more than fifty years of service. No other airplane in history has trained as many pilots as did North American’s “Pilot Maker.”
For every hot rock Mustang jockey there was a T-6 in his background that taught him what an accelerated stall felt like, and that the buffet was not a fancy word for the chow line in the BOQ. For every aviator with Wings of Gold there was an SNJ that taught him how to fly safely at 60 knots in the groove looking for the LSO and the haven of the number three wire. Almost every Navy and Air Force squadron, air group, or wing, especially those stationed in the United States, had a T-6 or SNJ assigned as a proficiency airplane. Even those who flew the mighty B-29 had an occasion to be “instructed” in the finer points of airmanship by getting some time in the Terrible Texan. In 1950, faced with a plethora of heavy bomber incidents and accidents, General Curtis LeMay ordered the establishment of a trial program at Roswell AFB using the AT-6 to “reintroduce basic flying skills” to the pilots in SAC.
It is that ability, inherent in the design, to teach those basic flying skills that make it such an outstanding and important airplane. It is not a difficult airplane to fly, but it is a demanding airplane to fly well. It was rugged and maintainable, able to stand the abuse of novice aeronauts. Its flying characteristics were such that, once mastered, one could safely move up to the fighters and bombers that made up America’s vast air armada.
Today more than four hundred Texans fly in the hands of civilian operators, making it the most common of all WW II era airplanes to see in the skies. Like the storied Mr. Chips in James Hilton’s novel, a man whose accomplishments in educating decades of England’s finest were not fully appreciated, North American Aviation’s Texan deserves its place as the most important airplane of WW II.