T-6: A PICTORIAL RECORD OF THE HARVARD, TEXAN AND WIRRAWAY
The venerable and durable North American T-6 has appeared in many variations and carried many names and numeraldesignations. And after more than half a century of service, about 600 of them are still flying.
Author Peter C. Smith, who has more than 36 published books under his belt, has written many life stories of military aircraft.His latest, a book he calls “a loving pictorial tribute,” is T-6: A Pictorial Record of the Harvard, Texan and Wirraway(Motorbooks International, Osceola, Wis., $34.95, 1995).
The T-6 was originally designated AT-6 in the Air Force (and SNJ in the Navy) and was designed to enable students to makethe transition from the slower basic World War II trainers like the Vultee BT-13 to faster, more sophisticated aircraft. But ithad characteristics and versatility built into it far beyond what its designers had first imagined.
The T-6 has been used to tow targets, gliders and banners, to train gunners, to perform reconnaissance and photographicmissions, and for skywriting; it has also been used as a fighter, dive bomber, crop duster, artillery spotter, rocket launcher and flight-test vehicle. Plus, it has substituted in motion-picture epics as a Japanese Zero. Some T-6s were converted to haul cargoin a modified rear compartment after World War II. Western Airlines purchased three of them to fly mail over its routes inNorth and South Dakota. Air race fans know that it is a featured aerobatic star, formation performer and racer at Reno everyyear.
It was this reviewer’s pleasure to fly the AT-6 for about 2,000 hours, first as a student at Victoria, Texas, where we learned to shoot its single .30-caliber machine gun at the Matagorda Gunnery Range. But much of my time was spent in the back seat asan instructor of American and foreign students during WWII, including Chinese who could not speak English. I also flew theBC-1 (for Basic Combat 1), predecessor of the Six, and its basic training brothers, the BT-9 and BT-14. While stationed inPanama as an engineering officer, I had bomb shackles installed on a Six and dive-bombed supplies to geodetic survey teamsin the jungle that were mapping the isthmus. So it was with much pleasure that I read Smith’s book from cover to cover.
As expected, Smith gives a matter-of-fact background on the origins of the T-6 design, its ancestors and successors. The firstproduct after the North American Co. was formed was the brainchild of James H. “Dutch” Kindelberger, John L. Atwood anda team that produced the three-man O-47 observation aircraft. Next, the team entered the Army Air Corps competition in1934 to produce a fixed-gear basic trainer powered with a 400-hp Wright Whirlwind engine that the company labeled theNA-16. The first flight was made at Dundalk, Md., by test pilot Eddie Allen on April 1, 1935, only six months after the originaldesign drawings had been submitted to the Army.
An order was placed for 42 NA-16s, which the Air Corps called the BT-9; the first production model flew on April 15, 1936.It was the forerunner of more than 17,000 descendants. The BT-9 design went through several changes; one of them was theinstallation of leading-edge slots to lessen its tendency to stall abruptly.
The BT-14 and the BC-1 followed; the author calls the latter “a cheap, second-level pursuit and attack machine.” It hadretractable landing gear and a .30-caliber forward-firing gun that fired through the propeller, plus provisions for a flexible gun mounted in the aft cockpit. Foreign governments began ordering the BTs and BCs with different customizations, includingwing-mounted guns, bomb racks, larger fuel tanks, more powerful engines, and three-bladed propellers.
The BC-1 led to the AT-6 (for Advanced Trainer), and the original order of 94 grew into thousands with a number ofvariations, capabilities and nicknames, such as the Yale, Harvard, Texan, J-Bird, Wirraway, Ceres, Boomerang, Tomcat andMosquito. The U.S. services redesignated the aircraft T-6 under a Department of Defense order in the 1960s.
Author Smith states at the outset that his work “is not claimed as the definitive history of the T-6, so much as a loving pictorial tribute.” It is just that, and puts a photo story of the Six between hard covers, where it belongs. He presents a selection ofsharp color and black-and-white shots that show the transformations the aircraft has gone through and the many markings ithas borne. Those who have flown the Six will want to have T-6: A Pictorial Record of the Harvard, Texan and Wirrawayfor nostalgic purposes; those who want to fly it will find the book makes the yearning more desperate.