Aircraft of the Month
My first flying assignment following Air Force flight training was as a pilot for the Navigator Flight Training school at Mather AFB, near Sacramento, California. Imagine the shock. I had just spent four months flying a supersonic, 9-G T-38 in every imaginable attitude possible, and my first assignment was in an antiquated, twin-piston engine transport with a top speed of 293 mph, and a typical cruise speed of 250 knots. Talk about emotional speed brakes!
Mather AFB was home to the 3535 Flying Training Wing tasked with training navigators, electronic warfare officers, and bombardiers. Depending on the training mission, the aircraft was outfitted with ten to fourteen training stations in the cabin. The navigator students had their own instructors in the cabin. The pilots had very little to do with their training except to fly the airplanes and respond to heading changes as students plotted their courses.
Each student station had a set of basic navigation instruments including radio navigation, heading, altitude and speed. The T-29B was the basic navigation trainer. It was also equipped with astrodomes—glass domed ports in the ceiling where students could practice celestial navigation.
Most of the T-29 aircraft had been built in the 1950s. They were a development of the Convair CV-240 passenger transport initially ordered by American Airlines. The 40-seat airliner replaced the venerable DC-3. All models B and following were pressurized and capable of cruise altitudes up to 24,000 feet. Mather AFB had approximately 100 T-29 aircraft in various models; T-29B, T-29C and T-29D.
There could not have been an aircraft more different from the T-38 than the T-29. First, the minimum crew required two pilots. It was powered by two 2,500-horsepower twin-row 18-cylinder radial piston engines. Piston engines are very different from jet engines. Jet engines are pretty simple. The main moving part is one turbine spinning on a shaft supported by bearings. There was one control for each engine—the throttle; forward was fast, period.
In the T-29, however, there are four levers and several switches for each engine that had to be moved in just the proper sequence to manage engine power. Each engine had 18 pistons and connecting rods, and 36 spark plugs. In spite of its complexity, it was a dependable engine.
The aircraft was also a systems nightmare, and it was a nightmare the pilots had to learn. Flying the aircraft was relatively easy. It was a well behaved aircraft and responded well to the controls. With just a little practice, it was possible to make consistently good landings. But when something did go wrong, pilots found themselves busy.
One example was the hydraulic system that operated the landing gear, wing flaps, nose-wheel steering, brakes and the windshield wipers. That system was driven by a pump bolted to the back of one of the engines. Once the aircraft was in flight, with the gear and flaps up, the pilots opened a hydraulic bypass valve that disconnected the gear, flaps, and nose-wheel steering to save wear and tear on the hydraulic system. Part of the pre-landing checklist was to close the hydraulic bypass valve.
All pilots learned and practiced (and continue to do so today) emergency procedures for each model of aircraft they fly. On the T-29, we practiced engine failure procedures more often than anything, followed by loss of hydraulic pressure. We practiced dropping the landing gear without hydraulic pressure, making no-flap landings (flaps in the up position), and steering the aircraft on the ground without the steering wheel.
There were several other systems that involved lots of plumbing and an assortment of controls that had to be used under certain specific conditions. Consequently, each pilot check ride involved more time before the flight going over questions about when, how, and in what order to operate different systems than we spent flying the aircraft.
There were benefits of a sort, for crew members, too. A typical training flight lasted five to six hours. Pilots had the ability to leave the flight deck briefly —one at a time— to get a cup of coffee or their in-flight meal from a small galley and there was a primitive bathroom in the back.
The Convair airframe was one of the most versatile military transports for its era. Major roles included passenger service, navigator training, and as an air ambulance. It served as a navigator trainer until 1973 when it was replaced by a Boeing 737B model T-43. Many T-29s were dispersed to Air Force bases around the country and around the world, to serve as “base operations” aircraft. These aircraft ferried personnel and parts between bases on an as needed basis. It was the nearest thing the Air Force had to “corporate flying” at the time.
The C-131 was the medivac and operational support version of the T-29, fitted to carry 40 passengers or 20 stretchers and five attendants in the cabin. There were more than 40 different designations assigned to the aircraft based on an aircraft’s assigned mission.
A number of Convair 240/T-29 aircraft were converted to turboprop engines, increasing the aircraft’s permissible gross weight, speed, and utility.
I flew the T-29 over a span of five years, first at Mather AFB flying training missions, and then at a bomber base where we flew “mission support” ferrying people and parts between bases. There are many “There I was” stories associated with the T-29, but each one requires discussing background information to orient non-aviation readers to appreciate the humor of the situation. I will try one or two such stories in the future. For an example, see “Thunderstorms – Never Again.”
Wing Span: 105’4″
Maximum Speed: 293 M.P.H. at Sea Level
Service Ceiling: 24,000 Ft.
Range: 1,800 Miles
Crew/Passengers: 2/3 crew, 8-10 navigation students, 36-40 passengers
Engines: 2 Pratt & Whitney R-2800 radial engines rated at 2, 500 H.P.each