May 2006
SNJ Flight Experience

It was a beautiful sunny Saturday morning when I arrived at the Southern California Wing of the CAF in Camarillo. The day had finally come that I had been anticipating for a number of months. I wanted to do something unique and fun for my birthday and so I planned well in advance to get a flight in a vintage WWII trainer, the SNJ-5. The SNJ-5 is the US Navy version of the North American AT-6 Texan advanced trainer. There are no visible differences between the two aside from the markings.

1943 SNJ-5, serial number 84865

After saying hello to some of the folks I have known from being around there for years, my pilot, Terry Cedar came out to greet me. Until that time, I was unsure who would be taking me up. I was confident that whoever it was would give me an experience of a lifetime, and I wasn’t wrong. Terry asked what I wanted in the flight. I was a little unsure of what the options were, so we discussed and came up with a plan.

Terry Cedar, my pilot and instructor

I went in to the hangar to change lenses on my camera and make a quick pit stop before heading out to the ramp to meet up with Terry. He helped me get strapped in and went over the safety briefing. He gave me instructions on what to do if we had to bail out of the airplane and how to go about it. This part is always a bit unnerving to me because the last thought on my mind was ever having to do that. But, he advised, unless it was a huge fire or catastrophic failure of some sort, it is safer to ride it down. Obviously, it was the choice for both of us to have a safe and fun flight!

CAF ground crews ready our airplane and the F8F-2 for flight operations. Dick Troy stands by with the fire extinguisher.

I sat back and looked around from the rear seat as Terry ran through the preflight checklist. I took in the sense of history and thought to myself of the thousands of young men who had sat in this position over the years. Most WWII pilots have at least a few hours in a T-6/SNJ. Countless people since have as well. Over 17,000 of these aircraft were built and today, over 1,000 are still flying! Those thoughts were interrupted by Terry shouting “Clear”. The Pratt and Whitney engine roared to life seconds later. I slid the canopy back and closed as the engine warmed up and we got clearance to taxi to the warm up area.

Ready to go out to the taxiway.

We taxied along, wagging the tail left, then right. Like other tail draggers, the T-6 has no forward visibility, so you have to taxi while shifting the tail from left to right and back again to be able to see ahead and make sure the way is clear. We lined up on the warm up pad and Terry ran through another checklist and warmed the engine oil to the proper temperature, checked the prop and magnetos and a number of other things to make sure that all was in working order. Safety is always the prime concern, so any part not functioning properly would cancel flying, and rightly so. I took in the scene and looked at a vintage Temco Swift next to us performing similar checklists.

Out on the warmup area. A classic general aviation airplane, a Temco Swift, performs his warmup on our port side.

With the checklist done, we got clearance to taxi and hold at runway 26. We watched a general aviation aircraft land and another behind him turn away. We were cleared for takeoff! We rolled onto runway 26 and Terry applied power. The engine roared as we accelerated down the runway. I felt the tail lift and in no time, we were airborne. Terry retracted the gear as we climbed away from Camarillo airport heading west. As we climbed, Terry gave over the controls and had me maintain the climb. I was flying the plane!

Holding position before runway 26 for inbound traffic, to the right a just below the center of the image.

After gaining a little altitude, I could feel what the air does to a plane. There were minor shifts in all three axes that required gentle stick correction to keep the plane straight and level. Terry let me develop the feel for it and told me I was doing great. I was grinning like the Cheshire Cat. I soon realized that there is quite a bit of work to this. I was looking outside while scanning the gauges on and off as well to make sure that things were in order. I am sure that pilots with experience develop a feel for nose position (degree of climb or descent) and the like, but I was still new to it. Once I got the feel for it, we worked on turns. A gentle push of the stick left or right will get you banked and turning, but there is also rudder force that needs to be applied to make the turn smooth. Left bank, left rudder, watch the ball in the turn and bank indicator gauge and try and keep it in the middle. Then there is coming out of the turn back to straight and level flight.

View of the coast during a left bank turn. The 101 freeway is visible in this shot.

Now it was time to apply those lessons. Terry called out the compass direction and altitude that he wanted me to get to. Now it was a balance of right turn, right rudder, then drop the nose, lose a little altitude and level out. I was doing all of this while keeping an eye on the gauges! It wasn’t pretty, but I got us there. As I leveled off, Terry announced, “You did it. Good job.”

Instrument panel in the rear cockpit of the T-6 that I was in. Spartan compared with modern airliners, but everything you need is right in front of you.

Having only previously flown briefly in a Cessna 150, 172 and a big Antonov AN-2 Colt, I was fairly easy on the controls and taking it lightly. I know the T-6 is a responsive aircraft capable of aerobatics, but that is well beyond my skills. Terry took control and gave me a demonstration of what the airplane could do. He did a good scan of the skies to make sure we were clear of any traffic, then a quick yank of the stick and we were in a 60 degree tight left turn that felt like a 90 degree bank! I felt the G forces pushing me into the seat as the turn progressed through 360 degrees. A quick level off then climb as I felt pushed into my seat yet again after a very brief respite! At the top of the climb, Terry pushed the nose over into a negative G maneuver. I suddenly felt very light and watched my camera float in front of my face! I reached out and grabbed it as the G forces stabilized. Just in time as Terry executed a barrel roll before I knew what hit me. “Woo-hoo!” was all I could say. He leveled off and asked how I was doing. Then it hit me, a bout of queasiness. I let him know and he mercifully said that we would skip the stall training.

Over Oxnard California. I will always remember this city as the place where I got queasy at about 3,000 feet!

He suggested that I slide open the canopy a bit to let some air in. I pulled down on the latch and cracked it open. A nice gust of fresh cool air swirled into the rear cockpit with me and I felt a lot better. Terry looked back at me and gave me a grin. Then, knowing that it would help to get my mind off of my queasiness, he gave over control of the airplane again. We took a nice easy route back toward Camarillo as I descended toward the airport. I had to keep a constant eye on the climb/descent gauge, as I wanted to put the nose up. The rate of descent was a little more than I was used to doing, but Terry again gently guided me through it. As we approached the airport for the turn onto final, I handed control back to Terry to get some pictures of our descent and landing.

Camarillo Airport, approaching from the east.

Terry put us down on the runway in what could be best described as smooth. I could tell that he was a veteran with this airplane as I didn’t feel a bump or lurch on landing, just a smooth transition from air to ground. My lesson wasn’t over yet. Terry had me work the rudder to taxi back to the CAF ramp. He gave the instruction “Left rudder..more…stop…right rudder…stop” and so on as we rolled down the taxiway. We pulled into the CAF ramp, swung the tail around and shut down the engine. Some of the maintenance and ground crew came out to meet us and put the chocks down. I got my picture in the cockpit before climbing out and back on the earth again.

Not looking too much the worse for wear after landing.

It was a great experience and I had a lot of fun. Terry is a great pilot and a wonderful instructor. I want to thank Casey DeBree, Bob Goubitz, Al Kepler, Jason Sommes, Terry Cedar and everyone down at the CAF that keeps these planes maintained for making this birthday very special for me. It was an experience that I will never forget. Keep 'em flying.

The Southern California Wing of the Commemorative Air Force's hangars at Camarillo airport.

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