Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Chapter 17: The Training Game

Owner Bob Schindler brings his T-34A Mentor up close to the photo Bonanza despite inclement weather over Apple Valley. The writer found this T-34A with an IO-520 engine to be a spirited aerobatic mount, with good handling qualities.

My initial flying training was carried out on the DHC-1 Chipmunk, an experience shared by thousands of other Royal Air Force-trained pilots. I had also flown the Chipmunks’s predecessor, the Tiger Moth. I had found the Chipmunk to be a delightful aeroplane. Having a fixed undercarriage(landing gear), fixed pitch propeller and minimal blind flying aids it was a simple aircraft to operate. The Tiger Moth had been even simpler but demanded different flying techniques because of the high drag biplane configuration and the relatively ineffective ailerons. On both aircraft, takeoff and landing was an acquired art. The Tiger Moth had a tailskid and no brakes. Landing on wet grass could be exciting. The Chipmunk was another taildragger and I witnessed one or two tire-squealing ground loops on the runway during my University Air Squadron days.

By the time I learned to fly in the sixties, all-through jet training was already in full swing in RAF Training Command, using the Jet Provost. But back in the fifties the RAF student flew the Chipmunk before transitioning to the Hunting Percival Provost, powered by a 400HP Leonides piston engine. Now that was really moving up in complexity. But by then of course the RAF student pilot had a respectable number of hours under his belt.

At the same time, training in the USA was proceeding along a different track. The USAF student pilot was thrown in at the deep end, starting his flying on the Beech T-34A Mentor. The Mentor had a retractable gear, constant speed propeller and all of 225 HP. To my way of thinking this was a big step, but then I had only seen the Mentor in photographs, barely remembering shots of these silver trainers droning over the American heartland. Of course they had long since been retired, to be replaced by the T-37A jet trainer, just as the RAF had gone to all-through jet training on the Jet Provost.

Shortly after arriving in California, I had noticed an immaculate T-34A in USAF colors tied down in the transient parking area at Hawthorne airport. I was curious to see a Mentor in the flesh and took time out to walk around the trainer. I had flown a Beech Bonanza and been impressed by the performance. The Mentor had been derived from the Bonanza. I could see the resemblance. The Mentor looked just as it had in those old photos.
Or did it?
At close range this Mentor was not the standard T-34A that I remembered. It had a three-blade propeller instead of the standard two-blader, and it sported a glossy silver-gray Imron paint scheme, while still carrying those 1950-vintage buzz numbers on its fuselage. Closer inspection revealed the small legend N574 on the rear fuselage. My curiosity over this civilian-registered aircraft increased greatly.

I eventually met Bob Schindler, owner of this T-34A, who told me the saga of N574. This particular Mentor 55-274 was manufactured by Beech Aircraft in July 1956 as one of the last production batch of 350 Mentors. The T-34A served with the USAF until its training task was eliminated by the introduction of the jet T-37 during 1960. At this time the T-34As were declared surplus to requirements and made available to USAF Aero Clubs, the Civil Air Patrol, and a few civilian owners. So 55-274 served with the Civil Air Patrol, was eventually declared surplus to requirements and was bought by Bob. He ferried it back from Garland, Texas to Long Beach and started restoring the aircraft.

Bob’s photos of the Mentor taken at that time showed a well-used airframe suffering from neglect, with peeling paint giving the aircraft a final touch of weariness. It was his aim not to just restore this machine. A simple restoration would not be enough. Bob had a dream of the precise machine that he wanted to own at the completion of his work. His goal was not to have just a cross-country machine, but a sprightly aerobatic mount.

As the original IO-470-13a in the Mentor was as weary as the airframe, it was replaced by an IO-520b with this bigger engine driving a new three-blade propeller. Extensive work on the airframe, a new paint scheme, and both cockpit interiors took countless hours over the years before the aircraft was transformed into its current pristine condition. At the time when I first saw it at Hawthorne, Bob was using it to commute from his home in the desert community of Apple Valley into Hawthorne, the nearest airport to LAX, where he flew DC-10s for Western Airlines.

On a windy November day at Apple Valley, my curiosity about this potent warbird was to be satisfied, as Bob had invited me to fly his aircraft. As I strapped into the front cockpit, carefully tightening first the parachute straps, then the lap and shoulder straps of the aerobatic seat harness, I felt again the military atmosphere of this aircraft. The feeling was reinforced by the gray cockpit interior, the crowded panel flanked by switch-laden consoles on both sides of the pilot, the floor-mounted stick and a hefty throttle lever mounted amidst a cluster of prop and mixture levers in a quadrant on the left cockpit wall.

The unmistakable military cockpit of the T-34A Mentor, with a crowded instrument panel, a beefy throttle on the left hand cockpit wall in a quadrant, and all painted standard military gray.

I had a momentary struggle to reach down and release the gust lock from the base of the control column. I should have known. Designers in those days always had at least one trick up their sleeves to catch the first-time student after he had strapped in. (The Chipmunk had a floor-mounted fuel selector hidden at the base of the stick.)

Bob was riding shotgun in the rear cockpit and we fired up the engine while I retightened my shoulder harness. I slid my canopy forward, shutting out the gusty wind and the propwash from the idling engine. Then I took stock of the situation. Full instrumentation for the complete training task, including instrument flying, was fitted in a logical manner on the wide instrument panel. The seating position was a lot higher than in the Bonanza. Visibility over the nose was good, and the fighter-type sliding canopy gave superb all-round vision.

I taxied out, nosewheel steering making the task of maneuvering on the congested ramp an easy one. The civilian instructors at the contract primary flying schools must have been overjoyed at the arrival of the T-34A. The Mentor had replaced the AT-6. I had flown the Marine SNJ version of the AT-6 and could sympathize with the task of teaching students to taxi that unwieldy taildragging monster with its forward view restricted by the great radial cowling. The days of S-turning along taxiways vanished forever with the arrival of the T-34A.

Reaching the run-up area at the mid-point of the single Apple Valley runway, I set the parking brake and went carefully through the pre-takeoff checks. Fuel selector on the left tank, then I checked from left to right around the still unfamiliar cockpit. Easing the throttle up to give 1800rpm brought a healthy roar from the engine. I checked the magnetos with the big rotary switch down by my left knee, and then cycled the prop. Once assured that everything in the power department was in order, I visually checked that the approach was clear, released the parking brake and rolled gently out onto Runway 18.

A thirty-knot wind was blowing from the south-west across the desert. As I opened the throttle I held aileron into wind as we accelerated, to prevent the upwind wing from rising.

The noise level was impressive, as was the acceleration, and I rotated at seventy knots, raised the gear, stabilized in the climb at 100 knots and pulled the power back from twenty-eight inches of manifold pressure, setting up for the climb at twenty-five inches MP and 2,500 rpm.
The Mentor climbed smoothly, despite areas of choppy air which made it difficult to stabilize the rate of climb. On our flight out to Apple Valley in the Bonanza that morning, we had been pursued by the advance guard of an approaching Pacific storm. Clouds had been increasing and the wind had been constantly rising throughout the morning. It was forecast to get worse.

At 7,500 feet I set up the Mentor in a cruise at a leisurely 145 knots at 2,400 rpm. The aircraft initially tried to climb until I realized that I was subconsciously using the same visual cues that I normally used on the Bonanza. As I was sitting about two feet higher than my seating position in the Bonanza, the nose was now too high. A quick correction on the big knurled trim wheel down by my left knee rectified the situation and we settled down in the cruise over the dried-up river bed of the Mojave River.

The IO-520 rumbled away ahead of me. Fuel flow was down to 14gph in the cruise, making the Mentor a reasonably economical machine for cross-country flying. The cockpit was roomy, even with a parachute restricting the available space. Visibility was impressive and more than adequate for operation out of a crowded training base or for visual navigation.

“Want to try some aerobatics?” Bob asked. “ Do anything you want to apart from snap rolls.” I needed no second bidding. I started with a loop. As the nose passed the vertical during the climb I looked upwards, past the windscreen arch and up through the canopy in anticipation of the horizon appearing. There was the jagged skyline of the San Gabriel mountains hanging inverted above me, silhouetted against a sky full of ominous lenticular clouds as the approaching frontal system crept in from the Pacific. Airspeed and g-force increased as we dived easily out of the loop, tracking along one of those endless desert roads to keep straight.
Pulling the nose up through the horizon I checked that the speed was exactly 130 knots, checked forward to hold the nose at fifteen degrees above the horizon, then pushed the stick over to the left. The Mentor rolled effortlessly and I snapped the stick back to kill the roll rate as the desert floor came level underneath us again.
This was fun.

I twisted round in my seat, checking for other traffic. The sky was clear, but I suddenly realized that I was looking at the stars and bars on the port wing. A glance to my right revealed USAF on the starboard wing. Of course. The military trainer. The handling was very like the old Chipmunk after all. In those far-off days I used railway tracks for orientation during aerobatics over the Isle of Wight. My wings then were adorned with RAF roundels rather than the USAF insignia, but the aircraft handling was very similar. The controls were well harmonized and all the basic maneuvers were accomplished with no trim changes or unexpected behavior. Stalls were docile, with just a murmur of pre-stall buffeting before a straight nose drop. Steep turns were enjoyable, those precise ailerons making it easy to roll into the turns. It was all rather exhilarating.

After our brief aerobatic session we descended on a northerly heading for Apple Valley. An encounter with rough air during the descent reminded me that this was a very stable aircraft. The T-34A maintained its trimmed attitude despite the chop. There was none of the directional tail-wagging which we had encountered earlier that day in the V-tailed Bonanza.
Entering the pattern at Apple Valley I set up for a 4,000 feet downwind leg (one thousand feet pattern altitude above field elevation of 3,000 feet) and let the airspeed bleed off to 100 knots. At mid-field I reached forward and pushed the gear handle down. The three magnetic indicators changed in turn from UP to show the three wheels down and locked.
Now with prop fully forward and partial flaps I came round in a curving descent, letting the speed taper off to eighty knots on finals. The windsock still showed a strong crosswind from the right, but the T-34A came down the centerline as if on rails. Touchdown was gentle and there was no problem controlling the aircraft directionally despite the crosswind. As the Mentor tracked down the centerline I advanced the throttle, retracted the flaps and we climbed away again. As the gear locked up, the lamp in the gear handle winked out and the indicators tumbled back to show UP again. In the strong wind we were already almost at pattern altitude as the upwind end of the runway passed beneath the wings. I banked round on to the downwind leg and pushed the gear handle down as we passed mid-field.
This time only two down-and-locked indications appeared, suggesting that we only had the nose and right main gears locked down. I looked apprehensively at the panel, like a first-time visitor to Las Vegas willing the last window of the fruit machine to produce a winning selection. The third window remained obstinately showing UP. I mentioned this to Bob, fearing the worst.
“Tap the indicator” he chuckled. I tentatively tapped the panel and sure enough the reluctant indicator flipped over to show the third wheel down and locked. I curved round on to final approach, in a steeper turning descent now that I was more familiar with the handling. Touchdown was uneventful and we turned off at mid-field. I taxied back to the terminal building, parked in our slot and shut down. As the engine died I slid the canopy back. The gusting desert wind reminded me to slip the control lock into place before disembarking.
As we dashed for the shelter of the terminal building to escape the wind I turned for a last look. The Mentor still looked a purposeful training machine and I had found it a very sprightly aircraft.

The T-34A did not have a long career in the USAF. It was introduced on course 55-M at Marana, Arizona in May 1954 and was phased out in 1960. This was not a reflection on the design; it was just that the aircraft was overtaken by events. The Mentor originally superseded the AT-6 because of the need for a more suitable trainer for budding jet pilots. Students aiming for qualification as jet-rated pilots in the fifties flew forty hours in the T-34A, followed by 90 hours in the big radial-engined T-28 before graduating to the T-33 jet trainer.
Beech had developed their two-seat military primary trainer from the civil Bonanza. This was the A45 which flew for the first time on 2 December 1948. The USAF acquired three Model 45s, and designated them as YT-34s, for evaluation and testing at Randolph Field during 1950. The Mentor was subsequently selected as the primary USAF trainer under the designation of T-34A, with three hundred and fifty eventually being produced for the USAF.
But in the training game, through-jet training was the coming thing. Beech saw the writing on the wall and redesigned the Mentor for jet power, flying its Model 73 Jet Mentor prototype on 18 December 1955. However it was Cessna who won the contract for the new jet trainer. It was their T-37 which was to shoulder the burden of primary training until the last one retired in 2009.
Other air forces around the world were to continue to fly T-34As for many years. The U S Navy operated their own T-34Bs, then turned to turbine power with the T-34C, using a derated PT-6. The Navy eventually bought a total of 155 T-34Cs most of which have now been retired.
These days, mainly private owners keep the T-34 fleet flying. Massed formations of T-34s have been featured at the annual EAA Convention at Oshkosh every summer. Not bad for a fifty-year old design.

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