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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15 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.

  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!

  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.

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