by Budd Davisson
Hereís 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 ìBuffî, 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 Navyís basic trainer? It flew for the first time December 2, 1948. 56 years ago! There may be older birds out there, but they arenít being thrashed day in and day out by students like the T-34 is.
Not only is the T-34ís 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 Stearmanís and AT-6ís left over from the war. Then he looked at his recently certified Model 35 ìBonanzaî 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 itís 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 youíre in a warbird. It may not have a Pratt and Whitney or Merlin up front, but you arenít 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 isnít 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.
Itís 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 ìGî still on it, and weíre headed downhill, looking for that tell tale ìbumpî that says weíve 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 itís a warbird for the masses. Sort of a Volkssturmflugen, if that makes any sense at all.