By Kevin “K5” Michels
With the recent addition of the North American SNJ-5 Texan, the Gulf Coast Wing now has a stable of three aircraft. All three are radial engined tail-draggers but, other than that, appear to have nothing in common. As it turns out, the B-17 Flying Fortress and her crews could never have been effective in their mission if it were not for the direct contributions of the Texan and the Twin Beech. Their histories are inexorably intertwined.
Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress “Texas Raiders”
The pride and joy of the GCW is, of course, Texas Raiders. As one of just five actively flying examples of the B-17 Flying Fortress, one the most iconic World War II combat aircraft, this aircraft is the centerpiece of our mission to Educate, Inspire, and Honor.
North American SNJ-5 Texan
Before receiving their coveted wings, a US pilot-in-training had to complete 200 hours in multiple stages of flight training, with the last 75 spent in the superb North American AT-6/SNJ Texan. Once a cadet could master the Texan, he/she would become a pilot and could smoothly transition to aircraft specific training in fighters, bombers, or transports. The AT-6 was so good that it was used as the advanced trainer by every Allied Air Force during the war. Every B-17 pilot that entered combat had previously won his wings in an AT-6 Texan. Our SNJ-5 is the only aircraft in our stable with a bonafide World War II resume. She served in the Navy as an instrument trainer at Pensacola NAS from 1943 through the end of the war. Fittingly, the green stripe paint scheme that she now carries is identical to her wartime uniform.
Beechcraft JRB Expeditor “Little Raider”
The contributions to the war effort of the Beechcraft Model 18, commonly known as the Twin Beech, are one of World War II's best kept secrets. Known mostly for their civilian use, 9,000 of these planes were built between 1937 and 1970 in 32 different variants, half of them serving in various military roles during WWII. Our own Little Raider is a D18S built in 1947 for the civilian market, but it is restored as a Navy JRB Expeditor, a utility transport that was also known as the C-45 Expeditor in the US Army Air Forces. The Twin Beech's most critical contribution to the war effort, though, was as an advanced trainer. Some Twin Beeches were built with an Astrodome behind the pilot and three navigator's desks to become the AT-7 Navigator (AAF) or SNB-2 Navigator (Navy). Other Twin Beeches were built with a clear Plexiglas nose, a bombsight, bomb bay doors, bomb racks, a flexible gun mount in the tail and a top turret to become the AT-11 Kansan (AAF) or SNB-1 Kansan (Navy). A full 90% of all navigators that guided B-17s overseas and into combat honed their skills in a Twin Beech as did 90% of B-17 bombardiers. Finally, the flexible gun mounts of the AT-11 Kansan were used to train aerial gunners on live targets including an unknown percentage of B-17 gunners.
The obvious common thread for the three aircraft in our hangar is that they are all Army Air Force designs that ended up serving in the U.S. Navy. Texas Raiders was an Airborne Early Warning aircraft in the Navy for ten years after WWII. The SNJ was a Navy trainer during the war. And while the Twin Beech only served in a civilian capacity during her 73-year career, the beautiful navy-blue uniform she wears today makes her right at home in our hangar.