THE PT AND ME
Flying the Fairchild PT-19 WW II Trainer
November 1, 2020
I was in the Army 1966-68-stationed at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky. I had started flying in 1962, and had my commercial and Flight Instructor ratings at 18.
United Airlines was handing out provisional hire certificates to Private Pilots at Mankato State University-contingent on an applicant receiving their Commercial certificate. I was looking forward to an airline career-until the buildup for Vietnam. Airlines no longer wanted applicants facing the military draft. I was 1-A, and needed to get the military obligation over with, so I volunteered my draft number-as a draftee, it would still be a two year commitment, vs. three years as an enlistee. After basic training, I found I was to train to become a Combat Medic-an unarmed soldier in a war zone-not a good position.
At Ft. Campbell, I went out to the military flying club, where I was welcomed as a flight instructor. Though the club was incredibly busy, all of the flight instructors were deployed-except one civilian. They asked if I would like to be the "custodian" of the flying club ("you mean, like sweep the floors?"). No-it meant that I would be in charge of it-and since I had paid for my civilian ratings, I could even charge for flight instruction-AND it was on a civilian airfield. If you have to be in the military, THIS was the way to go! As it turned out, there were over 160 military aviators from the 101st Airborne that weren't getting flight pay, because their aircraft had already been shipped overseas. I asked the airfield commander if he could approve proficiency flying in the military flying club-he said yes! We became the largest flying club in the Army. When there was no time left for me to do instruction in airplanes, I asked about using the military flight simulators-"Yes, those would qualify, but we have nobody that can instruct in those." I showed them my FAA Instrument Ground Instructor Certificate, and we were also in business to use those. I was fulfilling my military obligation-getting the pilots their flight pay, building flight hours like crazy, and making money in the process-how could it get any better?
ENTER THE PT-19. A retired Navy Commander bought a PT-19-a WW II Primary Trainer. Most pilots are more familiar with the Stearman PT-15 (Lycoming engine) and PT-17 (Continental) aircraft-hulking, strong biplanes with narrow landing gear. By contrast, Fairchild had started building the PT-19 before the war. It was an aerobatic 2 place open cockpit trainer-and unlike the Stearman, was built to be more like the low-wing monoplanes that pilots would eventually fly. Like most trainers, it was built with a steel fuselage and wooden wing spars and ribs. The wing was then covered with thin plywood and fabric. It had a Ranger inverted 6-cylinder engine (the crankshaft was on the top and the 6 cylinders were on the bottom-giving more prop clearance-but sometimes prone to hydraulic lock from oil flowing into the cylinders on the bottom if it sat too long). The Ranger initially produced 175 horsepower (later 200) from 440 cubic inches of displacement. The aircraft featured split flaps (drag only, no lift) to help students get used to using them. There was no electrical system on the PT-19 (or the variant PT-23-same airframe but with a Warner radial engine) but Fairchild did produce instrument trainers with electrical systems and canopies. It was called the PT-26, and the canopies were especially appreciated by those training in northern states and Canada! In all, Fairchild built about 7000 of its PT-series trainers.
After finding that I was comfortable instructing in tailwheel airplanes, the Commander told me to "go fly it anytime-just put the gas in it!" What 19-year-old pilot would turn THAT down? There was no checkout-just read the 14 page manual and go fly! Being a PRIMARY trainer, it had to be fairly docile-and the airplane was a good teacher. Some of the things it taught me:
• The airplane has a gross weight of 2800#. With 2 large pilots and full fuel aboard, it weighs in at 2500#. Since there is only a tiny baggage compartment, I don't know how you would get the airplane to full gross weight-or if it would indeed take off-with the 175 hp engine hauling 2500#, performance is not all that great-and it is little better with the 200 hp. engine. The student usually sits in the front seat, and the instructor in the back-though it can be flown solo from either cockpit.
• The aircraft has the old-style military seat belts and shoulder belts. WATCH THIS CAREFULLY-the "check ball" that holds the over-center lever in place developed rust on our early aircraft-I looked down at the belts prior to doing contemplated wing-overs and loops, only to find that the belts were lying on the floor!
• To start the aircraft-the pilot selects one of the 2 20-gallon fuel tanks (interesting, the fuel is listed as "73 octane" with "65 octane if not available.") There was no "dual rating" of aviation fuel in those days (like "100/130 octane" as seen today-denoting tested octane with and without a high power demand on the engine-it was unleaded fuel.) Since it was a military airplane, each plane had a "plane captain" to assist the start. The Plane Captain stood at the left wing leading edge, and accessed a fire extinguisher, a primer, and a hand crank through a small door by the pilot's feet. To start the airplane, the pilot would manually use a pump to create fuel pressure. The Plane Captain would then give about 3 shots of prime to the engine. WITH THE MAGS OFF, the engine would be turned through 12 blades of the prop to make sure there was no oil that had leaked down to the bottom cylinders (a hydraulic oil lock could ruin the engine). The pilot would then call "contact!" and only after hearing the plane captain repeat the words, turn the ignition switch to the left (impulse) mag, and the plane captain engaged the hand crank. The engine is (usually) an easy starter. The plane captain then returns the crank and buttons up the access door, steps away from the airplane, and salutes the pilot, indicating the aircraft is ready to go. The pilot turns the mags to Both.
Some notes on flying the Fairchilds
• The PT-19 handles well on the ground.
It takes a long time to heat the 16 quarts of oil to operating temperature. Ground maneuverability is good-the brakes work well and are reliable, and there is a lot of weight on the tail wheel for steering and to prevent nose-overs. Obviously, it is blind in the front-S-turning while taxiing is recommended.
• For takeoff-flaps up-fuel and oil pressure and engine temperature in the green arc. Stick back and into any crosswind. Initial acceleration is slow. About 35 mph, the tail gets light and starts to rise. Hold a level flight attitude until it flies off the ground at about 65-70 mph indicated (stall speed is 59). Accelerate to best climb/best glide speed of 80 mph in ground effect, and hold it. There is no rate of climb indicator, but it should be about 500 fpm, depending on the day and the load. Use full throttle for climb.
• It is after takeoff that the delight of flying a Fairchild presents itself. The controls are aerodynamically and mass balanced-touching a control on the ground means you can move it with a finger tip. There are control rods (not cables), so there is no control slop. The rods all have ball bearings (something the U.S. had during WW II, while the Axis Powers had a chronic shortage of them. The controls are delightfully light-perhaps a foretaste of flying a fighter aircraft later-MUCH lighter than a Stearman.
• The tach accelerates after level off and should be pulled back-however, if you pull the nose up, the engine slows down quickly-same in steep turns. The airplane cruises at about 100 mph-top cruise is only 120.
• The original airplanes had a Gosport (speaking tube) from the instructor to the student's helmet. There was no provision for a lowly student to speak to the instructor!
• In the event of running a tank dry, you may be faced with a forced landing. QUICKLY change to the other tank, and pump the wobble pump like crazy before the prop stops-remember, there is no electrical system to effect a re-start.
• For landing-check the carb heat, and turn it off-in the event of a go-around, you'll need all of the power you can get. Establish an 80 mph glide (same speed as the climb). Pull on the first notch of flaps (max speed 95 mph-or flaps may be damaged). Pull on the rest of the flaps-trim automatically compensates. Plan a wheel landing-the tail wheel can be tender. The airplane will reward you with a "painted-on" landing-the Fairchild trainers are the best wheel-landing aircraft I've ever flown in my 58 years (and over 337 aircraft types)! This is due to the low wing configuration and the ground cushion produced by the flaps, PLUS the almost 18 inches of landing gear strut extension.
• The airplane is usually comfortable on 2400' of grass or hard surface-depending on wind and runway conditions, as well as load and density altitude.
I flew that airplane for over 150 hours-there was always a pilot that wanted to experience open-cockpit flying in exchange for buying the gas. I bought Duane Cole's book-"Conquest of Lines and Symmetry" and tried self-taught aerobatics (DUMB-DON'T DO IT!)-reasoning that "This airplane is built for aerobatics, I can't hurt it!" DUMB! We did have parachutes-but there were no packing slips indicating when they were last packed. DUMB! Somehow, we survived. There was a notable morning when shortly after daybreak, we heard the sound of aero engines at high RPM-but the sound didn't change. Looking out the windows, we discovered it was a Goodyear Blimp. We quickly launched in the PT-19, with my friend grabbing his camera. We took some early-morning air-to-air photos of the Blimp, and could see them photographing us. I pulled off to the side and looped the airplane-they responded by doing their own form of "aerobatics"-called "angles and dangles"-venting helium from aft to front compartments to almost stand the blimp on its end, then reversing it. (I've flown the FUJI blimp since then and asked the Captain to demonstrate-we didn't approach those angles, but it was still impressive from the pilot's seat!)
One day, I asked the Commander when the annual inspection was due-he replied "we don't do annuals in the military." I pointed out that this was now a civilian aircraft, and we had to do annual inspections. He produced the logbooks-we were well out of annual inspection. Some of my military students that were mechanics helped the civilian Airworthiness Inspector inspect the airplane-it was in surprisingly good shape, with one VERY LARGE exception-like almost all of the PT-series Fairchild airplanes, the wooden center section had rot from water dripping into the open cockpits. It would be VERY expensive to repair, and the Commander didn't have the money. He asked me to ferry it to his farm, where he would put it in the machine shed. The AI issued a ferry permit. I took the Super Cub down to his farm to view the field for landing-the approach was from a valley to the shed near the top-and the field was knee-high corn. Once the approach was initiated, the PT-19 could not climb out-I would be committed. The Super Cub would be able to abort the approach, so I landed to confirm it was able to support the aircraft. On returning with the PT-19, I thought "This may be the final landing for this airplane if he can't get it repaired." I made the landing, and they put the airplane in the tobacco barn. I later regretted consigning the airplane to its fate. It was such a nice-flying airplane-and it had taught me so much. (Side note-two years ago, I looked up the registration on the airplane-it was cancelled in 2013. I wrote to the registered owner, and was told by her nephew that the Commander's wife had moved into a care center in Arizona-I could never get a response as she had dementia).
Jim Hiner of Kenyon, Mn. (since deceased) and partner John Berendt had restored the basket case 1942 PT-19 during the late 1970's. They completed the restoration and began flying N56563 in 1980. They continued flying the PT-19 through the 1980's with the last flight being September 21st 1990. The aircraft sat idle at the airport in Faribault, Mn for 28 years until a tornado struck the Faribault Airport on September 21st 2018. John's wife contacted Kirk Hiner (Jim's Son) and asked him if he would be willing and able to take over the airplane and get it repaired and flying again. Kirk and Jim had built 6 homebuilt aircraft, which gave Kirk the confidence that he could tackle this project.
Kirk enlisted Gary Underland to help with the repairs. Gary had been a big contributor to the initial restoration in the late 70's and was very familiar with N56563. Gary is not only a Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame inductee, but recipient of the Charles Taylor Mechanic Award for over 50 years as a mechanic. Gary was the lead restorer of Buzz Kaplan's stable of Oshkosh award winning restoration (including the international "Diplome Phenix Award" for the best restoration in the world!). Gary also built the S-38 Sikorsky flying boat that adventurer Sam Johnson used to replicate his father's exploration of the Amazon in the 1920s.
Though Kirk has built and flown a number of airplanes, none have been taildraggers. He not only needed an endorsement for flying tailwheel airplanes, but the insurance company required 10 hours of dual instruction in the PT-19 before they would bind coverage. Kirk managed to locate a pilot/instructor in Kansas to give him 2 hours of dual instruction-but the logistics of training that far away from home was a problem-and Kirk wanted it done in HIS airplane for familiarity and shaking out any problems. He flew with Gary (who is also a flight instructor) for an hour-no problems with the airplane-and then contacted me. I agreed to do the training-even though it had been 52 years since I last flew the model.
This particular airplane was one of the early models-the only differences were 175 h.p. engine and a lower gross weight compared to the "A model" I flew. A check of the paperwork, weight and balance, and operating limitations showed us "good to go"-it was time to go fly! We did the walk around inspection, cockpit inspection, and reviewed the starting sequence described above. I took my place in the rear cockpit, while Kirk supplied the "motive power" to start the engine. It fired on the second blade-a good sign. Kirk mounted up, and we checked the intercom (a big improvement over the Gosport tube-it allowed two-way communications (kind of-there was a lot of wind noise!). I told Kirk that I would make the first takeoffs and landings to re-familiarize myself, and off we went. The flight characteristics were instantly familiar-and I once again experienced the superb control harmony (AND the less-than-breathtaking performance-it climbs like a 65 hp Champ, Cub, or T-Craft) of the PT-19. It was time for Kirk to fly!
We started out with the takeoff-full throttle, let it fly off at about 70 mph, climb at 80. At altitude, we calibrated the indicated stall speed by stalling the airplane-on Kirk's airspeed indicator, it came right at the 59 mph indicated speed-on mine it was about 5 mph less. Since his was correct, we went with his speeds, and I adjusted on my airspeed indicator for the differences. We did coordination maneuvers-steep turns (the airplane bleeds speed quickly in steep turns-increase the RPMs during the turns) and fast roll-in and roll-out 90 degree turns (a good way to develop rudder coordination). We went back to Dodge Center to do the initial landings on the forgiving 2400' grass runway. Kirk did a great job on handling the airspeed on approach, and was rewarded with good 3-point landings. I suggested we switch to wheel landings-the PT-19 is the finest airplane to wheel land that I've ever flown-and wheel landings would be a better transition to the hard-surface landings to come. Kirk "painted on" the wheel landing-the only way we knew we had landed was the rumble of the gear on the smooth sod. "I LIKE the wheel landings!" Kirk exclaimed. The Fairchild had won over another convert!
We kept the lessons to an hour long, as the wind in the cockpit not only "beats you up", but makes detailed discussions difficult-it's much easier to debrief and critique on the ground. After the first hour, I never had to touch the controls again (except to fly it myself just for fun!). Kirk picked it up THAT well! On the second session, we transitioned to the 75' wide hard surface runway-with a 10 knot crosswind component. After demonstrating the proper positioning of the controls during initial takeoff and roll-out, Kirk made all of the remaining takeoffs and landings without my input-and every landing was a "squeaker." (Afterward, Gary and Kirk flew together again, where Kirk demonstrated what he had learned. Gary responded with "You're going to have to work a lot harder than that to scare ME!"). A good instructor with a student that picks things up quickly sometimes has to "invent" learning experiences. On one occasion, I intentionally kept Kirk involved in a conversation as we taxied back for another takeoff-Kirk hadn't retracted the flaps. I let him start the roll, then pulled back the throttle. "A good lesson" Kirk replied-"I'll never do THAT again!" I gave him a forced landing, he handled it well-and I asked him to do a low-level go-around-when he released the flaps, they snapped up-it requires easing them up. Another lesson learned.
There was nothing more I could teach Kirk about the airplane-he handled it so well that I could have signed him off in only a couple of hours-but I thoroughly enjoyed flying the PT-19 again. Like all of Kirk's airplanes, the PT-19 will undergo some cosmetic restoration during winter months-but first he needs to finish his SEVENTH airplane-a Murphy Moose.
To see the PT-19 in flight, go to:
If YOU would like to experience flying a WWII PT-series airplane, you're in luck! The Fagen Fighters WWII Museum in Granite Falls has a PT-26 on the flight line for rides. Before or after your flight, you can enjoy this treasure of a museum, located right here in Minnesota. Contact info: http://www.FagenFightersWWIIMuseum.org or firstname.lastname@example.org or call 320 564 6644. With the Covid issue, I suggest contacting them first. Don't miss out on the chance to fly it - or the museum - you'll want to go back and take friends with you!