North American AT-6:
The Mighty Texan

Budd Davisson

It could be argued that the AT-6/SNJ Texan was the most important U.S. aircraft of WWII. It was/is big, noisy and can be cantankerous on occasion, but once a student mastered the Texan, every other airplane, Mustang on down was a walk in the park. It took a green student and made a real pilot out of him. That’s why the US was so successful putting pilots with less than 200 hours total time into combat: their Mustangs and Hellcats were so much easier to fly than the Texan that in nothing flat they were at home in their new mounts.

As trainers go, the Texan could easily be the best one ever built. Except for the numbers on the airspeed indicator, it feels exactly like you’re flying a WWII fighter in slow motion. It also mimics the worse habits a young pilot would ever see in the faster, heavier combat aircraft.

In the air, the airplane can dance with the best of them and is a joy to do big, swooping aerobatics in. But, it has its dark side and that’s one of the factors that makes it such a great trainer. It’s absolutely unforgiving when slow. Pull just a little too hard at any given speed and it’ll stall and snap out (usually to the right) with practically no warning. It’s the rare Texan pilot who attempts his first loop without stalling out on top only to have the airplane arc around in a majestic, slow snap roll as it rolls right side up then tries to continue into a spin.

Once it is spinning, it’s as stable as a house and asks only that you get full opposite rudder and forward stick to recover. No big deal. Just like any other airplane, right? Wrong! As it stops rotating, where most airplanes would allow you to bring the nose up, in the Texan you have to show more than a little patience—pull a little too soon and you’ll find yourself in a secondary stall and spinning in the other direction. Take your time. Let it accelerate for a few seconds, then start the nose up.

On landing the airplane can make a real believer of you—it’s critical that you keep the tail behind the nose and kill all crosswind drift prior to touch down. Hit a little crooked or let the tail start around on you and your legs suddenly seem too short, too weak and too slow. Get it on straight and it’s a real gentleman. Let it get crooked and it is definitely no gentleman. That narrow gear and high CG are just made for exciting ground handling.

Still, it isn’t a dangerous airplane. Yes, it has its demanding characteristics but it’ll do the same thing, the same way every single time, and that is the mark of an honest airplane. It challenges its students just enough that they are forced to grow without being beaten down. And that’s the mark of a great teacher and sixty years later it’s still the only pipeline into a fighter.

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