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Flying the Army Primary Trainers

A comparison of the Stearman, Fairchild and Ryan PTs.

by Randy Wilson

Copyright 1999 by the Confederate Air Force and Randy Wilson. All rights reserved.

Originally published in The Dispatch magazine, Volume 24, Number 2, Summer, 1999 edition. If you are interested in subscribing to The Dispatch please write to The Commemorative Air Force, ATTN: Dispatch Editor, PO Box 62000, Midland, TX 79711-2000 or call (432) 563-1000. Reproduced with permission.

If you were one of the more than 324,000 young Americans to enter Army aviation training in World War II, you would probably have made your first flight in a Stearman PT-13 or PT-17, Fairchild PT-19 or Ryan PT-22. These were the most common Army primary trainers, and many of them are still flying in the CAF Ghost Squadron today.

Although I learned to fly well after World War II, I have had the opportunity to fly a number of WWII planes, including the most common Army PTs. I was fortunate enough to fly a Stearman quite a bit when I was only nineteen – about the same age that many aviation cadets were introduced to the same plane. Let’s start with flying the Stearman.

A large, classic open-cockpit biplane, the Stearman is flown from the rear cockpit with the instructor in the front. Forward visibility from either seat is poor, and taxing requires a series of constant zig-zag or "S" turns to see forward. Turns are made using the main wheel brakes, as the tail wheel has no steering. A Stearman pilot quickly learns to check his brakes before venturing far out of the chocks.

The main landing gear are closely spaced on the Stearman, and the throttle must be advanced smoothly on takeoff and the tail allowed to rise on its own, to ensure good directional control with the rudder. In the air, improper coordination of the rudder and ailerons can be felt as wind on the side of the pilot’s face in the open cockpit. The rudder is powerful and with good feedback. In a stall, the wing tends to drop and the ailerons are ineffective. Without use of the rudder to help level the wings, a spin may develop.

The plane is not overpowered by its 220 or so horsepower, and loops and barrel rolls require diving to pick up enough energy to complete the maneuvers. Fortunately, the strong structure of the Stearman will take almost any mistake, as long as there is altitude to recover. Snap and aileron rolls are entered slower, and during slow rolls, the engine typically quits for the second or two you are inverted.

With no flaps or other complex systems, the landing check list is short: mixture full rich, elevator trimmed slightly tail heavy, keep the engine warm with short bursts of power, as needed, and maintain at least 60 mph on final. The military pilot’s handbook includes the paragraph "Avoid cross-wind landings when possible." Full-stall, three-point landings are the norm but the Stearman can be wheel-landed in a moderate cross-wind. The fun may start, however, when the tail comes down and the wind catches the upper wing like a big sail. Many a Stearman pilot has visited the dirt and grass beside the runway on a windy day.

Compared to the Stearman, the open-cockpit Fairchild PT-19 and the similar canopied PT-26 are about as easy to fly as any conventional-gear aircraft I’ve flown. With its low wing and relatively widely spaced main landing gear, the Fairchild is much easier to taxi and land in a cross-wind than the Stearman. The narrow Ranger engine also provides a much better forward view for the pilot, who is seated in the front cockpit. Starting is also easier with the direct hand cranking of the inline Ranger, compared to the laborious winding up of the inertial starter fitted to the Stearman’s radial, if no electric starter is fitted. Three or four quick turns of the crank are usually all it takes. With only 175 horsepower, the PT-19 seems to take forever to climb to altitude, especially on hot days, and the pilot must keep an eye on the oil temperature to avoid overheating. It is easy to see why the PT-19A and later versions had a 200 horsepower engine fitted.

Due to the twist or washout of the wings, the Fairchild’s ailerons remain surprisingly effective even into the stall, and in general the handling is very honest and predictable, with no real surprises. Landings are typically done three-point with full or partial flaps with only a bit of rudder normally needed during roll out. Wheel landings require carrying a bit of power until the main wheels touch but with the PT-19’s good aileron control, make cross-wind landings much less exciting than in the Stearman.

Although it was the first monoplane primary trainer ever ordered by the Army, the Ryan series of PT-16/20/21 and PT-22 trainers were produced in smaller numbers and were generally confined to training bases and schools in the far western states. The Ryan is smaller and lighter than the Stearman and Fairchild PTs and needs only 160 horsepower from its Kinner radial engine. The Kinner’s five cylinders give it a slight roughness and distinctive "bark" different from the other trainer’s engines. As in the Stearman, the pilot occupies the rear cockpit, but the Ryan’s slender fuselage blocks less of the forward view.

Takeoff requires more airspeed than in the other trainers – a hint to the pilot of things to come. Once in the air, the PT-22’s controls seem more responsive, perhaps crisper than either the Fairchild or Stearman, with a higher roll rate. The Ryan’s wing, however, is much less forgiving at lower speeds or higher load factors. In tight turns, power must be added to keep the airspeed up lest a wing quickly drop and a spin develop. In level flight, letting the speed drop much below 80 mph without power produces a decided sink. If flown like the more docile PTs, the Ryan can quickly turn nasty.

With this in mind, landing the PT-22 requires an approach speed of at least 80 mph. A moderately steep approach allows the speed to be kept up with only enough power to keep the engine warm. With the flaps down, and the plane just above the runway, closing the throttle and raising the nose results in the Ryan "planting" itself in a three-point landing. There is no tendency to "float". The ungainly but effective articulated main landing gear does a surprisingly good job of absorbing any tendency to bounce.

Together, the three Army primary trainers from Stearman, Fairchild and Ryan, along with their instructors and ground crews helped 191,654 Army aviation cadets win their wings in World War II. Let’s not overlook the hard working PTs as we "keep ‘em flying."

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