Following my recent three-part Weekend Wings series on the South African Air Force (SAAF), I've had a couple of questions from warbird enthusiasts about the North American T-6 Texan trainer in South African service. I thought I'd put up the details and some pictures in a separate blog post.
I have a family link to the T-6 Texan in South Africa (or, as it was known in that country, the Harvard); my late father helped set up a number of the training airfields established in terms of the Joint Air Training Scheme. JATS would go on to train a total of 33,347 aircrew during World War II, including 12,221 for the SAAF and the remainder for the Royal Air Force (RAF) and allied services. I would later serve at or fly out of three of the airfields Dad helped to set up: Youngsfield (in Ottery, a suburb of Cape Town - it's still a military base, but no longer an airfield), and the small grass or dirt airstrips at Oudtshoorn and George (both now replaced by modern civilian facilities).
of the then-Princess (now Queen) Elizabeth of England (image courtesy of Wikipedia)
Dad was an Engineer Officer in the RAF, en route to Singapore in a large troop convoy in 1941. He was taken off his ship in Durban, South Africa, to help the SAAF solve an engineering problem with a newly-arrived squadron of Bristol Beaufort torpedo-bombers. He managed to find and fix the problem, which had caused a number of crashes; whereupon, instead of sending him on to Singapore, the SAAF promptly shanghaied him to help set up some of the training airfields they were busy establishing for JATS. He helped plan and build the maintenance facilities at these airfields. From there, he went North to the Sudan and Egypt, and then fought his way through the Western Desert campaign, as I described in Weekend Wings #9. (He always said that the SAAF's problems with its Beauforts probably saved his life. All his RAF friends went on to Singapore with the convoy, arriving just in time to be taken prisoner by the Japanese in early 1942. The majority of them didn't make it home again.)
JATS required a large number of aircraft for instructional purposes. Britain was buying thousands of North American T-6 Texan aircraft for that purpose, using them all over the world in the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (of which JATS was a part). South Africa would receive a total of 645 of them. She first received, in 1940, 12 of the original BC-1 model of 1938 (re-designated AT-6 by the USAF in 1940) from RAF stocks. It was known in that service, and therefore in South Africa too, as the Harvard Mark I. From 1942 onwards, these were followed by 392 of the AT-6C model (a.k.a. Harvard Mark IIA) and 241 of the AT-6D model (a.k.a. Harvard Mark III). They all came from the North American Aviation plant in Dallas, Texas. Contrary to some accounts, there were no Canadian-manufactured Harvards in their number - those were reserved for the RAF and RCAF. The aircraft arrived aboard ships in crates, and were assembled at AFS Brooklyn in Cape Town (later renamed AFB Ysterplaat) before being flown to their destinations around the country.
All of these Harvards were supplied to Britain (and thence to South Africa) by the USA in terms of the Lend-Lease act of 1941. They were supposed to be either returned to the USA at the end of the war, or paid for. By October 1945, the SAAF still had on strength some 555 Harvards (the others having been written off, mostly in accidents, as happens frequently with training aircraft, particularly in the high-stress, pressured environment of wartime). About 300 were disassembled, re-crated and shipped back to the UK, but the USA didn't want them back - it had more than enough surplus aircraft of its own! When reports came back that the crated aircraft were being dropped over the sides of the ships carrying them (this being the fastest and easiest method to dispose of them), the SAAF decided to buy the rest (at bargain-basement prices) rather than go to the bother of dismantling and re-crating any more for shipping! The service used some for pilot instruction, and others to equip Citizen Force squadrons (units comprising part-time reservist and auxiliary personnel). The remainder were dismantled and stored against future need.
In the 1950's South Africa wanted to buy spares for its existing Harvard fleet: but it found that parts were ridiculously expensive. However, more T-6's were available at dirt-cheap prices from the hundreds of World-War-II-surplus aircraft stored in the desert in Arizona. Accordingly, an additional 95 Harvards (65 AT-6D's and 30 T-6G's) were purchased from the USA to add to the SAAF's stocks. They were refurbished at North American Aviation's factories and placed into service, while the oldest of the Harvards already in service were retired and dismantled, to be used as a source of spare parts. By 1958 there were 140 Harvards in SAAF service (60 equipping the Central Flying School [CFS] at Dunnottar as primary trainers, the remainder serving with active and Citizen Force squadrons), plus almost as many older models available as sources of spare parts. In later decades, the South African aviation industry would undertake several systems and avionics upgrades of the surviving Harvards, culminating as late as 1990 in what was known as 'Project Ice Cream' to install modern avionics in over 30 aircraft. Sadly, all were withdrawn from service soon after the upgrades had been completed (at considerable expense).
The Harvards soldiered on for many decades as the SAAF's standard basic training aircraft. (One student's memories of his ab initio training in Harvards at CFS may be read here.) Eight were sent to the operational area during the early stages of the Border War, in 1976, where they were painted in camouflage colors and armed (at the time, the SAAF had no light strike aircraft in service: it would buy 100 single-seat versions of the Aermacchi MB-326 jet trainer for this purpose - see Weekend Wings #39 for details and pictures). However, the eight Harvards were withdrawn after only a few months. No other SAAF Harvards would see combat service, although many would carry small bombs, rockets and machine-guns for training purposes. Some SAAF T-6's were supplied to the Portuguese and Rhodesian air forces, where they were armed and used operationally.
As a child, one of the constant daily sounds to which I became accustomed was the drone of Harvard engines from SAAF units at Youngsfield and Ysterplaat, which flew over Cape Town almost every day. (Anyone who's heard a T-6 fly past knows their very loud, distinctive sound, produced by the noise of their 600hp. Pratt & Whitney R-1340-AN-1 Wasp radial engine, combined with the tips of their propeller blades spinning at supersonic speeds.) Annual air shows at these bases also offered the opportunity to inspect them more closely, and if one had the equivalent of a couple of dollars to spare, one could even buy a ride in one. I found the hard-packed seat-of-the-pants parachute harness to be supremely uncomfortable . . . but when one's an excited youngster, one doesn't worry too much about such minor things as comfort!
The SAAF retained the Harvard as its primary training aircraft until 1995. This wasn't only because of the international arms embargo against South Africa, as some erroneously believe. I asked several of my friends in the SAAF about this, and they were loud (and rude) in their rejection of that position. They pointed out that Atlas Aircraft Corp. had assembled and/or manufactured hundreds of aircraft, from spotter and utility planes to supersonic fighters, plus transport and attack helicopters. It also handled much of the deep maintenance and overhauls for the SAAF's fleet. The design and production of a more modern training aircraft, if one had been required, would have been simple by comparison. (Even a much less sophisticated service like the Nigerian Air Force managed that, by assembling 60 RV-6A trainers from kits!) Rather, they said, the SAAF retained the Harvard for two reasons. First, it had so many of them in storage that it would have been wasteful to spend money on an unnecessary replacement, particularly when there were so many other demands on the service's budget. Second, they were notoriously difficult aircraft to fly well. The SAAF valued this very highly, as (at least at that time) it set very demanding standards for its pilot trainees. A fighter pilot once said to me, in all seriousness, that if one learned to handle a Harvard well, one could fly anything!
On 21st April 1990, a formation of 50 Harvards was flown at the Central Flying School, Dunnotar, to commemorate the aircraft's 50th anniversary in SAAF service.
This was only surpassed by the 55th anniversary of the Harvard in SAAF service, when a 55-ship formation was flown over AFB Langebaanweg.
The officer commanding Central Flying School Langebaanweg, Colonel C. Gagiano, who signed the program above and flew in the 55-ship formation, is today a Lieutenant-General and the Chief of the South African Air Force. Soon after this formation flight the last of the Harvards were retired from SAAF service, and replaced by the Pilatus PC-7 Mark II.
Many of the Harvards were sold to US warbird enthusiasts, and brought back here to be repainted in USAF and USN markings. For example, one is today flown by Wings of Eagles in New York. Here's what it looked like in SAAF service, where it carried the serial number 7666:
And here's what it looks like today at Wings of Eagles, where it's been repainted to resemble a US Navy SNJ trainer:
Of the 255-odd Harvards on the SAAF's strength after World War II, plus the 95 bought during the 1950's, I understand that only about 50-60 were made available for sale to various civilian organizations and individuals during the late 1990's. There are several reasons why more weren't available. During the intervening years, many aircraft were broken up for parts, which were used to rebuild worn-out planes. (I'm not sure why the SAAF didn't simply discard the worn-out ones and reassemble newer aircraft to take their place, but I guess there must have been some good military reason for that . . . ) Some were sold or donated to other countries (half a dozen or so to Gabon in 1970, others to the Rhodesian and Portuguese Air Forces, and so on), and numerous others were lost or damaged in accidents (115 incidents of varying severity are recorded from 1950-2002). The aircraft in the poorest condition were scrapped, rather than risk selling them to buyers who might not restore them properly or fully before flying them. Some became 'gate guard' aircraft at various bases. A few of the best-condition examples went to the SAAF Museum, and to the Harvard Club of South Africa, which flies ten of them.
Several Harvards were sold to a private aerobatic team in South Africa, the Flying Lions, which puts on some pretty spectacular displays with them - including water-skiing on their wheels! The video below isn't faked - they really are flying that low.
Needless to say, most of the Flying Lions pilots learned to fly their Harvards with the SAAF, back in the old days.
I hope this satisfies the warbird enthusiasts who wanted more information. It's brought back happy memories for me, too.
EDITED TO ADD: A few months after I wrote this article, a South African reader sent me two pictures of extremely low fly-bys by SAAF Harvards. They're quite spectacular. I published them in a separate blog post, which you'll find here.
EDITED AGAIN ON SEPTEMBER 27th, 2013, TO ADD: I've been approached by Michael de Ruijter, who claims that he took the photographs of the 50-formation Harvard flight above. He's supplied copies from his negatives (incorporating more scratches and imperfections than the copies I had) to prove his claim, which I have no reason to disbelieve. I got my copies from a SAAF source, who informed me that they were 'official photographs', but there may have been some miscommunication or misunderstanding on his side. At any rate, Mr. de Ruijter hasn't asked for the pictures to be removed, only to be acknowledged as their author or source. Under the circumstances, I'm pleased to be able to do so.