The Beechcraft T-34:
Better, not Older
Here’s an interesting question: of all the airplanes
still being flown regularly by the U.S. Armed forces, which is the oldest?
There are still a few Phantoms out there. They arrived on the scene around
1959. Of course the old “Buff”, the B-52 first spread its
mighty wings an unbelievable 52 years ago, in April of 1952. What could
possibly be older than that? How about the lowly T-34, that is still the
Navy’s basic trainer? It flew for the first time December 2, 1948.
56 years ago! There may be older birds out there, but they aren’t
being thrashed day in and day out by students like the T-34 is.
Not only is the T-34’s long heritage often lost to the public eye,
but the very fact that it was a private venture personally promoted by
Walter Beech and Beechcraft Aircraft, is practically unknown. Mr. Beech
looked around at the post war Flight Training Command and the motley combination
of Stearman’s and AT-6’s left over from the war. Then he looked
at his recently certified Model 35 “Bonanza” and decided that
not only did the military need a new trainer, but he already had it. So,
he built it.
The final product of the Bonanza re-design is an unbelievably smooth,
wonderful flying airplane. The Bonanza in its bones shows through, but
in reality, as the years went on, the T-34 became it’s own design.
The later Charlie models, with the PT-6 turbine in its pointy nose are
even further departures from the Bonanza and actually owe more to the
twin-engined Baron for its parts and structure.
In recent years, the T-34A (Air Force model) and the T-34B (Navy version)
have become the much sought-after darlings of the warbird set and you
only have to fly one once to realize why.
For one thing, when you slide down into that cockpit and fire it up with
the canopy still open, you know for a fact that you’re in a warbird.
It may not have a Pratt and Whitney or Merlin up front, but you aren’t
feeding one either. The airplane fits perfectly and, with its nose-dragger
configuration gives a tremendous view down the runway. That also means
the pilot isn’t going to have his skill challenged, which opens
the warbird field to many more weekend pilots. In truth, the T-34 has
to be the easiest-to-land military airplane ever built. Takeoff and landings
are total non-events.
In the air the airplane just loves to play. The ailerons are typical Beechcraft,
which is to say reasonably light, extremely smooth and very willing to
let the pilot do any kind of roll he wants. Even though the engine coughs
and barfs if you get it even close to zero-G, you can still do any variation
of inside maneuver you can think of.
It’s an absolute joy to start the nose up from a slight dive and
glance from wing tip to wing tip as you feel the G building in the pull.
Then the wings begin to make that characteristic curlicue motion as the
airplane goes up hill and pulls over on its back. As soon as the nose
starts past vertical, you crane your head back, looking straight overhead
trying to catch your first glimpse of the horizon. This is how you make
sure the wings are level with the horizon, as you go over the top, and
a bit of rudder or aileron here and there is sometimes called for.
Lighten up on the elevator just a hair to let it coast over the top with
just a little positive “G” still on it, and we’re headed
downhill, looking for that tell tale “bump” that says we’ve
hit our own slipstream and the loop was on line. Very cool!
The T-34 Mentor in all its many variations is one of those airplanes you
can just see parked in your hangar because it’s a warbird for the
masses. Sort of a Volkssturmflugen, if that makes any sense at all.
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