Farnborough Air Show

Pilot Report: Hawker Beechcraft T-6C Military Trainer

 - June 12, 2012, 4:28 PM
Hawker Beechcraft T-6C military trainer. (Photo by Matt Thurber)

The last time I flew a military trainer was in 1982; actually, it was two trainers, a Beechcraft T-34 and a North American T-28, both piston-powered relics of previous eras, relegating them to the warbird category, but a whole lot of fun to fly. Recently, Hawker Beechcraft invited me to fly the far more modern T-6C Texan II, turbine-powered with an Esterline CMC glass cockpit and SparrowHawk head-up display (HUD), and that was not only exciting but an amazing contrast between the airplanes that the Navy used to train pilots many years ago and what is used to teach new Navy and Air Force pilots today.

The differences between old and new aren’t just the avionics or even the T-6C’s 1,100-shp Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-68, which is far more reliable than piston engines, especially the T-28’s delightfully rumbly 1,425-hp Wright R-1820 radial engine. During my flight with the T-28’s owner, I pushed ever so slightly forward on the stick while upside-down in an aileron roll and he yelled over the intercom not to do that, the engine’s main bearing was terribly sensitive to negative g loads, which pull precious oil away from critical surfaces. The owner had already bought an overhauled engine once because the main bearing failed, but luckily he was just able to eke out enough power to land at his home airport.

See more photos of Matt Thurber’s T-6 flight in the AINonline image gallery.

Momentary spurts of zero g were not a concern in the T-6C; up to five seconds are allowed. Randal Black, T-6 program senior test pilot and demo pilot at Hawker Beechcraft Defense Company, cheerfully encouraged me to wring the airplane out, although there is a 60-second limitation on flying upside-down.

Black, a former Navy P-3 Orion pilot, took his time briefing me on the T-6C before our flight. This was a useful exercise, as it helped me become familiar with the front seat cockpit layout, the CMC Cockpit 4000 avionics, the HUD and all the switches and controls that we’d be using, especially the Hotas (hands-on throttle and stick) power lever. Cockpit 4000 in the T-6 features three five-inch by seven-inch displays in front and back, each with an L-3 backup ADI and an upfront control panel to set radios and other features. The displays can be switched from airspeed and altimeter tapes (F-16-like) to round dial-style (F/A-18-like), on the ground. The instruments are all night-vision compatible. Modern Waas GPS sensors are part of the avionics package, and the T-6 series is certified to FAA Part 23 as well as military standards.

Many of the switches aren’t duplicated in the rear seat, such as environmental controls, so I needed to know what to look for when Black asked for something. A major difference between the T-6 and the Pilatus PC-9, from which the design originally derives, is that the wing’s angle of incidence was lowered so that the instructor pilot sits higher, although he still can’t see much in the front cockpit.

The T-6 is pressurized, with a 3.6-psi differential that provides an 8,000-foot cockpit at 19,000 feet or about 18,000 feet at the 31,000-foot maximum altitude. The pilots wear oxygen masks while flying, and the onboard, oxygen-generating system’s flow automatically increases as the cockpit altitude climbs.

What makes the T-6 series a better trainer than the older airplanes is that it is designed to help new pilots make a faster transition into jets. The PT6 engine has a power management unit (PMU) that makes it respond more like a jet engine than a turboprop; hopefully the only difference is that T-6 pilots still need to step on the right rudder during takeoff, although rudder trim is available and easily accessible on the Hotas. Naturally, the HUD helps with the transition to jets, too, as does the modern avionics suite. But the T-6C has another helpful feature, an embedded training suite, for simulating air-to-air and air-to-ground mission sorties without the expense and logistical challenges of carrying or releasing actual weapons. The virtual system can also be used to train pilots who will be flying the attack version of the T-6, the AT-6, which uses a Lockheed-Martin A-10C combat mission system and F-16 Hotas for low collateral damage, precision weapons capability (using real weapons).

“Eject, Eject, Eject”

No briefing on any military aircraft is complete without a close look at the ejection seat system, in this case a Martin-Baker Mark 16 LA (0/0) system, capable of launching us out of the T-6C parked on the ramp, if absolutely necessary. Before the seats can do their work, the canopy needs to be removed, and this is aided by ropy windings of detonation cord embedded in the stretched acrylic. But there is also a backup, a canopy breaker system built into the top of the ejection seat that penetrates the canopy before the pilot’s head.

This is what is supposed to happen. One of the pulls the ejection handle, which is a loop that juts out of the front of the seat (and feels awfully close at hand), and the canopy explodes off in pieces, the leg bands pull your lower extremities in (lest they mangle themselves on the way up and out), the seat’s rockets fire and you and your instructor go up and away from each other. Then just before you land, the seat detaches and the life raft (T-6B Navy version) and other important goodies, such as an emergency beacon and survival equipment, get ready in case you need them.

While I always appreciate a good ejection seat and a no-nonsense comprehensive briefing on the seat’s operation, when I feel how easy it is to pull the ejection handle—only 15 pounds of pull—in the classroom, I can’t help worrying about accidentally making a terrible mistake. The black-and-yellow-banded handle is right there between my legs, just behind the control stick. Having it so close feels a lot like standing on a precipice and contemplating the ease of stepping forward and off the edge. It turned out I didn’t think about it much once we got going, as I was having too much fun flying to think about ejecting from this high-performance airplane.

Off We Go

There are plenty of straps in the T-6 seat, including the ejection-seat leg bands, the seat straps that attach to the harness that I was wearing and multiple seatbelts. Another reminder that the ejection seat is “live” is the pin that must be removed to allow the system to work. The pin is stowed in the canopy handle, after the canopy is closed, so the crew chief and rescue personnel can quickly see that the seats are live. Wearing an oxygen mask full-time is an unfamiliar feeling, and until the engine started, the sound of my breathing seemed rather loud; plus I felt I had to actively force my breath in and out. I didn’t notice this too much during the rest of the flight, however.

The P&WC engine controls make starting the PT6 simple; it’s an automatic process, monitored by the pilot. After helping me strap in, crew chief Bill Parker showed me how to move the power lever to the idle gate after engine start, by moving the lever quickly forward, then back to idle without delay. That was the only step I had to make during the engine start after turning on the start switch. 

As Black had explained during the briefing, the T-6 nosewheel is free-castering, allowing for tight turns when taxiing. The T-6 also has a hydraulically operated nosewheel steering system that is engaged using a button on the control stick. The nosewheel steering is precise and sensitive while taxiing, but must be off during takeoff. Castering is best for tight turns using the brakes.

The great benefit of the engine’s PMU is that pilots can firewall the throttle, because the system automatically limits torque and temperature to deliver full power without the pilot having to worry about exceeding limits. That makes takeoff simple, just push the power lever forward and go. Winds were gusting to 32 knots straight down Beech Airport’s runway 18, three knots less than the T-6’s 35-knot limit.

Our T-6C weighed about 6,700 pounds at takeoff, slightly less than the 6,950-pound maximum taxi and 6,900-pound maximum takeoff weight. Normal fuel burn on a training flight is about 500 pounds per hour, but about 100 pounds less during cruise. The T-6C carries 1,200 pounds of fuel in the integral wing tanks, but that amount can only be achieved using the overwing fillers. Single-point pressure fueling allows quick filling up to 1,100 pounds. The T-6C also can mount underwing jettisonable external tanks, which add another 800 pounds of fuel. The fuel system is auto-balancing.

We were off the ground in a jiffy—rotation speed is 85 knots. We leveled off briefly at 2,500 feet, then resumed a swift climb to 11,000 feet. Normal climb speed is 140 knots, but that produces a steep attitude. Therefore, we climbed at about 180 knots, so we could see over the nose.

I did some Dutch rolls to get familiar with the controls. The ailerons and rudders are crisp and it didn’t take much rudder to keep the nose on point during the rolls. Steep turns followed, and were made easy using the HUD’s guidance cue to maintain altitude during the turn. The advantage of having a HUD in a trainer like the T-6C is that fledgling military pilots need to get used to the HUD as soon as possible, because the airplanes they’ll be flying are HUD-equipped. The HUD also plays a key role with the combat mission system.

The T-6 is equipped with a stick shaker that actuates about 10 knots above the stall, but during two power-off stalls, I held the nose up to feel the full stall. There isn’t a lot of stall buffet, thus the need for the shaker. During the stall, the rudders effectively keep the nose centered. Nose down and full power quickly ended the stall and quieted the stick shaker.

Fire Away

The T-6C is an excellent aerobatic machine. Maneuvers start at 230 knots. Aileron rolls are quick enough that no down elevator is needed while upside-down. Barrel rolls are elegant swooping maneuvers, easily handled by a pilot who hasn’t flown aerobatics in many years. I pulled a little more g than necessary during the loop and did better performing a half Cuban 8. After that brief aerobatic reintroduction, we climbed to 16,000 feet to do a spin. After entering a full power-off stall, I had to step hard on the left rudder to get the T-6C to spin, then it settled down after about one turn. We recovered normally after four turns, breaking out using neutral rudder and stick, followed by a gentle pullout.

Even more fun and harder to do than aerobatics was the T-6C’s simulated combat mission system. The instructor pilot can program the system for air-to-air missions, chasing another airplane as it jinks left or right, or air-to-ground bomb and rocket missions. I tried both and successfully got darn close to the target during the air-to-ground rocket mission in an open field north of Wichita. But the air-to-air mission was much harder and involved trying not to stall while turning rapidly and trying to follow the “enemy” aircraft.

The targeting information is all on the HUD, so there’s no need to fly heads-down during the missions. And the engine’s PMU allows unlimited use of the throttle without having to check the gauges. While I was able to put the pipper on the target momentarily a few times, even as the stick shaker nibbled at the edge of an impending accelerated stall, I was so focused on the chase that I forgot to pull the trigger. So, no points for me.

After the bomb run, it was time to return to Beech Airport. The CMC Cockpit 4000 demonstrated its modern capabilities by pointing out a nearby B-52 flying to McConnell Air Force Base on the TCAS, displayed on the MFD. Of course, we could also see the huge airplane as the weather was clear.

We did an overhead entry, circling to the left to enter the downwind to runway 18 and slowing below 150 knots, so we could lower the landing gear and flaps. The T-6 has a hydraulically operated belly-mounted speedbrake, but we didn’t need it. We did two touch-and-goes then a full stop, and the T-6 handled the gusty winds solidly; I had no trouble putting the airplane exactly where I wanted.

The T-6 has a somewhat flat landing attitude, another feature that makes it more jet-like. I found it is easier to keep power on and fly it onto the runway than to try to flare nose-high. “This is a more prudent approach for transitioning to larger aircraft,” Black said.

Hawker Beechcraft T-6B/C Specifications

Engine Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-68, 1,100 shp
Avionics Esterline CMC Cockpit 4000, SparrowHawk HUD
Final approach speed 100 kias
Max cruise speed 316 kias
Max range at altitude 850 nm
Maximum altitude 31,000 feet
Cabin at max altitude 18,000 feet
Pressurization differential 3.6 psi
G limits +7, -3.5