Harvard - seat of learning

While flying a Spitfire, or any other WWII fighter, will remain a dream for most of us, there is a machine that was used as an advanced fighter trainer and which can still be tracked down. This is the Harvard (its close cousin the RAAF Wirraway did manage to shoot down the odd Zero) and it trained tens of thousands of allied pilots, before, during, and after WWII.

(Photograph of Richard Elles in Harvard
G-RBAC, supplied by Norman Rivett, aviation photographer, and reproduced here with his kind permission.)


My flying buddy David and me had been getting used to a couple of real aviator's machines; the GA Cheetah, and the GA Tiger, in preparation for a holiday in the USA where we planned to get in as many low-cost hours as we could; and take in the Confederate Air Show in Texas. I had noticed, to my great surprise, a number of grey painted Harvards lined up at Biggin. I wondered from where so many of these legendary machines had suddenly appeared. David, who knew just about everything that went on at Biggin, told me that they had recently been retired from the Portuguese air force and were destined for various private (and rich) owners. I mumbled something about being prepared to sacrifice various (less essential) parts of my anatomy for a chance to have a flight in one and David told me that such a sacrifice was unnecessary as Richard had in fact been flying one which had already been given its C of A.

The Richard in question was Richard Elles, an instructor who had already checked me out in a Piper Arrow a short while before. To say that I did not hesitate to make my wishes known to Richard at the earliest opportunity might be deemed to be a slight understatement. It was agreed that as soon as David and I returned from the USA a date for the Harvard would be set.

The delay between planning the flight and actually taking it was a good thing as it enabled me to acquire a copy of Pilot's Notes for the Harvard 2B and to memorise them; forwards, backwards, sideways and upwards. So, on a cool but bright November morning at Biggin, I met up with Richard as arranged.

The Harvard we were to use was G-RBAC, which was parked on the hard standing outside the Surrey and Kent hangar. Richard suggested that I go over there and remove the canvas covers, which would save some time while he finished off a spot of business. I brought up the possibility that someone might wonder what the heck I was doing, and Richard said all I had to do was mention his name. That sounded fine, so off I went like a kid what had just been given five bob to see his favourite film star at the local cinema.

I reached the machine, swathed in cockpit and engine covers, and started to remove these. Half way through the task I became aware of a very tall, grey-haired gentleman standing in front of the aircraft and looking at me with a rather stern expression. I did not know his name, but I knew he had a lot to do with the Surrey and Kent Flying Club, on whose hallowed turf I was now merrily unwrapping an aviation treasure.

"Do I know you, sir?" he asked innocuously. It was the kind of innocent sounding question that, if asked by an old-style NCO and the wrong answer given, would leave a person one ego short of a psyche.

"I've got a detail booked with Richard Elles," I replied.

"Ah, that's all right then," he said and strode away majestically.

Richard turned up a few minutes later and commenced a pre-flight briefing.

"I think for this detail I'd better sit in the front cockpit," he said. "There are a couple of actions that can only be carried out from there in the event of a hydraulic failure."

Page 34, Paragraph 53, Undercarriage Emergency Operation...

"Oh, I guess you mean the bit about having to pump down the undercarriage by hand, kick the legs into place, and then push the locks in manually?" I ventured as casually as I could.

Richard gave me a somewhat appraising look.

"Well," he said slowly, "if you know the drill then I think you can sit up front..."

We climbed into the machine and as I lowered myself into the front cockpit I could not help but notice that there was no floor. There was a seat, and two plates for the feet, but under that there was a vast space, populated only by the odd member of metal that was clearly designed to help hold the aircraft together. Spooky! I wriggled my backside into a comfortable position on the seat and started the pre-flight checks.

By starting the pre-flight checks I actually mean staring at the instrument panel and wondering where all the real instruments had gone. Where was the inertia starter switch? Why were so many gauges marked up in square Napoleons per cubic Garibaldi or whatever? Then the awful truth dawned on me; this was an ex-Portuguese machine - it was all marked up in metric; a chunk of all that mugging up on the 2B now had to be translated! By now I had plugged my comms lead into the intercom.

"Um, I can't see the inertia starter switch," I said.

"There isn't one. Just behind the control column you'll find a foot pedal; that's the starter."

Okay...okay... I ran through the pre-start checks verbally and when I had finished Richard seemed satisfied. I primed the engine, carried out the lookout and warning call, and then put my foot on the starter pedal. The engine turned over grudgingly at first and then sprang into life with surprising vigour. I set the RPM to 1,000 and followed the litany of post-start checks.

Finally, we were ready to move. I waved the chocks away and advanced the throttle rather cautiously. The aircraft began to move. I applied pressure to the left rudder pedal and pushed the control column forwards to free the lock on the tailwheel. Nothing happened. Then Richard called out:

"I have control."

I unhanded and unfooted all controls and watched as Richard whacked the control column fully forwards, gave a measured blast of power and applied a handsome bootful to the rudder pedal. The machine obligingly pinwheeled out in the desired direction.

"Just needs a bit of welly," said Richard, "you have control..."

I resumed control and taxied the machine out to more open spaces. This was a bit more like it; having to weave the aircraft while taxying to maintain a forward view; just like most WWII fighters, while the 550HP Wasp engine chuntered away most impressively. We reached the holding point and carried out the pre-takeoff checks. We were using the small runway, the one with that dip in the middle, and when we were given the go-ahead I moved the machine out to line up. A few seconds later we were on our way.

Because of the reputation of powerful engines causing big problems on take off I again advanced the throttle cautiously. The machine moved forwards slowly and then picked up speed. I was smack on the centreline until I lifted the tail and then we began to drift. I applied some corrective rudder but the drift continued. I had a quick think and decided that, given our rate of accelleration and the rate of drift we would be airborne well before we reached the side of the runway, whereas if I played around with the rudder too much I might overcook it. So, I rode with with the situation and a few seconds later the unstick occurred. No comment from the rear cockpit.

At two hundred feet I started to clean up; activate the hydraulic pump; up flaps, up undercarriage, trim. As soon as we were clear of the circuit Richard gave me a heading and a short while later I levelled out.

I then experienced what I can only describe as a revelation. The Harvard was as docile and as well-balanced as a Chipmunk. It really was! Turns, level, ascending and descending, were all made as gently and as accurately as one could want. Every control movement was rewarded by the aircraft doing exactly what was required. The Harvard is a large machine, and as I looked out over that long, long wing I got a sense of what it must have been like for those pilots of the US Navy when they set off in their big radial-engined warplanes to go after the Japanese fleet.

All too soon we had to turn back towards Biggin. I entered the circuit and carried out the recommended actions to get us nicely lined up on finals. With full flaps (forty degrees!) and the undercarriage deployed the nose-down attitude of the Harvard gave me a wonderful view of the runway. I crossed the threshold and began to reduce power, pulling back on the control column nice and gently. Then that barn door of an engine cowling rose up and instantly the airfield - in fact the whole county of Kent - disappeared from view.

Quick change to Plan B. I looked out of the side of the cockpit - where I should have been looking had not that lovely nose-down attitude seduced me, and reoriented myself. The machine was not touching down; it seemed to be matching the downward slope of the runway. However, the airspeed was decaying, so I decided to sit it out. The wheels touched at last, slightly harder than wished for, and I bounced. Just three more gentle bounces and we were down, but by now we were off the centreline. Again, I was concerned about applying too much rudder in an unfamiliar aircraft; especially a taildragger which can enter a groundloop so easily on landing, so I simply decided to slow us down a bit. Gentle and sustained application of the brakes brought us to a safe halt.

Untidy - but the good part was that no intervention had been needed from the rear cockpit.

"I think we could do with a wider runway next time, Dave," came Richard's cheerful voice in my earphones.

"I think you're right," I agreed. Yes, Biggin's long, wide and flat one would be very welcome in a machine like this.

"Okay, let's call it a day. Good detail."

That detail had shown me the two sides of the Harvard. The best side was the beautiful handling it offered once off the ground. The other side was the real danger it could pose to the unwary during take off and landing. I could now see how all of those WWII photographs of Harvards on their noses and on their backs had come about.

Still, if I ever win the lottery, this is the machine I will go for. Unless of course it is a really big win and there is a Spitfire up for grabs...

Sadly, Richard is no longer with us, but I have a very fond memory of the first class instruction he gave me in those now far-off days.


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