|Proud new owner Bill French polished the horizontal stabilizer of his T-6G Texan, the AirVenture 1997 Warbird Grand Champion. French flew his Texan to Oshkosh this year. (photo by Frederick A. Johnsen)
By Frederick A. Johnsen
August 1, 2013 - Three-quarters of a century ago, the progenitor of the North American Texan advanced trainer ripped the sky with the distinctive Texan roar for the first time. Technically, it was a British-bound Harvard variant, but the type will be forever associated with its name in American service, the T-6 (or Navy SNJ) Texan.
At EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2013, more than 70 of the ubiquitous trainers - some Texans, some Harvards - have gathered to commemorate their longevity. Texan pilots say this is the largest gathering of the clan since the 60th anniversary when more than 100 Texans shared ramp space.
Texan owners say their fellow Harvard, T-6, and SNJ owners are a congenial lot, and they enjoy camaraderie through organizations like the North American Trainer Association (NATA). And NATA is about more than camaraderie, sponsoring college scholarships in aviation-related fields.
The ranks of Texan owners keep changing and growing as pilots like Bill French from St. Louis, Missouri, buy the trainers from previous owners. French bought the 1997 AirVenture Warbird Grand Champion, a slick T-6G, in February and flew it to Oshkosh for this year's events. He's put 40 hours on it since acquiring the Texan in February.
The Texan has been called the Pilot Maker - its handling traits were more demanding than the primary and basic trainers that preceded it in a typical military curriculum. It bridged the gap between docile trainers and high-performance fighters for a generation of pilots.
The Texan was a rite of passage for new pilots. It endures in the lore of aviation. It also endures because owners and restorers have amassed enough parts to keep the fleet aloft. One part that could become critical to find is left wing panels. That's because the Texan more often ground loops on that side. Not that Texan pilots are prone to such events, but three-quarters of a century of operations can take a toll on the inventory.
Pilot-owner Bob Lessman brought his Texan to Oshkosh 2013 from Sacramento, California, on a three-day pleasure trip. His airplane is a cosmopolitan mix of Navy SNJ wings mated to a Harvard center section attached to an Air Force T-6 fuselage - and covered in a Marine Corps paint scheme.
With more than 15,000 of the breed built, co-mingling of parts is likely by now.
Fred Johnson, a Florida Texan owner, says the aircraft typically burns 30 gallons of gasoline an hour. Depending on engine age and other variables, that fuel burn produces a cruising speed between 140 and 170 mph, he says.
A batch of T-6s received a rejuvenation around 1949, emerging as almost-new T-6G models. Texans served in combat as forward air controllers over Korea.
The NATA says a total of 76 countries ultimately employed Texans or Harvards in military service. The last military use of the type ended in 1995 when South Africa retired its large military fleet of the trainers.
With its long multi-paned canopy and low-wing fighter-like appearance, the Texan has been a natural stand-in for the Mitsubishi Zero fighter in movies and air shows for decades. Modified Texans made especially convincing Zeros and Kate torpedo bombers for the 1970 movie Tora! Tora! Tora! Veterans of that film are at Oshkosh 2013.
With enthusiasm for Texans and Harvards running high, the prospects for another 75 years of their distinctive rasp is good.