Flying my most favorite airplane of all time, the T-28 (2024)

Meeting a T-28

You didn’t climb into or onto a T-28, you mounted it. This was no ordinary trainer. Walking up from the front, there was a 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 co*ckpit, 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 30 pounds of parachute and positioned into the well on the back of the seat. Once there, the parachute 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 your Nomex gloves. This was good advice and I still carry a set of pre-flight gloves that when they get soaked with oil and grease, they go into the trash. Before climbing into the co*ckpit, I stuffed the pre-flight gloves into the left boot pocket of my flight suit and on came the Nomex gloves.

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 after a four hour cross country flight, the plane would need 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.

Strapping in
Standing next to the fuselage, you lifted one leg over the canopy rail on the edge of co*ckpit 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 possible 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 of flight training, Navy instructors teach 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 to provide 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 suggested 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 won’t be so distracting. Trust me, the suggestion works.

Once in the seat, you buckled the parachute’s chest, shoulder and crotch straps and made sure that the aluminum “D” shaped ring was in the right spot just in front of your left shoulder. Once buckled, you took special care to pull 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. This 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, the process took about as long to do as it did for you to read this description of getting strapped in. Once ensconced and strapped into the co*ckpit 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 co*ckpit 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 you 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 co*ckpit 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 with your forefinger and count 12 blades as they crossed the top of the engine cowling in front of you. Why 12? 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 with your right index finger. At the same time, push the prime button down for a few seconds with your right middle finger hoping that the engine catches and doesn’t flood.
6. When the engine starts to run, stop priming and use your left hand to open the mixture lever to full rich.
7. When the engine is running, adjust the throttle with you left hand to bring the engine to idle 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 and send the plane captain who was manning the fire extinguisher running!

The R-1820 engine will belch a cloud of blue smoke before smoothing out. Sometimes you would get a mild backfire. I may be a romantic or even nuts, but there is nothing like the sound of a radial engine starting. 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 a radial was going, it was pretty smooth considering all the moving parts in one.

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, the sound was muted and smells of an engine burning very high octane fuel was cut off.

One note about the fuel we burned. It had an octane rating of 145 – that’s almost 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 to differentiate the gas from other aviation fuels with lower octane ratings. The 145 octane gasoline had tetraethyl lead added generate 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 145 octane fuel is very, very explosive and the Navy couldn’t wait to get it off carriers. And yes, there are many stories about how people tried the fuel in their cars, either mixed with their existing gas or straight. The result was melted pistons, burned valves and other serious engine damage.

On the ground, the T-28’s 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 because the plane did not have nose wheel steering. For some turns, a blast of power provided aerodynamic leverage via the large rudder.

Taking off
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 properly, you may not have enough right rudder travel (or strength) to keep the plane pointed down the center line of the runway. If that happened, there was a race to see if you can get airborne before angled off the runway and into the grass!

For a normal take-off, you eased the throttle forward to 30 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 30 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 more than a couple of inches of power in the T-28, you also added right rudder. The drill, to use a Royal Air force expression, was left hand forward, right foot forward.

At 40 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 more right rudder to keep the nose tracking the centerline stripe on the runway. As soon as the T-28 started moving, you pushed the throttle to the stop which gave you about 48 inches of manifold pressure and added more right rudder.

As the T-28 gained airspeed, you eased off the right rudder to keep the nose pointed down the runway’s white center stripe. The plane accelerated light a jet and passing 80 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 120 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 130 and 150 knots. The steeper the climb, the less you could see so we S-turned back and forth to see what was out front.

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 1,000 feet, the throttle came back to set climb power at s a mere 36 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 co*ckpit such as look at charts, tune radios, switch fuel tanks without worrying 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 followed that sequence, flying was a lot easier.

For a piston engine airplane, the T-28 climbed like a homesick angel all the way up to about 16 to 18 thousand feet. Climb rates of two and three thousand feet per minute were not uncommon. If you wanted to fly above 16 thousand feet, you could engage the second stage of the supercharger. There was 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 a joy. 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 10 to 12 thousand feet, you burned 35 – 40 gallons of fuel an hour and were going an easy 220 knots in the “B” models. The “Cs” which had a chopped prop to minimize deck strikes on carrier landings were about 20 knots slower but burned gas at about the same rate.

We not allowed to do snap rolls, outside loops or Lomcevaks which is the extreme aerobatic maneuver in which the airplane tumbles through the sky Loops, rolls, Immelman’s, Cuban 8s, split-S’s, wing overs were all part of the syllabus.

The view through the clear canopy was superb and the T-28 was a very stable instrument platform assuming the plane was 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 ease the stick back to flare for the landing.

Aerobatics was where the T-28 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 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 the heavy radial engine up would cause the nose to drop. 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. Barrel and aileron rolls were my favorites.

In a spin, the T-28, came down like a stone. In a three turn spin, you’d drop seven or eight thousand feet! The spin was “stable,” but the entry could be on the violent side. When theT-28 stalled, the plane snapped over on its back and then started rotating nose down. To recover, push the stick forward of the neutral position, feed in full opposite rudder to stop the rotation AND then neutralize or the T-28 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 as a student, I decided to see if the airplane would do a torque roll in the landing configuration. As students, we’d all heard stories that in the traffic pattern, if you added full power when slow, the airplane would flip over on its back.

Thinking I was the ace of the base and with about 15 hours in the airplane, I slowed to 90 knots, dropping the gear and full the flaps along the way. Level at 10,000 feet and trimmed to fly hands off at 90 knots, yours truly shoved the throttle up to 48 inches. By time I got the throttle all the way to the stop, the airplane was on its back and the nose was falling through the horizon. My hands flew around the co*ckpit as I raised the gear and flaps before I exceeded the airspeed limits on both. Technically, what happened is called split-S’ing out of a maneuver. Thoroughly chastised, I went to one of the outlying airfields and did a few touch and goes before returing to Whiting Field.

Carrier qualifications
Carrier qualifications in the T-28Cs were 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 co*ckpit, the ordnance control panel was mounted below the instrument panel between your legs. The C model was heavier and with the chopped prop, didn’t climb or go as fast.

For field carrier landing practice a.k.a. FCLPs, we’d take of in section of two T-28s, rendezvous with another pair and then return to Barin Field to entered the break at 180 knots and 500 feet. The Navy teaches a constantly curving approach from the abeam position which is unlike the squared off method taught to civilian pilots which have a well defined downwind leg followed by a 90 degree turn to a base leg and then another 90 degree turn to line up with the runway.

In the Navy, we come down the runway center line, and then turn right or left, level the wings momentarily at the abeam position we call the 180 and the turn toward the runway. This is the technique developed din the 1930s when the large radial engines blocked your view of the runway or carrier. The method is still used today with jets.

Back to the approach. Over the runway numbers at Barin Field at 500 feet, the first airplane in the four plane flight breaks left into a 60 degree bank. The following planes count to ten and then break in sequence about 10 – 15 seconds apart.

Once in the turn, the pilot lowers the gear, flaps to full and the hook as he slows to 82 knots and 325 feet. The C models all had a little piece of tape on the airspeed indicator that marked 82 knots. At the abeam or 180 position, one has to be at 325, not 320 or 330, but 325. As a student, we called out our side number and last name along with the plane’s fuel state and reported “all down,” which meant the T-28’s hook, flaps and landing gear were all down.

Why 82 knots? This is the speed in the landing configuration where the wing is generating the most lift.

Back then, 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 the scarf but to keep it tucked into my flight suit. Oh well!

Coming around, someplace around 135 degrees from the ship, you pick up the ball. Understand that the ship is moving away from you and the landing area (runway) is at an angle to the direction the ship is moving. What this means is that when you are on final, to keep in the groove, the airplane is in a slight slip.

As soon as you see the fresnel lens, you say, puss*cat 706 (the side number of t he airplane and puss*cat was VT-5’s name), “Got a ball.” Hopefully, at this point, the ball is centered on the light bar and you just fly it down until the airplane impacts the deck. However, you will get calls from the landing signal officer (LSO) such as power which means just that. Attitude means raise the nose slightly. You may told to correct left or right. And, the intensity of the LSOs voice as well as how often he uses the word tells you how much of a change is needed.

Inside the co*ckpit your scan is airspeed, meatball, line-up. Your eyes are moving that fast and your hands and feet are moving very subtly because if you are ham handed, you’ll hear “Wave off.” Not only don’t you get a trap, but the grades from the bad pass go into your landing grade.

I remember my first pass. LSO said, “Looking good. Give me a little power and come right for line-up.” Bang, the T-28 hit the deck, stopped abruptly I was slammed slammed forward against the straps as the plane stopped. At that pooint you have to transition instantly to “I’m taxiing.” The Air Boss wants you out of the landing area as soon as possible so there’s a sailor in a yellow shirt who is a taxi director in front of you signalling to raise your hook and turn left.

He passes you off to another yellow shirt who lines you up for the take off run on a white line that runs from the front of where the angle sticks out a.k.a. “the notch” to the front of the deck. In the T-28, we didn’t use a catapult because we didn’t need one. I remember sitting there thinking that this is just like WWII.

Meanwhile, outside the co*ckpit, there’s an officer in a green turtleneck giving me the signal to go to full power, i.e. 48 inches and 2,500 rpm. Quickly, I run through the take off checklist, make sure my harness is tight. When all is ready, I saluted and he touched the Lexington’s deck with his right hand signaling me to release the brakes and pull the stick as far back as I could.

My first take off from the deck of the U.S.S.Lexington was a fun, exciting and shocking. e. The drill was run up to a full 48 inches of manifold pressure and hold the brakes. When the nose comes up, we were told just push forward to level off into a “normal” climb out. Keep in mind, until we did it the first time, none of us had ever made a deck run take off from a carrier.

The weather brief said we would have about 20 knots of wind over the deck. Before we left Barin Field, the instructor reminded us not to look at the airspeed indicator until we were past the bow of the ship. First shock was that the T-28 seemed to jump into the air. Well before I reached the bow, my plane was a good 20 feet 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 an airspeed of 20 knots!

Lag in the pitot static system caused the low reading and by the time I reached the end of the deck, the T-28 was accelerating past 90 knots. And, it was time to turn down wind, slow to 82 knots, double check the gear and flaps were down and lower hook.

Even though that first pass and trap aboard the Lexington went by in a blur, I can remember almost every detail and still get excited. In many ways, those seven arrested landings meant that I had arrived as a Naval Aviator even though I was only about two-thirds of the way through the training command.

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 the T-28 after I was designated which 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’s 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 the T-28 was designed in the late 1940s, most of the airplanes in the the Air Force and Navy inventories had piston engines. The Air Forces and Navies of 27 countries wound up flying T-28s in a variety of roles from training to close air support, even weather reconnaissance.

Four different models of T-28s were built by North American Aviation who also built 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 T-28s were built.

All T-28s had the same air frame which had two co*ckpits in tandem. The T-28A had a seven cylinder R-1300 radial engine with about 800 horsepower that drove a two bladed prop. The A model was bought by the U.S. Air Force and other countries as a trainer. The Argentine Navy also bought 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 34 years later in 1984!

When I went through the training command in 1968, we started the primary phase of flight training in the T-34B Mentor most of us, including the instructors called it the Teenie Weanie. Then, after a grand total of about 25 hours or so, you went off into the jet pipeline and transitioned to the T-2A, a single engine jet for “Basic.” Or, you went through “Basic” as I did in the T-28. After about 10 hours of dual and a check ride, you were sent off to fly the T-28 solo. This was pretty amazing when I look back. Most of the students going through the training command had never flown an airplane before and now, with between 30 and 40 total hours, we were allowed to solo in a plane that could easily do 220 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 known, 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, the D model 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.

Flying my most favorite airplane of all time, the T-28 (2024)
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