The T-29 “Flying Classroom”


The T-29 was used as a navigation training platform through the early 1970s. It was the military version of the Convair 240/340 commercial transport.

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.


The first Convair CV-240s were built for American Airlines. In total, 125 commercial airline versions were built.

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.


The T-29B used for initial Navigator training. The astrodomes can be seen on top of this aircraft. The dome under the fuselage between the wings was a ground navigation radar.

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.

T-29 Models

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, which also flow by the Navy, was configured more like the airline version, with passenger seats or room for stretchers and a medical crew.

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.”

The Numbers

Wing Span: 105’4″
Length: 79’2″
Height: 27’3″
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

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41 Responses to The T-29 “Flying Classroom”

  1. jenorv says:

    Flew the T-29 as a nav student from 1971-1972, loved the creaky old bird. But it was a big shock to go from it to the F4, where the TO roll was almost as fast as the T 29. Later went back to Mather as an instructor nav on the T-43, a very different world.

  2. Les Robbins says:

    Enjoyed flying as Radio Operator on T-29B’s at Keesler ’61-’62. Usually flew the TC-54D EWO trainers, and 2 flights a week on the T-29s for Nav Continuation Training for the EWO students. Four hours over the Gulf usually to McDill or Ellington, the 4 back to Keesler. When we moved to Mather (’62-’63) I ferried some VT-29Bs from Land Air Corp to Weisbaden for pick up by the various US Embassy crews in Europe. Later in Rio de Janeiro (’70-’74) in ’72 we traded our C-54G for a VT-29D. Always liked the T-29 (even got my 4 hours a month on them at Andrews while going to language school for 6 months at Anacostia Naval Annex. Great times on the T-29s.

    • merlinjr01 says:

      I agree, the T-29 was a good airplane, and actually fun to fly. Also, probably the most “systems-complex” aircraft I ever flew. But that just made it more interesting.

  3. Larry Luttrull says:

    best things about flying the T-29 were eating lunch, smoking cigars, lifting panels to see what pictures were under them, and harassing the new nav students. The good old days

    • merlinjr01 says:

      Can’t say I ever smoked a cigar during a mission, but the rest I remember quite well. Did you ever have a new student come up to the cockpit for a look-see and shut down an engine with a bill cap or leaning on the overhead panel. I noticed that it woke up my first pilot right quick!

  4. Bill Taylor says:

    I was a T-29 pilot at Mather from early 1970-1974. I came to fly the T-29 straight out of pilot training. It was a shock to go from the T-38’s to T-29’s but it had it’s pluses. I got a lot of flying time and I also got a lot of experience in management moving from AC, to Pilot Scheduling Officer, to Chief Pilot Scheduling Officer, to becoming a Flight Commander over a bunch of the pilots. I enjoyed the “job” and who can complain about being stationed in Sacramento, CA essentially equidistant from Lake Tahoe and San Francisco/Pacific Coast. I loved it and have no regrets although I would have preferred a different airplane for thrills.

    • merlinjr01 says:

      Bill, we were there at the same time. I left in late 1972 to go to a SAC base to fly their mission support T-29.

      • Bill Taylor says:

        I got there in March 1970 after UPT at Moody AFB and went into the 3541st Pilot Squadron. I was a flight crew scheduling officer for the 300 or so pilots and then became an Aircraft Commander/Line Check Pilot and a Flight commander. I really enjoyed being there and flying the T-29 although I wish I had flown other aircraft too. I got nearly 2500 fit hours which was great and more than the guys from UPT got over the same time period. It was good experience for me and I will always treasure the memories and friendships. I got out of USAF in 1974 and went to work for United Airlines in the Maintenance Division in the SFO Maintenance Base. I retired after 39 years with UA in 2013. I sure enjoyed my USAF and UA careers.

      • merlinjr01 says:

        I went to Mather early in 1971. Spent two years there. Qualified as a T-29 instructor and was transferred to Pease AFB in New Hampshire as a mission support pilot (T-29) and a transition instructor for senior pilots in Operations who no longer flew mission aircraft (KC-135s or FB-111s). Interesting experiences transitioning long-time jet pilots to “mixture-prop-throttles.” They all complained of too many levers!

      • Bill Taylor says:

        Merlinjr01, I am sure we met. It was a small world although flying different shifts/schedules could affect us crossing paths. I thoroughly enjoyed the flying even though it was fast and sexy. I loved the sound of the R2800’s. I got out just before the T-43’s came on. I helped work out some of the new routes from a pilot’s standpoint. I wish had the opportunity to fly other aircraft. Luckily I had the opportunity to fly big transport aircraft after went to work for UA. I worked in maintenance troubleshooting problems on just about every aircraft type they flew. It was a good career and I have no regrets.

    • Dennis Thornton says:

      Bill, I’m sure I knew you at Mather. Your name sounds
      Familiar. Best place I’ve ever been. I got 2200 hrs there
      Dennis Thornton. 1970-1973

      • Bill Taylor says:

        Hi Dennis. Your name is familiar to me. Besides being a pilot I also worked in Flight Crew scheduling and became the chief of scheduling and later became D Flight (I think) Flight Commander. I also did Line Checks and some Flight Test. Do you remember Mike Philips and Rick Rinehart? I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Mather and the people there. I ended up with about 2300 hrs in T-29’s and could have gotten a lot more hours if I didn’t take the scheduling ground jobs. I also worked a lot with the tower and GCA people plus Sac Approach and Oakland Center. It was a good time and I learned alot which also prepared me for my career after the USAF.

  5. Bill Collins says:

    I met a Captain Matthews of a T-29 “Flying Classroom.
    This was at the Armed Forces Day Fly-In at the Chico Municipal Airport. My brother and me got the T-29 tour and the captain was nothing short of inspirational to a couple of kids! His was the last plane to leave. His pleasant nature and attitude left an indelible memory in a man who, as a 10-year-old, would have signed on as a crew member that very Saturday in 1958.

  6. Lawrence "Bill' Zimmemann says:

    Bill Zimmermann
    I flew the T-29 at Mather from 1959 to 1963. Taught many T-38 grads who never flew a reciprocating engine aircraft how to fly the old bird. If any of my old Mather buddies see this reply, contact me at my email address.

    • Bill Collins says:

      I met a Captain Mathews (forgive me if I am re-telling this story)at the air show atvthe Chico Municpal Airport In 1958(9). He shows us the instrument panelsused in training and the “bubble atop the fuselage, which I thought was the coolest part. He really made an impression on this 9-year-old kid. When the plane and crew flew back, I felt an odd heaviness in my chest, as though my best friend was going away forever. Many thanks for the info on the T-29!

    • Steven E. Michaud says:

      Did you know Lt. Col. C. L. Michaud?

      During about 2.5-years at Mather AFB in the early 1960s he held separate posts as an I. G. and later as the Commander of the Electronic Warfare School, as well as flying numerous missions in the T-29 whenever he could “escape” his desk.

  7. merlinjr01 says:

    Thank you for your comments. I definitely enjoyed my time in the T-29.

  8. Bob Peterson says:

    Spent 1972-3 at Mather flying the T-29, it was a great aircraft and mission. M-F mostly, lots of flight hours, fast upgrade to AC. Easy to land single engine and generally nice to fly. Not a single MIG attacked west coast during that time. The early bird mission Over Land North was best; Mt. Shasta’s snow turning orange for a few minutes with sunrise. Moved on to C-5; so from the oldest to the newest. Retired from airlines in 2003. New neighbor was navigator instructor same years; small world. Many thanks to triple nickel (tail #0555) and the wonderful times at Mather AFB. Sharp salute to those who did not come back from Vietnam.
    Little known secret: a high bypass turbo jet engine is just a T-29 prop that rotates really fast.

  9. Anthony Brown says:

    The T-29 was my 1st USAF INTRODUCTORY FLIGHT @ USAFA. As a navigator candidate, I looked forward to every flight in this ‘classroom’. Never was it disappointing nor make learning any more fun!

  10. Barry Fulton says:

    I was a brand new, right out of tec school, Nav-Aid technician on the SR-71 and T-38s at Beale AFB in 1974. We had two T-29s then and I was very impressed with them. Unlike the SR-71 and T38s, which had single seats, with the T-29s you could actually go inside and walk around. It may sound silly to go from the fastest and highest flying airplane in the world to be so impressed with a slow flying airplane, but as a new airman technician, I didn’t fly the airplanes, so being able to move around on the inside was a novelty. Shortly after my arrival the two airplanes were decommissioned and flown to the bone yard. However, before the boneyard would accept one of them, we had to repair an Automated Direction Finder (ADF) problem. It took us almost a week to find and repair it. It was such a historical airplane and I will never forget it.

  11. Michael A Brown, USAF (Ret) says:

    Class of 60-09N. 2000 cadets at Harlingen. The Cold War was on. All training was in T-29’s. We only lost one engine during the 9 months of flying. Advanced Training was at Mather: 34 B47 or B52 assignments, 6 to B-66’s. Looking back, there was something special about the B-66, especially its glory days in Vietnam flying the ECM protection for the missions. T-29 to B-66. Off we go, into the wild blue yonder.

  12. Dan Tutt says:

    My Dad was a crew chief of a T-29 at Mayther. I was born on base In September of 1956 and mom still has the receipt for the cost of my delivery, a whopping $1.76. Dad flew with his crew and they were tasked with training bombardiers. He reminisced frequently of how much he enjoyed his time with the Air Force at Mayther AFB. He left the Air Force in 1959 and went to Medical School and was a Doctor until he died in 2015. I was very young, but thought he was so cool when he came home in his flight suit!

    • merlinjr01 says:

      Thank you for your comment. I flew a few of the bombardier missions. It was interesting, because those “students” were much more precise. It was fun flying.

    • Robert Peterson says:

      The crew chiefs and aircraft techs at Mather were the best. They had to keep the T-29 fleet flying long after parts became scarce. Staffing got so bad in the early 70’s, (Vietnam) that flight line personnel were working 10 hour shifts 5-6 days a week. Morale tanked; and then on a rare Saturday off the wing commander called for a stand-down and then held an operations meeting to learn why morale was so low.
      Where do the find such “leadership”?

      • merlinjr01 says:

        Yes, I was there in the early 1970s. The morale must have been in the maintenance units–don’t recall any problems in the flight crews. I do recall some maintenance issues. This was in the years just before they converted to the Boeing 737.

  13. Don Mackison says:

    Went through Nav School at Harlingen, 1958, Back to College 1959-1961, Upon graduation I had a non flying job, I was in grad school, so I left the AF and worked for The Applied Physic Lab. Wound up with a BS, MS, and PhD, shot stars from T-29s, FBM submarines and NASA satellites. Became a wiz at celestial, inertial, satellite navigation systems. Back then I couldn’t even spell ‘astrodynamicist”, and now I are one!

  14. George Alleman says:

    Left Sheppard AFB Dec.1953 and checked in at Mather Dec. 6 1953 as flight. line mech. 1955 when the TB-50s left, we got T-29s. I ended up crew chief at one time or another on, 33504, 33498, 33519 and C model 33489 , There was always something to fix on the hydraulics but the engines and the rest of the ship was a easy job. Left Mather St. Patrick’s day 1957.

  15. merlinjr01 says:

    I probably flew one or more of those aircraft. Thanks for keeping them in good condition.

  16. Gary Gowans says:

    Flew at Mather from 70-71. Everything went fine until the engine rebuild issues surfaced. Flying CONA-N in icing conditions, I lost the “good” engine 300 miles over the ocean and while still IFR lost the other engine approaching Hamilton. Co-pilot was Wertherbee.

    • merlinjr01 says:

      Gary, I did not arrive at Mather until mid 1971–actually, I vaguely recall hearing something about a flight that had both engines fail. But the story is not complete. What did you do following the second engine failure. Must have been satisfactory–you are here to tell the story. I do recall hearing of an “incident” of a T-29 pilot who lost an engine and diverted to a nearby AFB (maybe Edwards AFB) and had the second engine fail on final approach–and landed safely.

  17. Pete Gandy says:

    I was a UNT student Class 72-19 at Mather AFB from 71-72. The T-29D was a very reliable platform – never lost an engine. I fondly remember those days some 50 years ago. I know it had to be somewhat boring for the pilots who flew the same routes day after day – but you had some of the most beautiful scenery in the country to look at flying up and down the Pacific Coast. I was sorry to hear Mather was closed due to BRAC. I really learned to appreciate Mather my first winter at Minot.

    • Bill Taylor says:

      I was a pilot flying you and others around from 1970-74. I enjoyed the assignment. The T-29’s were very reliable and I learned a lot flying them through the weather. I made the most out of the assignment. It prepared me for future career moves.

  18. merlinjr01 says:

    Bill, You and I possibly flew together. Only assignment where I regularly flew with a different pilot almost every day.

    • Bill Taylor says:

      I am sure we crossed paths. I was the Chief Of Crew Scheduling, “D” Flight Commander, and flew Line Checks plus some functional check flights. I also was the liaison with the Comm Squadron and the FAA/ATC. Do you remember Mike Phillips and Wayne McKinnis? I started out in the 3541st and was there when we became the 454th and also was slightly involved in the transition to T-43’s. I enjoyed my time there and after I got out I went to work with United Airlines in Maintenance at SFO troubleshooting engine and airplane problems and also flew 747’s I retired from UA in 2013.

  19. merlinjr01 says:

    My career took an entirely different route. I left the Air Force after my initial commitment was up (a mistake! Spent 10 years flight instructing and teaching air science courses, including five years at Embry-Riddle. Eventually ended up working for Lockheed Martin as a technical/proposal writer and finally retired from there in 2012.

    Thanks everyone for all the great comments.

  20. mike riddle says:

    mike riddle- TWR / GCA controller MHR 73 – 77
    Sadly I was part of the “Decal Last” ceremony – cleared T-29 “Decal Last” for takeoff with the Base Commander and our 2034th Comm SQ Commander in the tower- yea we were trying to enjoy the moment (hard to do with the Stiff Shirts. But will never forget the clouds of smoke early in the morning as the T-29s starting up on the ramp, and the calls for clearance delivery to get the day started. Their replacement T43 Gators were not all that and a bag of chips- and holy-crap T37s after that. Seemed like MHR lost it’s way. That C-47 every weekend failed to show and then 241AG CHP and 28Z stopped cutting thru our airspace and bringing doughnuts. The world really did go mad. I put in for overseas in 77 and got Travis AFB – had to be at least 40 miles away! Sad part is I was born and raised in CA—-Had to get out to get out!

    • merlinjr01 says:

      Where were the T-29’s “cleared to”? I assume some bone yard for most of them. When I left Mather, I went to a SAC base in New Hampshire (Pease AFB) to fly their mission support aircraft–another T-29. I arrived as their senior T-29 pilot, was immediately advanced to instructor, and spent most of my time transitioning SAC jet jockeys (and navigators)–now senior staff–to the T-29 so they could fly enough to continue to get their flight pay. At least we got to fly to other bases more frequently than we did at Mather.

      Thanks for your comments.

    • Bill Taylor says:

      I left MHR in early ‘74 and got out of the USAF. I flew T-29’s for 4years. I was a Flight Commin the 3541/454th pilot squadron. One of my extra duties was to be the liason with Sac Approach, ATC (Oakland Center), and the 2034th(?) Comm Squadron Tower Controllers and GCA. I became good friends with Gene Piper, Daryl Rintoul, John Chadwick and Norma Garza. I really enjoyed that “job”. After I got out, I missed my friends a lot.

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