The Pilot Maker
Classic Wings’ storied Harvard

Classic Wings’ storied Harvard

Noorduyn Aviation AT-16D Harvard Mk.IIb FE992 (G-BDAM) has joined Classic Wings’ fleet of vintage passenger and air experience aircraft at IWM Duxford, Cambs.  The aircraft has enjoyed a varied career, flying with the Canadian and Swedish air forces, utilised by the United Nations over western Asia, and operated in civilian hands in Europe and North America for the last 44 years.

Manufactured under licence by Noorduyn in 1943, the Harvard was briefly allocated to the US Army Air Force with serial number 42-12479 before transfer to the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) on 26 April 1943.  There the Harvard received the serial FE992, joining Flying Training School units at Moncton, New Brunswick and Weyburn, Saskatchewan where it was utilised as an advanced trainer.  With its enclosed cockpit, retractable narrow-track landing gear and 600hp nine cylinder radial up front, the Harvard was purpose-built to enable pilots to enhance their flying skills in an aircraft with fighter-like handling characteristics before progressing to high-speed V12 and radial warbirds on the front line.  It had an unforgiving bite if mishandled, particularly at slower airspeeds and during the landing roll, giving it an effective edge as a trainer that taught students the importance of accurate and anticipatory flying.



FE922’s relatively brief service career ended on 13 November 1944 and the aircraft was placed into storage for two years before retirement on 15 November 1946.  It was acquired by the Swedish Air Force (Flygvapnet) in winter 1947, initially joining F5 at Ljungbyhed on 23 August 1947 with serial number Fv106047.  The Swedes procured more than 250 Harvards in 1947, some 144 of which were Canadian Noordyun-manufactured AT-16s (allocated serial numbers 16001 to 16145), for use predominantly in training and liaison roles with the designation Sk-16A.  In 1949 the Harvard underwent modification to carry bombs and rockets mounted on underwing hard points for ground attack training, before it was placed into storage once more at CVA Arboga in September of that year.  The aircraft emerged again on 20 December 1956 under the care of F11 at Nyköping and there it stayed until summer 1958, save for a short-term loan to F12 from October 1957 to April 1958.

The Harvard was one of four Swedish Sk-16s allocated to the United Nations Observational Group in Lebanon (UNOGIL) in July 1958 for a short-term international reconnaissance assignment.  The UNOGIL was formed in June 1958 in response to a United Arab Republic-supported insurgency movement, its role being to “dispatch urgently an observation group to proceed to Lebanon so as to ensure that there is no illegal infiltration of personnel or supply of arms or other materiel across the Lebanese borders”.  For this purpose, the UN engaged several nations, including Sweden, to provide aircraft and personnel to carry out day and night observational flights over Lebanese border areas.  Accordingly, four Flygvapnet Harvards were flown to Lebanon to support the operation.  Whilst strictly observational, the task was not without risk – UN aircraft repeatedly came under small arms fire, and two Swedish aircrew were wounded in the process.  On the second day of operations, one of the Swedish Harvards reportedly suffered bullet damage to its engine, prompting a mandate that all operations were to be flown above 600ft and out of the range of rifle and machine gun fire.  UNOGIL operations from 6-12 July accounted for 47 hours’ flying time over 21 sorties, during which aerial observers monitored suspicious traffic along three Syria-Lebanon border roads.  Despite the political and logistical difficulties involved in the operation, not least the challenge of spotting unlit convoys moving in the dead of night from a low-wing piston engine aircraft, the aerial reconnaissance was deemed “a most valuable adjunct to the group’s ground observation”.  Coded ’04’ and wearing an all-over white UN scheme with the UN flag adorning its tail, Harvard Fv106047 remained in Lebanon until 14 October 1958, when it was replaced in the observational role by better-suited Cessna L-19As.

By mid-November 1958 the Harvard had returned to F11 in Sweden, where it stayed until transfer to F21 at Luleå on 3 July 1962.  Demobilisation came a decade later and the aircraft was sold into civilian ownership in spring 1972, purchased by Jan Mürer of Oslo, Norway before being registered to Mürer Engineering on 12 September 1972 as LN-MAA.  The Harvard was flown to the UK on 23 March 1975, arriving at Booker airfield and joining the British civil register as G-BDAM under the ownership of D. Gwyn Jones, prior to sale to Roger Reeves from summer 1978 to 1981 – during this time, the aircraft wore a distinctive Royal Norwegian Air Force scheme (adorned with tri-colour wing and rudder flashes) with the code ‘216’.



The Harvard changed hands again during the early 1980s before becoming a formative member of the North Weald-based Harvard Formation Team, wearing the serial number FE992 once more and painted in Royal Air Force camouflage with a yellow underside.  In this guise the aircraft became a stalwart performer on the British airshow circuit, appearing at air displays across the country from 1985 first under the auspices of the Harvard Formation Team and latterly in the hands of the late Norman Lees, flown alongside Gary Numan’s distinctive ‘Zero’ lookalike Harvard under the Radial Pair banner.  Débuting in 1992, the duo formulated by Messrs Numan and Lees became a terrifically popular airshow act, with the two Harvards performing a sequence of close formation aerobatics (including beautifully executed echelon loops and line astern barrel rolls), opposition passes and even, on occasion, formation landings.  They were showmen in the truest sense of the word, and their routine was quite something to behold.  The Harvard was acquired by Silver Victory BVBA in Belgium in October 2001 and was subsequently operated by the Aircraft Restoration Company at Duxford until Ed Russell acquired the aircraft and shipped it to Canada in late 2003. A new paint scheme was applied, with the Harvard wearing the codes EE-992 and resplendent in an immaculate all-over “training yellow” scheme with a red cowling band, black anti-glare strip, distinctive Canadian maple leaf insignia adorning its roundels and a tri-colour fin flash.  Black Star Aviation purchased the aircraft in 2016, shipping it to the UK for assembly at Clacton before the Harvard was flown to Classic Wings’ Duxford base in November 2017.

Classic Wings has operated from Duxford for more than 25 years and its growing host of vintage aeroplanes can be seen flying annually from March to October.  Three de Havilland Dragon Rapides offer passenger flights, while trial flying lessons and rides can be purchased in one of four de Havilland Tiger Moths and, more recently, passenger flights and wing-to-wing sessions can be booked with a Supermarine Spitfire.  The Harvard joins the ranks with trial flying lessons available at a cost of £429, allowing passengers to take the controls of this historic Second World War advanced trainer.

“The Harvard’s cockpit, size and handling characteristics all offer the experience of flying a warbird”, says Barry Hughes, Classic Wings’ Chief Pilot.  “With the noise, the smells and the feel, it’s all very visceral.  You step into the expansive cockpit and you’re immediately struck by the ‘big’ feel to everything – it’s very American in that respect, and much the same as the comparison between the Tiger Moth and Stearman.  British aircraft by contrast tend to be more compact, and you feel surrounded by metalwork in the cockpit.”



The ‘warbird’ experience is felt from the very beginning of a Harvard flight.  Far removed from the Tiger Moth’s basic magnetos ‘on’, throttle cracked and propeller hand-swung start-up, the Harvard presents an imposing mass of fighter-style levers, dials and instrumentation for the pilot to familiarise themselves with.  The instrument panel is busy but not cluttered, with engine gauges grouped to the right and flight instruments centered in front of the pilot.  A panel beside the pilot’s right knee contains a multitude of electrical switches, whilst the throttle, propeller and mixture levers sit in a quadrant to the left.  It’s all reasonably intuitive, as is standard for a trainer, with key instrumentation laid out clearly and levers and switches sat within easy reach.

The pre-flight is very “hands-on”, with the Hamilton Standard propeller pulled through manually several times to distribute oil accumulated in the lower cylinders, preventing a hydraulic lock on start-up.  Sitting in the cockpit, the battery and electrics are switched on via the console to the pilot’s right, the appropriate starter fuel tank is selected using the dial to their left and the fuel pump engaged before the primer on the lower right of the control panel is plunged to inject fuel into the engine.  A major difference to basic training aircraft is the Harvard’s inertia starter system, whereby a switch on the control panel (or a foot pedal in some variants) is depressed for 10-20 seconds to spin an inertia wheel.  Engaging the switch then turns the propeller, and after four revolutions both magnetos are turned on to fire the engine.  The Pratt & Whitney R-1340 radial engine rumbles and pops into life as pilot and passenger are shrouded in white smoke, as is characteristic for all radials and all part of the Harvard’s charm.

“On the ground, as the aircraft begins to move pilots have to think ahead to counter the precession and directional instability inherent in all tailwheel aircraft but particularly prevalent in heavier types like the Harvard”, Barry continues.  “It teaches the pilot good hand, eye and foot coordination so that when they move on the warbirds, they have had a grounding in what to expect and how to handle that to avoid overcompensating with rudder input and differential braking.”  The 600hp radial produces considerable torque and as with all propeller-driven aircraft, the Harvard has a tendency to yaw with the application of power on take-off – whilst not as severe as in the larger, more powerful fighters such as the Spitfire and Mustang, the yaw is pronounced enough to hone a student pilot’s skills before tackling more significant gyroscopic forces.



Barry continues: “The locking tailwheel helps mitigate against the swing on take-off.  It locks with rear stick pressure and during the initial stage of the take-off run, the stick is held full back and the tailwheel locked.  The difficulty comes when the stick is moved to around half-way forward and the tailwheel unlocks and casters freely.  If you aren’t quick to address divergence with rudder input, you can lose the directional control you had and there is a greater chance of departing the runway through torque-induced swing or weather cocking into wind.”  The reverse is particularly important during the landing roll – Harvards have a tendency to ground loop, and carrying out a three-point landing (if the prevailing conditions permit) will lock the tailwheel and provide resistance against any deviations that a ‘wheeler’ landing on the main undercarriage would not.  Barry adds that student pilots have to remain vigilant to ground loops on landing, correcting swing as it develops with constant manipulation of the rudder pedals.  Those lacking tailwheel experience or who have only recently converted to the Harvard must find a careful balance so as not to lose control of the aircraft and there are written accounts of new Harvard pilots departing the runway and completing multiple circles on the grass before getting the aircraft back under control.

Once airborne, the pilot’s feet are constantly moving the rudder pedals to maintain heading and coordination, particularly in any turning figures – the pilot cannot be a passive participant here.  The Hamilton Standard propeller also gives student pilots their first taste of a variable-pitch propeller, and a keen eye has to be kept on the tachometer during diving manoeuvres to avoid exceeding the rpm limits.  “The main problem with the Harvard is the power-to-weight ratio”, says Barry.  “How that translates to flying the aircraft is that speed and engine management needs to be accurate.  The Harvard is a classic example of how underpowered aircraft teach students to be good pilots – you need to fly with accuracy in order for the aircraft to achieve best performance.”  Setting maximum continuous power of 30” manifold pressure and 2000rpm and a gate airspeed of 160-180mph for vertical figures, tight manoeuvring and aerobatics can be a pleasant experience for pilot and instructor.  The Harvard is fully aerobatic, capable of executing loops, half-Cubans, stall turns, barrel and aileron rolls, though it can be unforgiving with a sudden, pronounced bite if mistakes are made.  “If you misjudge a wingover or loop, you can lose speed rapidly and encounter the Harvard’s violent stall characteristics, particularly if you continue the pull”, he continues.  “At slow airspeeds, you usually feel the typical buffet and sloppiness of the controls but the onset of the stall is rapid and abrupt, there’s no in between.  It all happens quite markedly and quickly compared to other aircraft.  It will stall either wing first then flick over onto its back – if uncorrected, that can lead to a spin.

“Those characteristics are something more inexperienced vintage aircraft pilots won’t have felt before”, Barry adds.  Over time, training aircraft have increasingly been designed with standardisation and safety in mind.  That, he says, tends to mean that the modern generation of pilots find the conversion to historic tail-draggers more challenging.  “The handling variations are vast, especially for take-off and landing”, he explains.  “Taking a modern-trained pilot with no tailwheel and vintage experience, there is a notable knowledge gap.  The more benign aircraft they have flown before make that transition more difficult than in the reverse – we find that pilots who trained on the Tiger Moth and Harvard have greatly enhanced handling skills, making conversion to heavier aircraft such as the Spitfire and Mustang a more intuitive process.



“If you’ve learned to fly on a Tiger Moth and a Harvard, progressing to fly warbirds such as the Spitfire will feel like a natural step”, Barry continues.  He is well placed to comment, having taken that very path on the road to flying the Supermarine Spitfire Mk.TIX.  “The Harvard in particular is an aircraft that you really need to fly accurately and you need to be thinking ahead of the aircraft all the time to get the best performance out of it.  If you have those disciplines, moving on to heavier and more sophisticated, complex warbirds will be a much easier transition.”  For a Classic Wings customer seeking a trial flying lesson to experience some Harvard stick time, it offers a wonderful, controlled insight into a challenging yet ultimately rewarding trainer that will sharpen a pilot’s senses and enhance their stick and rudder skills.

With its vivid yellow paint scheme, characteristic rasping Pratt & Whitney radial engine and the look and feel of a warbird, the Harvard will surely prove a popular addition to Classic Wings’ growing fleet of vintage aeroplanes.  Moreover, it is wonderful to see this historic airframe with an interesting service history and rich civilian life returning to the country where it was enjoyed by so many during its tenure as one of the historic scene’s most popular airshow acts.  Long may it continue to provide entertainment and enjoyment to pilots and enthusiasts alike.

"The Harvard is an aircraft that you really need to fly accurately and you need to be thinking ahead of the aircraft all the time to get the best performance out of it" - Barry Hughes


With thanks to Classic Wings, Pilotpix and Barry Hughes.  For more information, please visit Classic Wings’ website.