At the Spitfire school: North American Harvard advanced trainer is massive

The North American Aviation Harvard T-6 is the last step on the training ladder for pilots who want to fly Spitfires at the Boultbee Flight Academy..

The North American Aviation Harvard is the last step on the training ladder for pilots want to fly Spitfires at the Boultbee Flight Academy.


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By Paul Jansen at the world’s only school for Spitfire pilots

The English writer Gilbert Keith Chesterton noted: “There is a road from the eye to the heart that does not go through the intellect.” Though he died just before the war and could not have seen a Harvard plane, he could just as well have had it in mind when he penned that.

Squatting on its narrow-width main undercarriage with a massive radial engine for a snout, the North American Aviation Harvard T-6 aircraft looks like a pit bull straining at the leash. The deep navy blue of the fuselage adds to the impression of menace.

As I walk up to the one registered as G-AZSC at the Boultbee Flight Academy, my brain analyses the long segmented canopy, pygmy wings, barrel-shaped body tapering down to a low tail, and very narrow width main wheel assembly, like a wrestler with a model’s legs, and says that this plane must have been designed by committee. But there is something about this visual Frankenstein that stirs something inside me.

On closer inspection it does not really look like a pitbull. Sitting there in the soft English summer sunlight, the great big Wasp engine staring at the sky, the Harvard reminds me instead of a Tibetan Mastiff, an impressively massive leonine dog used as guardians of homes. I know the Harvard’s place in history. How it was rushed out to training schools in the United States and the Commonwealth countries in the late 30s and was used to churn out hundreds of thousands of aircrew in time to win the war. In essence, it proved to be the Tibetan Mastiff of the Allied effort.

But I know that is not the reason I am drawn to the blue behemoth before me. I will look into this later. Now, I want to focus on flying the Harvard. Just two hours ago, I flew the de Havilland Tiger Moth DH82A for a second time, completing the first part of Boultbee Flight Academy’s Introductory Course to the Supermarine Spitfire fighter, and was told to get ready for the advanced trainer.

During World War II, you learned to fly in the wood and fabric Tiger Moth, but fight on the metal-framed Harvard. Students learned combat tactics and the use of weapons and practised with the Harvard’s front and rear-facing .303 calibre machine guns and eight bombs. Today, Boultbee’s students follow the same sequence, albeit in truncated form and minus the shooting.

The academy’s director of operations, Brian Jones, paired me with instructor Sam Whatmough again.

Whatmough, a British Airways flight training manager for Boeing 777s and 787s, knows how to tailor his approach to suit the different abilities of his students. He is a follower of the Benjamin Franklin School of Flight Instructors: “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”

We have done two flights together, on the Tiger Moth, since I began the course at the world’s only school for Spitfire pilots a day ago. Although I had zero experience in the pre-World War II biplane, or any tailwheel aircraft for that matter, Whatmough let me taxi, take-off, fly formation with a Chipmunk, do aerobatics and land. To bolster my confidence, he lifted both hands high in the air as we took off, to show spectators below that I was doing all the flying.  “Involve me and I learn.” Indeed.

We pre-flight G-AZSC, marked with the United States Air Force insignia. Not odd in in this airfield, the Goodwood Aerodrome in Chichester, South England. The United States’ Fighter Groups of the US 8th Air Force flew here, when the field was RAF Westhampnett and much of Europe was under the heel of the German jackboot.

Ground crew take pride in keeping G-AZSC airworthy. But a 70-year-old is entitled to a hiccup here and there. Paul Jansen (right, foreground) and his flight instructor Sam Whatmough talk to them about a glitch which has made the two of them return to base before take-off.

Ground crew take pride in keeping G-AZSC airworthy. But a 70-year-old is entitled to a hiccup here and there. Paul Jansen (right, foreground) and his flight instructor Sam Whatmough (left) talk to the maintenance professionals about a glitch which has made the two of them return to base before take-off.

The Harvard T-6 is big. Stand at the front on tip-toes, stretch your hands up, and you will be barely able to touch the top of the cowling of the 600 hp Pratt & Whitney R-1340-AN-1 Wasp air-cooled radial engine. Designed in the 1920s, it was Pratt & Whitney’s first engine.

The Tiger Moth beside it looks dainty in comparison: a maximum all up weight of 1,825 lbs compared to the Harvard’s 5,625 lbs. I clamber up the Harvard’s left wing and haul myself into the rear seat. Its pristine navy blue wings stretch out 42 feet below me from tip to tip, cutting off my view of the ground below. I am amazed at how good this 70-year-old looks on the outside and in.

Whatmough helps me strap in and goes over the emergency procedures. “When you pull the rip cord of the parachute after leaving the plane, pull it all the way,” he stresses, stretching his right hand straight up into the sky for emphasis. My gaze follows his clenched fist and continues upward.

Dark clouds are gathering on the eastern and northern ends of the airfield. Finish this flight and I am ready for the Spitfire. I listen to Whatmough but my whole being yearns to be elsewhere. In the Supermarine Spitfire Mk IX just feet away.

That is a mistake. The Harvard deserves respect.

Copyright: Paul Jansen 2013. All rights reserved.
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