While every U.S. military pilot’s goal may be to fly an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet, F-22 Raptor jet or even an F-16 Fighting Falcon multirole fighter aircraft, the first cockpit that most will climb into will be something far more basic. For some six decades that would have the T-34 Mentor, a single-engine, basic military trainer that was derived from the Beechcraft Model 35 Bonanza.
Multiple variants of the two-seater (instructor pilot and student pilot) aircraft were produced, but the purpose was typically for training.
While some of the Mentors were fitted with two 7.62-millimeter general-purpose machine guns and the aircraft would carry up to 544 kilograms of weapons payload including flares, firebombs and even anti-tank missiles and rocket pods, this was no actual fighter plane, nor could the T-34 Mentor even remotely be described as a “sexy” aircraft. However, it was where nearly all of the military’s pilots first learned the ropes.
It was noted for being a forgiving aircraft, which can hover with a flight envelope of +10 grams and -4.5 grams, while it could execute hard landings even in bad climatic conditions.
Development of the aircraft began in the 1940s to replace the North American T-6 Texan II aircraft. Three design concepts were proposed and the final design issued in early 1948, while the maiden flight of the Model 45 prototype took place that December.
The United States Air Force used the T-34A as its primary trainer during the 1950s, and the first production aircraft was delivered to Edwards Air Force Base, California, in October 1953. Deliveries to the Air Training Command began in 1954. It was powered by a Continental O-470-13 engine that provided just 225 horsepower and had a maximum speed of just 191 miles per hour and a ceiling of twenty thousand feet.
The Mentor remained the standard Air Force primary trainer until it was replaced by the more modern Cessna T-37 jet trainer in the late 1950s. Many of the T-34s were subsequently turned over to base aero clubs.
The improved T-34C Turbomentor was produced in 1973 and was used to train U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps pilots, while some have also been used to provide pilot proficiency operations. This version was powered by a Model PT6A-25 turboprop engine made by Pratt & Whitney of Canada, and had a maximum speed of 322 miles per hour. While the production of the aircraft was suspended in April 1990, many T-34Cs still remain in service even today, notably with the Naval Air Test Center at Patuxent River, Maryland, and with the Naval Strike Air Warfare Center at Naval Air Station Fallon, Nevada.
NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center at Edwards AFB also has operated the T-34C version. In addition to being a pilot proficiency trainer, NASA also used the Turbomentor as a support chase plane, where the rear seat in the cockpit would be occupied by a photographer or flight test engineer during research missions.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four-dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.
Image: Wikimedia Commons