From Obscurity to Omnipresence
The North American T-6 Texan, or Harvard as it was known in British Commonwealth service, is about as legendary as any aircraft could possibly be. Serving as the standard advanced trainer for Allied pilots throughout the Second World War, it attained a level of fame and recognition for itself that easily equals aircraft such as the Spitfire and Mustang fighters that it prepared pilots for. Today, it remains as easily recognized and celebrated as any of the combat aircraft it was used to train pilots for.
For all the accolades the aircraft earned in both wartime and in post war service, its beginnings are to be found in a rather unremarkable and unassuming pre-war trainer; North American Aviation’s model NA-16. Having first flown in 1935, the NA-16 would become the progenitor for a huge family of closely related training aircraft produced in a mind boggling number of sub-variants that would number over 17,000 aircraft when the last of its many descendant aircraft rolled of the assembly lines. The greatest percentage of the family were the Texan/Harvard line, which numbered around 15,500 examples.
The road from NA-16 to the Texan and Harvard included the NA-26, a modified NA-16 which was entered into a U.S. Army Air Corps competition for a new basic combat aircraft. The NA-26 won the competition and went into production under the designation BC-1.
The Texan and Harvard Proper
A full survey of all the aircraft types which can trace their lineage back to the NA-16 would result in an article nearly as convoluted and confusing as the aircraft family itself. In the interest of clarity, I’m limiting my scope strictly to the Texan/Harvard branch of the family tree and their most immediate family members.
The BC-1 led to three lines of trainers; the AT- series for the U.S. Army, the SNJ- series for the U.S. Navy and Marines and the Harvard series for the British Commonwealth. In many cases, the difference between aircraft is simply one of the naming conventions of the service it was in.
Corollaries and Contraries
As stated in the previous section, many Texan, SNJ and Harvard variants are identical with the exception of the name; let’s begin our closer look at this family by looking at what is the same between them:
Closest to the BC-1 were the baseline AT-6, SNJ-1 and 2 and the Harvard I and II.
The AT-6A Texan existed also as the SNJ-3 and Harvard IIB.
The AT-6C had direct counterparts in the SNJ-4 and the Harvard IIA.
The AT-6D was also known as SNJ-5 and Harvard III.
The AT-6F existed in the U.S. Navy as the SNJ-6 but had no Harvard counterpart.
In the post war context; many Texans were rebuilt and renamed as the T-6G and T-6H, The naval SNJ-7 came into being in similar fashion.
The family did have members built in lesser numbers or small batches modified for the needs of the specific service they were in:
The AT-6B was a gunnery training version with accommodation for rear firing guns in the back section of the cockpit. Less than 500 were built.
A number of each of the SNJ-3/4 and 5 variants were modified with tail hooks and other specific gear to satisfy the naval need to train pilots for aircraft carrier operations.
The SNJ-7 was modified into an armed variation known as the SNJ-7B.
The name Harvard IIA was used on two different aircraft; the Commonwealth’s version of the AT-6C and a Canadian specific armed trainer version.
The Harvard 4 was a post war production of the aircraft by Canadian Car and Foundry for the Royal Canadian Air Force and several other nations. While some references state the Harvard 4 to be counterpart to the T-6G, this is not truly the case. While the T-6G was created by rebuilding existing airframes, the Harvard 4 line were completely new production machines.
In Service and Beyond
Through both war and peace, literally hundreds of thousands of trainee pilots around the world spent time at the controls of a Texan or Harvard. It was stepping stone between the basic DeHavilland Tiger Moth and Stearman trainers and the front line combat types that had a learning curve all of its own.
It had a reputation as a demanding teacher which could be a great pleasure to fly but also had enough vices and idiosyncrasies that no laziness or complacency on the pilot’s part could be afforded if the plane and pilot were to return to the ground in one piece.
While always a trainer in the main. the aircraft had a very long service life and flew in the armed forces of over 60 countries. The aircraft’s simple and durable construction, along with affordability, easy maintenance and ability to carry weapons has led it to see combat in several places over the years.
In the post war years, many were modified for roles representing other aircraft in films. A well known example of this can be seen in the film “Tora! Tora! Tora!” which used them to represent Japanese Mitsubishi Zero fighters.
Today, many examples of this aircraft family remain flyable and on the airshow circuits to entertain us thanks to the number in which they were built and as passionate a fan base as any vintage aircraft could hope for. It seems set to stay that way for several years to come.
Perhaps the greatest sign of reverence for the Texan and Harvard can be seen in the Beechcraft T-6 training aircraft, which currently serves with the U.S. military as the Texan II and, fittingly, in the Canadian military under the name Harvard II.
This article from 2011 gives a look into what keeps the aircraft popular today and the challenges of flying it:
This article from 1939 gives some insight into how the RAF saw the aircraft when it entered service with them: