North American Harvard | PH Heroes

Readers who weren't still suffering from a World Cup hangover at the time may recall the heady days of last summer, when I travelled to Bicester to take to the skies in a WWII De Havilland Tiger Moth. The nice people at Goodwood Aerodrome seem to remember it, at least, and invited me down to follow that flight up with a spin in their 1943 North American Harvard.

Known in the United States as the T6-Texan, the Harvard was designed primarily as a basic trainer, but also saw service with militaries around the world as both a fighter and ground support aircraft. To those ends, the plane existed in many forms throughout its extensive lifespan, carried a wide array of armaments, including a rear-facing gun turret and wing mounted rockets, and was powered by various nine-cylinder radial engines, from the 400hp Wright Whirlwind to the 600hp Pratt & Whitney Wasp.

In this guise the Harvard was capable of a 180mph top speed - around half that of an early production Spitfire - with a cruising speed of 140mph. Its operating ceiling stood at just over 22,000ft and it had a range of 800 miles. Over 20,000 of the aircraft were produced in total, with the lion's share of RAF examples being manufactured under licence in Canada.

Prior to Canadian involvement, the Harvard was one of the first American-built aircraft to be purchased by the Royal Air Force, with an order for 200 planes placed in June of 1938. Although Goodwood's example wasn't built until five years later, it still boasts about a particularly colourful history. Having initially been pressed into service as a trainer for RAF pilots destined for Spitfire and Hurricane squadrons, it was later sold to the Royal Netherlands Air Force, where it continued to be used for instruction. Having subsequently passed into private ownership, it found a new lease of life at a Dutch skywriting firm before being purchased and repatriated to the UK in 1984 by none other than synth-pop pioneer Gary Numan.

As one half of the Radial Pair display team, he flew the Harvard alongside ex-Royal Navy Commando helicopter pilot Norman Lees. Painted to mimic a Japanese Mitsubishi Zero, Numan's Harvard would be pursued and 'shot down' by Lees' similar plane, decorated in RAF colours. Following the death of Lees in a Spitfire crash in 2000 though, Numan had his Zero resprayed in its current paint scheme, and it was bought by the aerodrome for use in experience flights.

And that's what I'm here to sample. A 30-minute flight, taking off from Goodwood and heading out over the picturesque Sussex landscape, during which I'll become familiar with both the aircraft itself and its operation. There's just one slight snag, though: the weather. It's a far cry from this time last year, the parched fields and balmy conditions replaced by torrential rain and ominous cloud.

When I arrive, Rob Wildeboer, a veteran Aerodrome employee who has served variously as the airfield's Chief Engineer, Flying Instructor and General Manager stands serenely on the grassy airstrip, head tilted skyward, surveying the swirling grey mass above. He wouldn't usually fly on days like this, he tells me, explaining that when paying customers are involved, he wants to ensure the experience is as close to perfect as possible. This'll do just fine for a freeloading journalist, though, and so when a gap in the rain appears we don our flying suits and head out to the plane.

Getting into the thing turns out to be the most challenging aspect of the entire Harvard experience. Having first stepped onto the wing, a great stretch is required to place my right foot on the peg located beneath the rear of the cockpit. Grasping the edge of the canopy I hoist myself up and step in, careful not to slip from my sodden perch. Two harnesses await me, first that of a static-line parachute, then the plane's own, then I'm finally ready to go, snuggly strapped in and enveloped by that dizzying smell of oil, fuel and metal which invariably accompanies this kind of machine.

Upon getting my bearings the first thing to note is the size of the space. The cockpit of the Harvard seems somehow even roomier than the open-air Tiger Moth; the vast glass greenhouse letting in plenty of light and lending the aircraft a relaxed, airy feel. There are switches and levers for the trim, mixture and landing gear to my left and a set of instruments before me, with the same set-up visible in Rob's forward position beyond the rudder pedals.

WIth a great roar he fires the radial engine into life and we zig-zag our way to the end of the runway - the steep angle at which the plane sits when on the ground meaning forward visibility is limited to say the least. The radial needs a good deal of time to get up to temperature and pressure, he says, but by the time we reach the end of one of Goodwood's three airstrips, it's ready to go. With the canopy vibrating to the nine-cylindered thrum, he applies the brakes, opens the throttle and then releases us forward, slingshotting us over the grass and up into the sky, raindrops streaming across the glass.

As you might expect, flying in the Harvard is an altogether more composed experience than the Tiger Moth. Bestowed with greater presence in the air, it's less vulnerable to the whims of the atmosphere around it, while its vastly superior power output enables it to chart its course with far more confidence. Despite this, it feels light and nimble on the stick, the slightest input met with an instantaneous reaction; excellent preparation for the state-of-the-art fighters that its former pilots were once preparing for.

For a little while we soar over the south coast, flying a circuit across to Bognor and back along to Chichester, the low dark cloud passing by on our right with blue sky spanning the horizon to our left. Then it's time for some 'gentleman's aerobatics', as Rob calls them. A series of rolls and loops that feel different to anything I've experienced in a plane before, the Harvard's purposeful manner dictating that each manoeuvre feels far more graceful and gradual than in the De Havilland, the g-force pressing me into the seat with such enormous weight that it feels as though I'll be pushed out through the floor. It's absolutely fantastic - "I knew it was a good flight when I heard him laughing on the radio", Rob says later - and then with time running low we head for home.

Of course, for the men who once trained on this aircraft, flying wasn't such a laughing matter. Back then Goodwood was home to RAF Westhampnett; constructed on land donated by the 9th Duke of Richmond, Freddie March, to assist in the war effort. It would soon join nearby Tangmere on the front lines of the Battle of Britain. Active from July 1940 until May 1946 it was home to a number of Hurricane and Spitfire squadrons, as well as a visiting American contingent of P-51 Mustangs. Legendary fighter ace Douglas Bader flew his final combat mission from the airfield before being downed and captured in 1941 and - as many of you will know intimately - it was the airfield's perimeter road which lent itself to repurposing as the now-famous motor circuit.

As we bank over the English Channel, then, and approach the airfield from the south, it's impossible not to spare a thought for the exhausted airmen who were faced with the same perspective as they returned almost 80 years ago - and those who never got the chance to see it again. Whether it was to defend the country against all odds from the imminent threat of invasion, or to support the Allied advance into Europe as the war came to a close, the pilots who flew from Westhampnett during its fleeting six-year existence played a pivotal role in turning the tide. To find myself in such an evocative aircraft, following in their footsteps, is an almost overwhelming privilege.

And then, with a hop and jump as we meet the ground, we're back down, taxiing over to the aerodrome and (very inelegantly) clambering down from the cockpit. It's been an unforgettable experience, so different from that of the Tiger Moth but similar too, given the Harvard's position on the next rung of the training ladder. As Rob puts it, "It may not be a Spitfire, but going up in a Harvard only costs a sixth as much, and it's certainly not a sixth of the experience." I highly doubt he's wrong - but there's only one way to find out...

For more information on Goodwood's historic flying programmes click here

P.H. O'meter

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Comments (38) Join the discussion on the forum

  • Cyrus1971 18 Jun 2019

    I love these old warbirds. More so the WW2 ones than WW1 but they are all inspirational machines. Reminds me what friends pistonheads and propeller heads are. Aircraft like these are visceral like 1920's Bentleys so a little more of the "performance and feel", subjective as it is, would be an interesting add to the article. It's not related but the story about George W Bush's flying during WW2 on TBM Avenger torpedo bombers is one of the best back stores of a US president ever. I think he even crashed one learning carrier landings in Illinois, not to mention getting shot down by the Japanese a few times. Regardless of personal politics do they make presidents like that in the US any longer ?

  • Nerdherder 18 Jun 2019

    Lovely adventure and a joy to read the relaxed style of this article! Hoping a Spit, Mosquito and more will follow to extending these articles into a series!

    Ps Never would have thought that Newman is a planes guy.

  • CS Garth 19 Jun 2019

    Excellent article - thank you

  • aeropilot 19 Jun 2019

    Nerdherder said:
    Ps Never would have thought that Newman is a planes guy.
    Yeah, he was a very good pilot, I met him on a few occasions at airshows etc back in the early 1980's. My late mum worked for his record company as well.
    The death of one of his flying mentors, Hoof Proudfoot at a Duxford airshow in 96, followed by his good friend Norm Lees in a Spitfire accident at Goodwood a few years later affected him badly though, and he stopped display flying as a result, as he didn't want to put his then young family through that same situation.

  • Augustus Windsock 19 Jun 2019

    “Upon getting my bearings the first thing to note is the size of the space. The cockpit of the Harvard seems somehow even roomier than the open-air Tiger Moth; the vast glass greenhouse letting in plenty of light and lending the aircraft a relaxed, airy feel. ”
    Possibly the worst bit of word-fangling I’ve read in ages.
    The size of the space? = spaciousness
    Seems somehow even roomier? Try just saying ‘even roomier’
    The vast greenhouse letting on plenty of light? What? Were you expecting it to be like a coal-hole?
    Apart from that, not bad
    If I’d won the £170m euro lottery last week I’d have thrown a load of money at getting another Lancaster flying, get the Vulcan back in the air and then throw some at this type of thing...

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