The T-6 Texan is over 70 years old and is still a legend in the aviation world. It is referred to as the Pilot Maker because of all of the pilots it taught during WWII and continues to teach today the fine art of flying big engine tail wheel airplanes. The Texan is considered the basic trainer for those who want to transition into a Mustang or other high performance warbirds. However, with over 8,500 hours in the Mustang, Lee Lauderback will be the first to say jokingly, “the P-51 Mustang is a great trainer for the T-6 Texan!” The Mustang is easier to handle in several areas of operation, especially ground handling and crosswind situations. The Texan has been and still is a demanding teacher, not willing to compromise on basic rules and will slap you hard with the proverbial ruler if you break them.
However there is a new Texan in town. The Texan II made by Hawker Beechcraft has taken over the role of teaching military pilots how to fly and fight. The new Texan was designed and developed by Beechcraft to win the Joint Primary Aircraft Training System (JPATS) competition in the 1990s. The T-6A was first introduced to Moody AFB and Randolph AFB in 2000-2001 eventually replacing the USAF T-37Bs and the Navy’s T-34Cs.
But will it really replace the original Texan? To make a true comparison Hawker Beech flew an AT-6 from its home base in Wichita, Kansas, to Stallion 51’s flight operations center in Kissimmee, Florida. President and Chief pilot, Lee Lauderback, would fly the new AT-6 to give his expert opinion of the flight and handling characteristics of this younger generation of Texan.
The AT-6 is the light attack and armed reconnaissance version of the US Air Force and US Navy Texan II series. The AT-6 has a more powerful 1600 SHP Pratt and Whitney PT6A-68D engine capable of a top speed of 320 kts with its+7 G to -3.5 G airframe. The “T” in AT-6 stands for trainer but the “Coyote” as Beechcraft AT-6 pilots call it, means business. According to Andrew Vaughn, Hawker Beechcraft demonstration and test pilot, “The single power lever makes the AT-6 fly like a jet even though it is a turboprop.” In contrast, the WWII era Texan has a 600 hp Pratt & Whitney 1340 radial with top speeds of 205 mph and +5.6 G to -2.3 G airframe. The T-6 G did see combat as battlefield surveillance in the Korean War. Retired from the US military in the 1950s, the T-6 was used by several foreign countries in combat and training into the 1990s. Since 1938, more than17,000 T-6 variations were built by North American Aviation, the same aircraft company that built the legendary P-51 Mustang.
As Lauderback flew the new AT-6 in formation with both Stallion 51’s T-6G and P-51, the differences and similarities were apparent. It turns out that the new Texan is closer to the performance characteristics of the Mustang than the original Texan.
Lauderback noted, “Many of the P-51 numbers are the same or similar as the AT-6’s. Gear, flaps, rotation speeds, best climb are the same. Weight and horsepower are similar along with wing areas. Fuel capacity is virtually the same: 184 gal Mustang; 186 gal Coyote. Additionally like the D-Model Mustang, visibility from the bubble glass canopy is exceptional.
Stallion 51’s Crazy Horse 2 was flying in formation with the new AT-6 for a photo shoot with world-renowned photographer Paul Bowen. Crazy Horse was at home with the Coyote as it has been in many formation flights with various different types of military fighters as part of the USAF Heritage Flight Program. On any given weekend Lauderback and Crazy Horse may be flying with an F-22, F-16, F-15, or A-10 or all of the above representing the heritage of the United States Air Force.
Flying the new AT-6 in formation with Stallion’s T-6 Texan, the age difference is apparent. The WWII era T-6 looks vintage. Big round engine, curved art deco lines, zaftig structure, all give it that historic look. In the case of this particular T-6, it does have a unique history. Built at the end of 1944, it was eventually stationed in Hawaii after the war. It carries the nickname “THANG” because of the original Territory of Hawaii Air National Guard markings on the side-panel.
In 1957, “THANG” was purchased by Walter Dillingham, its first civilian owner. Walter Dillingham and his family are famous in Hawaii. Many streets, buildings and an Air Field on Oahu’s North Shore is named after his son, a B-29 pilot who was killed in action over Japan.
After surviving through many years and several owners, “THANG” was purchased by Stallion 51 in 2004 as a trainer for Initial Checkout, Mustang Transition Training and Orientation Flights.
The T-6 of old demands immediate and correct input during abnormal flight situations. The new AT-6 with its “contemporary engineering is a much more forgiving aircraft to fly. It is a stable aircraft and very predictable during stall and spin recoveries practiced by Air Force and Navy student pilots. The AT-6 retains the docile handling characteristics of the trainer but has all of the maneuverability required for the light attack mission,” explains Derek Hess, Hawker Beechcraft’s Director of Light Attack. “It is an agile aircraft with a great roll rate even faster than a Mustang. Light stick forces allows you to feel the airplane.”
Lauderback compares the new AT-6’s handling to the Mustang, “the Mustang has extremely good control harmony as does the new AT-6. They both have rock solid directional stability along with excellent performance, control and acceleration.” He goes on to say that the “P-51 Mustang is THE quintessential fighter. However; Hawker Beechcraft took a lot of lessons learned from their predecessors and improved upon them.
In WWII, the hard earned lessons taught by the “Pilot Maker” would prepare the pilot to step into the cockpit of any front line fighter and go into battle. However except for the T-6Gs used in Korea, the T-6 was left behind when the “boys went off to war” in the fighters. The Texan II “allows a pilot to go from learning to combat in the same series aircraft,” according to Vaughan.
The AT-6 allows the pilot to grow into it as their skill set advances. Instead of transitioning to a jet fighter, the pilot is able to access more of the AT-6’s mission systems and combat technology when ready. It is an incredibly versatile aircraft that offers the best of the training attributes along with combat mission systems normally found in front line fighters.
According to Tom Tyson, Hawker Beechcraft Regional Executive NORTHCOM, the “AT-6 can bring weapons to the fight as well as stay on station for long durations to deliver precision weapons effects to support ground forces. It has the ability to gain and maintain situational awareness with its sophisticated communications and datalink capabilities which decreases the likelihood of collateral damage.”
According to Hess, “Lee’s quantitative evaluation will be part of the official “First Article Testing” report used to prove the utility of the AT-6 for light aircraft missions. Lee was chosen because of his flight time in high performance propeller driven aircraft, along with his experience in Qualitative Evaluation work with the Navy Test Pilot School as a civilian instructor. His expert opinion on the performance of the AT-6 is valued by the Hawker Beechcraft team.”
The old and new Texans are not rivals but relatives and “it was an honor share the history and the heritage and the future of Airpower with the Stallion 51 team,” Hess said as he closed with the Stallion crew after a long day of playing air-tag with the AT-6 and the P-51.