Vintage Flying: The Harvard
Updated: Apr 7, 2020
The North American Aviation T-6 Texan, otherwise known as the Harvard to those outside of the United States, is a single-engined advanced training aircraft used to train pilots from the United States Air Force, the Royal Air Force, the Royal Canadian Air Force, and various other nations during WW2 and beyond into the 1970s. It is still a symbol of wartime prowess and remains a popular warbird aircraft used for airshow demonstrations and static displays alike, and I had the privilege of flying it!
The opportunity to fly this Harvard, FE 511 or G-CIUW, came about just as the opportunity to fly the Tiger Moth had, via the generosity of an Air League Vintage Flying Bursary. Often an experience in a Harvard is compared with that of a Spitfire. Having only witnessed the flight of a Spitfire and not actually flown in one, I can't really back this statement. Though I can shed some light on why this may be widely believed. In it's early days, the Harvard was used as an interim trainer. A pilot would complete a course of training on the Harvard following a course learning to fly the Tiger Moth, but before going on to fly aircraft such as the Spitfire, Hurricane or Mustang. That said, the Harvard did actually see front line combat between the 1930s - 1960s with a number of nations including the Syrian Air Force and the Spanish Air Force. On paper, the only thing really comparable to the Spitfire is the size, both measuring 29 ft in length and 11ft in height and quite frankly that's where the similarities end. There are a number of key differences, most notable is that the Harvard is powered by a Pratt & Whitney R-1340-AN-Wasp radial engine, producing 600hp whereas the Spitfire boasts the classic and iconic Rolls Royce merlin supercharged V12 engine producing a princely 1470hp. With more than 15,000 Harvard's ever built, many still surviving today, and as a stepping stone trainer into the Spitfire, it does, in my opinion bring you close but definitely not parallel to the awesome presence and power of the Spitfire. That said, she’s still quite a spicey lady!
So a bit of background on this particular Harvard. She started life in the Noorduyn Aviation Factory in Montreal, Canada before entering active service with the Royal Canadian Air Force. Delivered on the 13th of October 1942 to No. 6 Service Flying Training School at Dunnville, Ontario, she resided there for the entirety of the second world war. In 1947 however, she was sold to the Swedish Air Force, and remained in Sweden until 2015 where she was acquired by Hurricane Heritage and restored to look as though she had seen service through the Royal Air Force via the lend-lease scheme of the RAF and USAF. Following restoration, she was taken on by the Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden Aerodrome where she remains today and is used to train modern day Hurricane pilots for the summer airshow season. When she’s not being used for training at Old Warden however, she is available for a handful of experience flights out of White Waltham.
Looking good for 70!
My experience flying this bonny bird began with a quick brief in the ops room of the West London Aero Club at White Waltham Airfield. A talk through of the old girl and what to expect from the owning pilot and a walk round left us ready to strap in and take her to the skies. As I climbed into my seat, I immediately felt like I was in a fighter, this is quite deliberate as young air force pilot experiencing fighter training for the first time, needed to feel like they were taking the controls of a big bird. A little ego boost such as this and surely they'd be ready to take the controls of something bigger and more powerful in a mere amount of hours.
On the left hand side are all of your primary controls; elevator, aileron, and rudder trims, as well as the landing gear, flap actuators and a stick out tail wheel lock. All of the electronics and radios being on a console on your right hand side. None of that glass cockpit nonsense here. This lady was the real deal. Meaty and old school.
They don‘t make em like that anymore.
On strapping in I really noticed the sheer size and bulk of my surroundings. I had to stack a couple of cushions on my seat as I found it quite difficult to get a good view over the top of the engine cowling, a lot of the flying and manoeuvring of this aircraft is actually done by looking out of the side windows. The Harvard felt very big and bulky around me. I didn't feel like I was strapping in and becoming one with her as is quite often the case with other aircraft.
Cranking up a round engine is an unmistakable sensation. The howl of the starter winding up and the mechanical growl of engagement are distinctive among these types of warbirds. As the engine coughs into life and blew a puff of smoke past my elbows, which were suspended over the canopy rails, I become consumed momentarily with a brief whiff of nostalgia. As soon as we started her up, the overwhelming noise of the engine struck me. It became very difficult to communicate with the other pilot as well as over the radio, despite wearing a noise cancelling headset. In the same breath, however, the juddering and shuddering of the aircraft and the roar of engine did help me to feel 'closer' to her.
Canopy pulled back and we were ready to taxi across the airfield, swirling in an S shape as we stuttered across for visibility as you can never see directly infant of you. Rolling out on the centre line, I double checked that my tailwheel had locked into place before applying full power smoothly and feeling the 600 horses start throwing this hefty piece of low-alloy steel down the runway. Taxying across the airfield and lining up with the runway felt a little heavy and stiff. Large inputs were needed to control the Harvard, a very different sensation to most other aircraft I have flown before and almost going against instinct as if you're trying to tame a beast.
Certainly a handful.
With power against the stop, the tail starts to pick up slowly and softly. As the Harvard glides smoothly into the air, the landing gear comes up and the ground quickly starts to disappear from below. We set up the climb at 30 inches of power and 2000 rpm, and to be honest didn't have to input much thereafter, apart from the occasional lookout weave. You do start to get a feeling that you are in a superb piece of military history, as you reflect briefly on the types of men and perhaps a smattering of women, who may have flown this girl before you.
Levelling off at around 6,000 ft and we transitioned into some aerobatics. A couple of loops entered at 160 kts saw us soaring and chugging through the horizon and back out the other side. Again, she felt heavy, bulky and as if she was desperately trying to take back control.
Maintaining 6,000 ft we then rolled 45 degrees to the left, pulled back on the controls and straight into an almighty rightward barrel roll. This aircraft is big on grand gestures and heavy hearted manoeuvres. Even a simple seeming clean stall needs a bit of attitude to whip back into straight and level. Spinning on the other hand doesn't take much... It is essential to let the aircraft accelerate before throwing any G into the mix, at least not until a stable speed is achieved. It's very easy to accidentally spin this thing, over anticipate the recovery and then unintentionally enter into a secondary stall and a spin in the opposite direction. Many experienced aviators have fallen foul in this magnificent beast so don't be one of them. Stay high and stay calm, yes she bites but she's extremely consistent and very predictable.
The landing phase as can be expected from how she performs in every other aspect, is a little temperamental. On the downwind leg, the landing gear comes down and I squint to see through the tiny plexiglass windows overlooking the top centre portion of the wing in order to ensure the locking pins are secure and the landing gear is definitely locked in place for touch down. After that, I set the attitude to achieve 80 kts for final approach as well as applying 45 degrees of flap. Immediately the nose lowers and I am able to see a great deal on the lead into landing.
Landing back into White Waltham.
Where this lady starts to play up is on landing itself. You can't make any assumptions on which way she will swerve on touch down, all you can do is anticipate that she definitely will swerve, so be ready to react quickly, but calmly! The trick here is to be hot on these swerves as soon as they start building, do this tentatively and there won't be any issues. Let her get too far down the runway before your feet get involved and you could soon find yourself with an upside down view of the airfield.
All in all, she may not be the spitfire of your dreams but she does run like a warbird and that's because, really, she is one. Mere numbers set you apart from flying a spitfire, they're only indications on a dial. You'll still hear that roaring engine and have smoke in your face on start up. And you'll still feel that nostalgic buzz as she throws you around the skies. She'll give you that dominatrix-esque runaround you've been longing for and she'll certainly keep you on your toes from start to finish because lets face it, she wears the trousers in this relationship.