A Harvard by any other name

In 1944, if you were a student pilot in the United States Army Air Corps or Army Air Forces and headed for advanced single-engined training, you would be destined for the AT-6. Known to Royal Air Force and Commonwealth students as the Harvard, and to future United States Navy aircrew as the SNJ, 77 years later I would have the privilege of flying in this trainer which was the backbone of allied Air Force programmes.

A USN SNJ at NAS Jacksonville in 1944, the same year that 'my' SNJ (at right) was rolled out of the factory

I've long aspired to fly the Harvard for a few reasons, not least of which being that it was, and still is, the gateway trainer to the most famous single-engined piston fighters of WWII. Compared to the single-engined piston type I have the most time in (the humble PA-28), the Harvard (or SNJ which I should refer to my mount correctly as) is an imposing machine. Not simply because of her age or the historical significance of her type, but thanks to her sheer size.

Anyone who has been around warbirds will agree I think that most of these aircraft are larger than life when seen 'in the flesh'. I remember well some twenty-odd years ago when I was at a PFA fly-in riding shotgun in an Avid flyer, and we were holding position for a Hurricane to taxi by. When the Hawker fighter appeared, it dwarfed us as the Lilliputians were dwarfed by Gulliver. I suppose we were not sitting very high above the ground ourselves, but it seemed to me as though the peak of that famous silhouette was some twenty-five feet above the grass.

An Avid Flyer and Hawker Hurricane (pictured here by an official RAF photographer in France during 1940). The difference in size is striking

As with the Hurricane years before, on seeing the SNJ up close for the first time I got the same sense of scale. 'Tail draggers' of course sit higher than an aircraft with tricycle undercarriage, but once you add in that Pratt and Whitney radial engine you have a machine in possession of serious bulk pointing skywards when it's at rest.

For those interested in comparable engine performance with a front-line fighter of the day, the Pratt and Whitney of the SNJ develops around 600 HP, which is roughly half that of a Merlin III. That might sound unimpressive, but to a PA-28 driver like me used to a maximum of 180 HP up front, a radial engine delivering 600 horses is essentially the same as trading your pushbike for a Tesla Model S, even when accounting for the sheer 'chunkiness' of the SNJ.

Entering the rear cockpit did not disappoint, as I was presented with an instrument panel that I suspect included most, if not all, of the original gauges. I was also surprised by the amount of space; at a gangly 6' 3'' I expected to be folded up like a stick insect in a matchbox, but there was ample room for my extensive limbs and plenty of room to place my feet on platforms short of the rudder pedals without experiencing discomfort.

The controls and instrument panel in the rear cockpit

After crewing in I awaited engine start with much anticipation. The sounds and smells of these machines are as much a part of their character as their looks, and the Pratt and Whitney did not disappoint once she was fired into life. My pilot, 'Manbear', an F-22 driver by trade, described the SNJ as a 'tractor' and while that may sound unflattering, I think it's an excellent if altogether brief description; she certainly rattled like one.

The beautiful music of a radial engine

For those who are already experts in tail-draggers, you will know that they are perhaps trickier on the ground than in the air. Not only is it necessary to snake across the manoeuvreing area so that you can see the path ahead is clear, but I had not fully appreciated (and was briefed by Manbear) how much radials are reliant on airflow for their cooling. Taxying downwind for instance is a fairly undesirable situation, at least for any period of time, as the hard-working cylinders are robbed of the airstream they need to stay cool.

Our planned route of flight was essentially a circuit of the island that would take in the half-dozen active and inactive airfields spread across O'ahu. At the time of the Japanese attack on December 7th 1941, there were seven operational military airfields.

Disposition of US forces on O'ahu December 7th 1941

(from the Pearl Harbor National Memorial)

Kalaeloa Airport (the beginning of my journey) did not exist as such in 1941 - it was instead a much smaller civilian airfield known as Barber's Point (later to become Naval Air Station Barber's Point in 1943). Nevertheless, on December 7th 1941, it was one of the first locations attacked. The initial part of our route would take us north from the former Barber's Point, flying to the east of the Waianae Range; effectively back-tracking the route that many IJN aircraft of the first wave followed to reach Pearl Harbor.

Ingress routes flown by the first wave of the IJN attack (and our route north from Barber's Point)

It's easy to see how the Waianae Range offered a natural screen for the approach of many of the IJN's aircraft. Japanese dive bombers however (Route 1), flew the length of the valley that bisects the island to reach their targets. Torpedo bombers (Route 2) and Level bombers (Route 3) routed to the west of the mountains. Manbear and I reciprocated the ingress route of the dive bombers (Route 4).

The Waianae Range, which would have concealed...

the approaching force of B5N 'Kate' Torpedo Bombers (shown here without its deadly cargo - a torpedo modified especially for the Pearl Harbor attack)

While travelling north up the valley, the view to starboard gave me some indication of what the approach to Battleship Row might have looked like to a Japanese pilot, with the important exception that we were probably a thousand feet or so above the altitude at which many of these aircraft would have been flying. The weather that day was also more favourable to the attacker than that which we experienced.

Ford Island and the former Battleship Row at the four o'clock position

As we continued to the north shore and turned east to circumnavigate the island for a return to Kalaeloa, the beauty of O'ahu really became apparent. Particularly for someone who has spent the best part of the last decade in the desert of the southwestern USA, the piercing and jagged peaks carpeted in verdant green were nothing less than breathtaking. Even more so when viewed up close and personal from an aircraft - the only way to gain such a vantage point.

But this picturesque landscape still made me think of those tumultuous events nearly eighty years ago, for it must have been simply inconceivable to those who witnessed it that a quiet Sunday morning in an island paradise might see the most infamous surprise attack in history. A shaky video (thanks to my lack of appreciation of the buffeting wind just outside my open canopy) hardly does the landscape justice.

The peaks of the Koolau Range on the windward (eastern) side of O'ahu

It was at this point that I got to spend some time handling the SNJ myself. A more gifted aviation writer (with more experience) could likely compare her to other warbird types and probably define her handling in more eloquent language, but I was reminded of Manbear's assertion that she was 'a tractor'. That comparison might have been instructive had I ever driven a tractor. What I can say is that like so many famous aircraft, she simply 'feels right', and is quite forgiving for a novice who makes no effort to coordinate a turn when there is a fairly large rudder a few feet behind his head. The SNJ gives the impression of a robust machine that expects the rough handling of a student but has no intention of giving a rough ride in return. Even the turbulent air cresting the Koolau Range seemed to be a disturbance for which the SNJ cared not.

Rounding the south-eastern tip of O'ahu, with Honolulu in sight

Passing Waikiki on the approach to Pearl Harbor from the east

The final fifteen minutes of our flight took us to Ford Island at the heart of Pearl Harbor. Seeing Battleship Row up close (today represented by the Missouri and the Arizona Memorial) from the open cockpit of a 77 year-old trainer with the thundering backdrop of a Pratt and Whitney radial engine was, to say the least, another moment to pause for thought.

A week later that pause turned to a far deeper reflection while composing this narrative, as I compared my own photograph with that taken by a Japanese pilot during the attack.

Ford Island as I saw it, with the Missouri and Arizona Memorial clearly visible, and on the right as seen eighty years ago by a Japanese pilot during the attack (viewed from directly opposite our position)

It goes without saying that seeing Pearl Harbor from the air brings a different perspective. But the most deep and striking facet of that perspective was one that I had not anticipated.

Twenty-four hours earlier we had taken the short trip by water from The Pearl Harbor National Memorial to the Arizona Memorial. To say the latter is a sacred place in the collective memory of the United States is to flirt with gross understatement; the Memorial is a marker for the wreck within which over a thousand sailors and marines are entombed. To stand a few feet above the Arizona and see the structure that still protrudes above water is to make a visceral connection to that day - exceeded only, in my humble opinion, by seeing the remains of the ship from the air.

The USS Missouri and the USS Arizona

A few minutes later my hour with the SNJ was almost up, and all that remained was the brief transit back to Kalaeloa Airport and a circuit to land. Manbear kindly offered that I might like to 'follow him through' on the controls, but with my mind racing through everything I had seen I thought it best to keep my unskilled hands and feet clear.

I had closed my canopy in anticipation of landing only to hear from Manbear that I was quite welcome to keep it open; yet another new experience for me, but one that must have been commonplace to those aviators of eighty years ago. I would say there is something about being unprotected by plexiglass that connects you to flying in a deeper way, and has left me hungry for more time in machines like the SNJ; perhaps a Stearman could be next on the list...

And so after an hour with '6N6' I had gotten my first time at the controls of a warbird trainer, seen the beauty of O'ahu from end to end and, most importantly, experienced a connection to history that is rare, and therefore a great privilege. When I'll next be able to fold myself into the office behind a radial engine I can't be sure, but I do know that I'll be thinking about this flight for a long time to come.

Image credits:

Avid Flyer: By Flyernzl - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10435266

IJN B5N 'Kate': By U.S. Navy - Official U.S. Navy photo 80-G-427153 from the U.S. Navy Naval History and Heritage Command, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1721331

Battleship Row: By Imperial Japanese Navy - Official U.S. Navy photograph NH 50930., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=223876