BT-13 Opener

Vultee's BT-13 Pilot Maker
Good vibrations from the Vultee Vibrator

Text and photos by Budd Davisson, Air Progress, August, 1972,

Bill Riddle's BT-13A Isn't an airplane, it's a 450-hp ticket to the past. Almost every visit to an airport brings out at least one member of the I-trained-in-BT-Its club. Few graduates of WWII flight schools, Navy or Air Force, escaped the clutches of the Vullee BT-13/SNV. When I first saw M043, all dressed up in its WW-II Luke Field markings, I too had a sudden attack of nostalgia, but mine had nothing to do with World War II- Some 24 years ago, my father paid $4W for a surplus BT, had the name of our store painted on the side, and towed it around local county fairs for the kids to sit in. I wonder if the distinctly military smell of this leaky old aluminum school marm infected other boys the same way it did me.
As I climbed into Bill Riddle's airplane, I was suddenly back playing fighter pilot in the vacant lot next to our house, in what I thought was the greatest airplane in the world. 1 wonder where USAAF 35467 is now?
BT stands for basic trainer, and as such it tell midway between the P for primary of the PT-17s, 19s and 26s, and the A of the AT-6 Texan advanced trainer. The BT-13 was the airplane that introduced a generation of pilots to constant-speed props (although some had two-position propellers only), manifold pressure and lots of horsepower with matching noise.
As originally designed, the BF-13 was part of a litter—it had three brothers. Vultee decided that rather than design one airplane, they'd design an entire family, trainer to fighter. The primary trainer was to be the B-541, the advanced trainer with retracting gear was the B-54, a combat trainer was the BC-51 and the single-seat fighter was the P-48. All these designs died in infancy except the P-48, which was produced in small numbers for foreign governments, and for the USAAF as the P-66. The B-541 survived to become the BT-13 for the USAAF and the SNV for the Navv.
The idea behind this related design effort was to produce airplanes that used common components, but still gave the performance needed for different roles. The center sections and tails were the same on several of the models, and all wings were built in basically the same jigs. This is why the lumbering BT-13 has a nearly symmetrical airfoil, something a fighter needs, but which a trainer certainly could do without.
As with most military trainers, the BT-13 was built to take the beating it was going to get from ham-handed students. The complete cockpit section, engine to tail cone, is a tubing trusswork that's almost guaranteed to protect the pilots hiding inside. A derrick-like rollover structure sticks up between the cockpits.

BT-13 From Behind
Although the lines are significantly different, the BT-13 still gets mistake for an AT-6 sometimes.

A number of BTs were cranked out with plywood tailcones and empennages. These may have been the result of wartime shortages, and many pilots speak of looking up into the rearview mirror during a snap roll to see the entire tail section lagging behind the rest of the airplane by several degrees. This usually cured them from doing snap rolls. Another characteristic that discouraged snaps was the way the wing fuel tanks needed only the slightest excuse to start leaking.
Most BT-13s had the well-known Pratt & Whitney R-985. Apparently, however, there was some sort of delivery hangup with this 450-hp coffee grinder because a variant of the BT-13 was equipped with the 420-hp Wright R-975. These Wright-powered Vultees were redesignated BT-15s.
Bill Riddle's airplane couldn't look better if it had been built yesterday—or even this morning. Most wartime trainers bear the scars of many students stomping up the wing walk and trying to throw their heavy flight boots over the cockpit side, but missing. M043 is unscarred because it was never truly a trainer. According to the records researched by Riddle, his BT-13 was the personal ship of the commander of a training squadron. Apparently, the airplane spent more time being polished than flown—and it certainly looks it.
Riddle tries to make people understand that his airplane has never been restored—it was never allowed to get run down in the first place. Since its discharge in 1945, it has always been somebody's Sunday afternoon plaything. Bill says the only problem he has with the airplane, wherever he goes, is that everybody thinks it's a T-6—a mistake easily made.