You didn’t climb into or onto a T-28, you mounted it. It wasn’t a small trainer. Walking up from the front, the most noticeable thing was the huge, twelve foot diameter prop sitting in front of a nine cylinder radial engine.
One of the things you noticed right away was that the engine was canted down and to the right. This was done intentionally by the designers to help offset the torque of the engine and reduce the amount of rudder needed on take-off.
To get on board, first, you made sure the flaps were down. If the plane captain hadn’t lowered them for you, there was a little lever that you could pull that would cause the hydraulic system to lower them all the way. To a young student Naval Aviator, when down, they looked like barn doors compared to the small ones on the T-34B we flew in primary.
To get up to the cockpit, you stuck toe of your boot into the steps on the flap and climbed onto the wing. From there, assuming you were the first flight of the day, you lifted the thirty odd pounds of parachute and positioned into the well on the back of the seat. Once there, it became your backrest.
With the ‘chute in place, you made sure the battery magneto switches along with the fuel mixture lever were in the off position and the throttle was closed before you climbed down to pre-flight the airplane. That would take about five to seven minutes and after you finished, you climbed back up on the wing.
In ground school for the T-28, one of the instructors suggested that students should go out and get a set of leather work gloves to use while you pushed and pulled things on the plane while you conducted the pre-flight. This would minimize the amount of oil and grease that got onto my Nomex gloves. It was good advice and I still have a set of pre-flight gloves and when they get soaked with oil and grease, the go into the trash. Before I climbed into the cockpit, I stuffed the pre-flight gloves into the left boot pocket of my flight suit. Before I strapped in, I draped the Nomex gloves on the glare shield above the instrument panel.
The preflight was like any other but one of the first things they tell you about radial engines is that they leak and use oil. The T-28 had a seven gallon oil tank and it was not uncommon after a four hour cross country flight to have to add a gallon or two! Rule of thumb for radial engines is that if they are not leaking oil, then you probably have to add some.
Standing next to the fuselage, you lifted one leg over the canopy rail on the edge of cockpit and onto the seat cushion followed by the other. Now, you could slide down into the seat and the next step was to adjust the seat and the rudder pedals. In almost every airplane I have flown, I positioned the seat as high as I could get it and then brought the rudder pedals into a position where I could easy get full throw and push the brakes fully. In airplanes, the brakes are levers above the rudder pedals and you activate them with the balls of your feet and your toes. During take-off, once the brakes are released, you dropped your heels to the floor.
From the beginning, Navy instructors taught you to always have the seat in the same place to give you a constant sight picture and so you could rest your right forearm on your knee board to again, give you a constant point of reference. This allowed you to fly the airplane with your thumb and forefinger once it was trimmed up. Or, you could grip the stick when you needed it and still have the same reference point.
The exception to my seat placement was a trick I learned from my dad for flying at night and in nasty weather. He told me that when there were thunderstorms and lightning near-by, drop the seat down close to the bottom so the flashes of light from storms many miles away wouldn’t be so distracting. Trust me, it works.
First you buckled the parachute’s chest, shoulder and crotch straps. As you buckled the parachute on and made sure that the aluminum “D” shaped ring was in the right spot just in front of my left shoulder, you took special care to get the shoulder and crotch straps good and tight. If you had to bail out, the last thing you wanted the do was leave the crotch straps loose because they could do serious, painful damage to your private parts when the parachute opened. You knew if the crotch straps pinched a little bit, they were just right.
But, you were not done yet because you now had to buckle connect the shoulder harness to the three inch wide lap belt. It was easy if you were wearing gloves because the metal loops from the shoulder harness fit neatly together and then into a hook on the lap belt. There were tabs on each to pull them tight.
With practice, it took about as long to do as it did for you to read my description of what was involved just getting strapped in. Once ensconced and strapped into the cockpit of the T-28, your head was about eight to ten feet off the ground and it was a roomy place. There was room for one’s helmet bag on one side of the seat and, if you were going on a cross country, a chart bag on the other. Back then, when I was young and thin, I was five foot ten and 150 pounds and the edge of the cockpit was just above my elbows. Soooo, when one slid the bubble canopy closed, the view was, like most modern fighters, spectacular except where blocked by the wings on either side.
Starting the engine
The pre-start and starting check-lists were relatively short and straightforward until you got to the part where actually started the engine. I still remember the sequence today as if I was still in the training command. The procedure required some dexterity because the throttle and mixture controls were on the left side of the cockpit and the button that engaged the starter and primer were on the right. The sequence, once you got to the line on the check list that said “engine start” went like this.
1. Parking brake set. Toes fully depressing the brakes.
2. Crack, i.e. open it, the throttle about a three-quarters of an inch.
3. Mixture in the closed position a.k.a. by its proper name of “idle cut off.
4. With your right hand, engage the starter button and count twelve blades as they crossed the top of the engine cowling in front of you. Why twelve? The NATOPS manual specified that mean to make sure that oil had not filled the bottom cylinder and caused a hydraulic lock.
5. As soon as the twelfth blade passed, use your left hand to turn the magnetos to the “on” position and keep the starter turning and with your right index finger, push the prime button down for a few seconds with your middle finger hoping that the engine catches and doesn’t flood.
6. When the engine starts to run, stop priming with your left hand and use it to open the mixture lever to full rich.
7. And then, adjust the throttle with you left hand to bring the engine to idle which is between 1,000 and 1,200 rpm. If you added too much throttle, you got a blast of power that could cause the plane’s wheels to jump over one or both of the chocks. It would also send the plane captain who was manning the fire extinguisher running!
The engine would belch a cloud of blue smoke as it began to run. Sometimes you would get a mild backfire but after a few seconds, the engine would be rumbling smoothly. I may be a romantic or even nuts, but there is nothing like the sound of starting a radial engine. First there is whirring noises from the starter motor as you counted the blades and then, you primed the cylinders and turned on the magnetos and you can feel one, then two and then all the cylinders would start firing. The engine rumbled and the airplane shook, but one it was going, it was pretty smooth considering all the moving parts in a radial engine.
With the engine running and assuming that the chip light was out and the gauges had normal readings, you were ready to taxi. On cold mornings, you would sit there for about thirty seconds or so to let the temperatures move off their pegs,
On the left side, there was a lever with a canopy shaped handle that with the engine running, you slid forward and the canopy closed and then pins dropped into place to lock it down. If you had to bail out, the preferred method was to open the canopy using the lever but there was also a “jettison” position that blew it off. With the canopy closed, it cut off the much of the sound and smells of an engine burning very high octane fuel.
One note about the fuel we burned. It had an octane rating of 145 – that’s half again as much as the hi-test gasoline we burn in our cars today which at best, in the mid nineties. The fuel had a purple dye in so you could tell it from other aviation fuels with lower octane ratings. The gasoline had tetraethyl lead added that gave it the high octane rating. The additive was developed in the 1930s to allow higher compression ratios and provide more performance at higher altitudes. The bad news is that it is very, very flammable and the Navy couldn’t wait to get it off the carriers. And yes, there are many stories about how people tried it in their cars, either mixed with their existing gas or straight and melted pistons or did other serious damage to their car engines.
On the ground, the tricycle gear kept the nose level, and gave you a decent view forward and as long as the engine was at idle, keeping your taxi speed down was easy. Differential braking was needed to turn it because the plane did not have nose wheel steering and for some turns, a blast of power provided some aerodynamic leverage via the large rudder.
Take-offs in the T-28 were a hoot. The take off checklist prescribed five degrees of right rudder trim (which is a lot) to help offset the engine’s torque. One of the things you learn in ground school is that the engine is offset down and to the right to help reduce the torque effect. The T-28, like any of the World War II fighters has LOTS, and I mean LOTS of torque. If you don’t set the trim in, you may not have enough right rudder travel (or strength) to keep it pointed down the center line of the runway. If that happened, it was a race to see if you can get airborne before you angled off the runway and into the grass!
For a normal take-off, you eased the throttle forward to about thirty inches of manifold pressure while holding the brakes. If the runway was wet, at this power setting, the airplane would skip forward and to the left a bit. As the manifold pressure reached thirty inches you released the brakes and added a lot of right rudder. One thing you learned early on is that your right foot was tied to your left hand. Anytime you added anything more than a couple of inches of power in the T-28, you also added right rudder so it was left hand forward, right foot forward.
At forty inches of manifold pressure, the airplane is vibrating and shaking and the best way to smooth things out was to release the brakes. As you did, you fed in some right rudder to keep the nose on the centerline stripe of the runway. The airplane surged forward and as soon as it started moving, you pushed the throttle to the stop which gave you about forty-eight inches of manifold pressure and added a bit more right rudder.
In a non turbocharged or supercharged engine, at sea level, you get about twenty-eight inches. As you gained airspeed, you took out some of the right rudder to keep the nose pointed down the runway’s white center stripe.. It accelerated light a jet and passing eighty knots, a little back pressure on the stick was all that was needed to get the airplane to leave the runway.
Gear and flaps were raised immediately so you didn’t exceed the maximum gear down speed. By the time they were in the wheel wells, the T-28, was passing one hundred and twenty knots and you were raising the nose to a climbing attitude. Depending on how much sky you wanted the radial engine to blot out, you’d climb at between one hundred and thirty and one hundred and fifty knots.
With the gear and flaps up and the climbing attitude set, and assuming there was no other drama like a chip light or low oil pressure, and you were still on the runway heading, you could enjoy the sound and fury of nine pistons the size of large cans going up and down with the engine set to 2,500 rpm. Passing a thousand feet, you pulled the throttle back to climb power which was a mere thirty-six inches of manifold pressure and adjusted the rudder, elevator and if needed, aileron trim to take out any of the control pressures.
Importance of trim
I keep mentioning trimming which is adjusting the position small “flaps” known as trim tabs along the trailing edge of the airplanes control surfaces. By doing so, one reduces the amount of force/effort you need to exert on the stick (or yoke) to maintain the desired attitude and airspeed. From the beginning of our training in the Navy, we were taught the importance of trim.
Trimming reduces your workload and allows you to do other things in the cockpit such as look at charts, tune radios, switch fuel tanks without having to worry that when you finish, the airplane has ventured off into some unusual attitude. Even to this day, I take great pride in being able to trim an airplane to fly “hands off” and execute climbs and descents and even fly instrument approaches using nothing but the trim tabs.
From the beginning, instructors taught us that everything you did in any airplane should be governed by the PAST principle which was an acronym that stood for “power, attitude, speed brake, trim.” Anytime you did anything in the T-28, if you did it in that sequence, it made life easier.
For a piston engine airplane, the T-28 climbed like a homesick angel all the way up to about sixteen to eighteen thousand feet. Climb rates of two and three thousand feet per minute were not uncommon. If you wanted to fly above sixteen thousand feet, you could engage the second stage of the supercharger. It had an involved check list that required you to reduce power, shift gears – literally – from low blower to high blower – and then ease the power back on.
Flying the T-28
One in the air, the T-28 was simply a joy to fly. Typical training flights were an hour and a half long as a student. If you went back to the training command as an instructor or were assigned to a Naval Air Station that had T-28s “assigned,” you could “check one out.” The airplane had enough gas for about four hours of flying. Cruising at ten to twelve thousand feet, you burned about thirty-five to forty gallons of fuel an hour and were going an easy two hundred and twenty knots in the “B” models. The “Cs” which had a chopped prop to minimize deck strikes on carrier landings were about twenty knots slower but burned gas at about the same rate.
The only restriction was you were not allowed to do snap rolls. Loops, rolls, Immelman’s Cuban 8s, split-Ss, wing overs were all part of the syllabus. For you aerobatic aficionados, the extreme aerobatic maneuver in which the airplane tumbles through the sky was not authorized!
The view through the clear canopy was superb and it was a very stable instrument platform assuming you had it trimmed. I got to the point once I got the gear and flaps down, I could fly both GCA’s (ground controlled approaches) and keep the needles centered on an ILS using just the trim tabs. All I had to do was flare.
Aerobatics was where it really shined. You started almost every maneuver at 180 knots or faster. Loops and vertical maneuvers were started at 220 knots. Aileron rolls were fun. You simply fed moved the stick in the direction you wanted to roll and then fed in forward stick to keep the nose up when you upside down because it had a heavy radial engine up from and then as you finished the roll, take out the forward pressure.
You could to a barrel roll and if you hit your points, i.e. 45 degrees nose up, 45 degrees of roll, 180 degrees of roll and 90 degrees of heading change and then back down the other side. Done correctly, you wind up heading in the same direction, just displaced a few hundred yards.
If you spun the T-28, it came down like a stone. In a three turn spin, you’d drop seven or eight thousand feet! It was stable, but the entry was a bit on the violent side. When it stalled, it snapped over on its back and then started rotating nose down. Stick forward of the neutral position, opposite rudder to stop the rotation AND then neutralize or it would spin the other way. Then, ease back on the stick to bring the nose back and you were ready for more.
One day on a solo flight, I decided to really see if the airplane would do a torque roll. So I slowed up, dropped the gear and lower the flaps all the way. I was trundling along at 90 knots and shoved the throttle up to 48 inches. By time I got the throttle all the way up, the airplane was on its back and the nose falling through the horizon. It was a scramble to get the gear and flaps up before I exceeded the airspeed limits on both as I split-S’d out of the maneuver!
Carrier qualifications in the T-28Cs were also a hoot. The difference between the B and the C model was, besides the tail hook, was a strengthened landing gear, a smaller diameter propeller and strangely enough, hard points for bombs, rockets, etc. on the wings. In the cockpit, the ordnance control panel was mounted below the instrument panel between your legs.
We entered the break at 180 knots and 500 feet and as we were in the turn, lowered the gear, flaps and the hook as we descended and slowed to make sure we were flying at 82 knots and 325 feet at the abeam or 180 position. The C models all had a little piece of tape on the airspeed indicator that marked 82 knots.
I had visions of silk scarves streaming in the wind as in the World War II movies and had my dad’s original U.S. Army Air Corps issued silk scarf with me. The instructors said I could wear it, but it had to be tucked into my flight suit. Oh well!
My first take off from the deck of the U.S.S. Lexington was a fun, exciting and shocking. After trapping aboard, the yellow shirted taxi director guided me to the white line on the deck. It ran from the notch (where the angle meets the straight deck) to the bow and was used for guidance for running take-offs. The T-28 wasn’t equipped for nor did it need a catapult to get safely airborne. The drill was run up to a full 48 inches of manifold pressure and hold the brakes. When the officer touches the deck, release the brakes with the stick almost all the way back in your lap. When the nose comes up, just push forward to level off into a “normal” climb out.
The weather brief said we would have about 20 knots of wind over the deck. Before we took off, the instructor reminded us not to look at the airspeed indicator until we were past the bow of the ship. First shock was that by the time I rolled about a hundred feet, I was twenty feet of off the deck and climbing. The second shock came when I looked at the the airspeed indicator which was just coming off the peg and showing about 20 knots!
Anyway, I just loved the airplane because it was as close to flying a World War II fighter as I was ever going to get. I had a chance to fly it after I was designated and it was even more fun because I could do anything in I wanted and did not have to worry about an instructor telling me what I could or should do. I spent hours doing aerobatics in it solo and even a few, well more than a few, one versus one dogfights with other T-28s. It was simply a great airplane to fly.
The T-28 and its history
The initial concept that drove the design of the T-28 was to build a trainer that would help pilots transition from slower piston engine primary trainers to high performance piston engine fighters and jets. When it was designed in the late 1940s, the Air Force and the Navy still had piston engine aircraft in their inventories. The Air Forces and Navies of 27 countries wound up flying them in a variety of roles from training to close air support, even weather reconnaissance.
Four different models were built by North American Aviation, – builders of the T-6 trainer, the P-51 and the F-86 fighters. North American was acquired by Rockwell International and then Rockwell was bought by Boeing. Just under 2,000 were built.
All the T-28s had the same air frame which had two cockpits in tandem. The T-28A had a seven cylinder R-1300 radial engine with about 800 horsepower that drove a two bladed prop. It was bought by the U.S. Air Force and other countries as a trainer. The Argentine Navy used its C models to train its own Naval Aviators on how to land on a carrier.
The Navy opted for the T-28B and the T-28C. Both had a nine cylinder R-1820 radial engine with a two stage supercharger and about 1,425 horsepower and a three bladed prop. The U.S. Navy started using the T-28 in the early 1950s and the last training command flight was made thirty four years later in 1984!
When I went through the training command in 1968, you started off in primary phase of flight training in the T-34B Mentor but most of us, including the instructors called it the Teenie Weanie. Then, after a grand total of about twenty-five hours or so, you went off into the jet pipeline and transition to the T-2A, a single engine jet for “Basic.” Or, you went through “Basic” as I did in the T-28. After about ten hours of dual and a check ride, you were sent off to fly the T-28 solo. It was pretty amazing when I look back at it because most of the students going through the training command had never flown an airplane before and now, with between thirty and forty total hours, we were allowed to solo in a plane that could easily do two hundred and twenty knots!
The big difference between the B and the C models was that the C was designed to land on a carrier. To do that, they reduced the diameter of the prop by six inches, added beefed up landing gear and a tail hook. The C model also had two ordnance stations, one on each wing. The B and the C flew identically with the only noticeable difference was that the C wasn’t as fast and climbed slower.
Some of the B models had a canvas hood that the student in the back pulled forward and flew the airplane solely on instruments. When the student was “under the bag” as it was know, the instructor in the front acted as a safety pilot and when not flying on an actual instrument flight plan, simulated air traffic controllers.
The T-28D was adapted for counter insurgency or COIN operations and flown by a variety of air forces around the world. Called a Nomad, it had some armor plating and self-sealing fuel tanks along with three ordnance stations on each wing so the plane could carry bombs, rockets and gun pods. These were all converted from Air Force T-28As.