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Having spent a little bit of time on smaller taildraggers, such as the Tiger Moth, Stampe, Piper Cub or others of that size, the next step on the warbird ladder is to something bigger and more powerful. The Harvard is the ideal aircraft; not least because there are a fair few around but because it is exactly what the young RAF trainees flew in the 40s. If it worked then, why shouldn’t it now?

Approaching the Harvard the first thing you notice is its size. Compared to the delicate little Tiger, it is huge. Weighing in at 5300lb it’s a big change up from the 1800lb Tiger Moth. In metric, that’s 2.4 tonnes, vs 800kg. A big difference. An all metal aeroplane, with the exception of the control surfaces, it has a more solid, chunky feel to it. It’s definitely American in its build. The nine cylinder Pratt & Whitney radial engine is part of the reason for that larger look; it needs a fuselage to match its proportions, as opposed to the slender in-line engine of the Tiger Moth.

The Harvard is a step change in performance and complexity. Hydraulics, for the retractable undercarriage and flaps and not only a variable pitch prop, but a constant speed prop at that. Powerful, with 550hp, electric start, fully enclosed cockpit, lights, electrics and even a machine gun or two on some – it is a proper aeroplane and a real fighter trainer. To begin with, up until about 1940, the Harvard was a more complex aircraft than the Spitfires and Hurricanes the trainees would go on to fly. The fighters only had a variable pitch propeller, air operated flaps and the Spitfires had hand pumped undercarriage. 

Climbing up onto the wing to get in the front cockpit (solo from the front here, not like the Tiger which is solo from the rear) the size of the aircraft is further reinforced. Clambering into the cockpit, aside from the much more comprehensive instrumentation you will notice, yet again, the size. With the fuselage fitting around that big radial engine, there is plenty of room, much more so than the Tiger. You could have a party in here. Provided everything has been accomplished correctly, the Harvard starts well. Fuel on, pressurise the fuel lines, prime, set the throttle, “clear prop”, turn the engine through four blades, mags on and she should fire. Too much prime and there’ll be a great cloud of smoke, but not the end of the world. Too much throttle and you’ll get an almighty BANG or two, best to try and avoid that. Important, especially on a cold start, to keep the rpm low for a good few minutes, until the oil pressure comes down, too high on the rpm and it will exceed 100psi, which you don’t want. 

As the oil warms and pressure comes down, you can then move the prop to fine; it is shut down, and therefore started, in coarse pitch. After that, whilst monitoring the T&Ps, after start checks are fairly simple; flaps up, electrics on, check the mags, primer, oil cooler, set the radios, lean the mixture just a crack and you’re about there. Then you wait. On a cold day it can take a good 5-10 minutes to register an oil temperature increase, which you want before you taxi. 

Taxiing is fairly straightforward, naturally you can’t see too much, so you weave, but that’s standard for almost all taildraggers. Toe brakes make ground manoeuvring simple and whilst some marks of aircraft have a lockable/unlockable tailwheel, taxiing is not made any more difficult with either. If you’ve been parked on a patch of soft ground you’ll notice the weight of the aeroplane as you try to move away, she could well have sunk a little and need a fair bit of power to get out of the depression. Power checks are straightforward too. Into wind, hold on the toe brakes (never park brake) and stick back. Change fuel tanks, check T&Ps and open up to around 1500rpm, check the operation of the prop three times, then set 1800rpm to check the carb heat first, then magnetos. If you’ve been taxiing at low power, maybe on a hard surface, without leaning the mixture just a crack after start, you might find one of the mags running a bit rough. This is most likely the plugs being fouled up, and so opening to 2000rpm and leaning the mixture until there is a slight drop in the revs for a minute or two, will normally clear that. Best bet is to lean slightly after start to prevent it in the first place. Pre take off checks and you’re good to go after a final push of the hydraulic “power push”, if fitted, to energise the hydraulic system. 

Take off power for most is 32” Manifold Air Pressure and 2000rpm, which is ample for most runway lengths, that also keeps the blades tips just about subsonic and so keeps the neighbours a bit happier than if departing at full chat with max rpm. Some operators take off at max rpm, however. There is a little bit of swing to the left but it is easily controllable, don’t be in a rush to raise the tail in too swift a movement, or too early, otherwise that will induce further swing when the rudder is least able to deal with it. As you get airborne and climb away a quick dab on the brakes to stop the wheels spinning, then select “Gear Up”, you’ll see red lights on the undercarriage indicator and then a reassuring clunk-clunk as you feel the wheels sit into their respective bays. Then the flaps up, if you had then down to take off on grass. If you’re really in a rush you can climb at 80-90mph but that’s just straining the engine so a climb at 100-110mph is much nicer, certainly for the engine on a hot day, remember it’s air cooled. The faster climb also improves your forward visibility.

If you’re not in a rush in the cruise then a nice setting of 21-22” and 1850RPM is nice and will give you about 110-120mph and around 20gph. Naturally you can fly a bit faster, 25-28” will give you around 150mph, and takeoff power will give you maybe 160-170mph. It depends how much of a rush you’re in to get somewhere, and how much fuel you want to burn. The Harvard does not handle like it looks – and that’s a good thing. It is light and well balanced on the controls; it really doesn’t feel like you’re hauling two and a half tonnes around the sky. 

Whilst it is powerful, it’s certainly not overpowered and so aerobatics need some careful energy management. A dive to VNE -10 (~240mph) will give plenty of vertical performance pulling up for a loop. Pull up at 3-4G into the vertical to make the most of that excess speed and provided you’re pulling less than 1G over the top then your airspeed, if you were looking, could indicate as low as 40-50mph. As the speed begins to build on the way down again, get the back pressure on soon enough to limit the speed and you’ll find you can gain a decent amount of height from that initial entry speed. Barrel rolls and aileron rolls are nice, again provided you get the nose nice and high, Cubans are straightforward and that’s about it really. No stall turns in the UK, or intentional spins. The main difference is the weight, so more inertia, and the increase in power so the effects of slipstream are more noticeable. Keep on top of that and the Harvard is a very nice aeroplane to aerobat and a great trainer at the same time because of the requirement to think about managing your energy. 

Reading wartime memoirs of pilots flying Harvards, or just down the grapevine you might have heard it has a bad reputation for killing people. That reputation is not entirely fair, because any aeroplane, mishandled, can and will kill you. It is true that the Harvard has some sporty stall characteristics, but so too do many other aeroplanes. Taking the aeroplane up and carrying out some stalls is absolutely vital and should be accomplished as soon as possible when converting. Start with plenty of height and a clean stall. With the power set just off idle, allow the speed to wash back whilst maintaining level flight, just as you would do in any other aircraft. Approaching the stall, somewhere in the region of 65-70mph, and keeping the “pro-stall” controls applied you will notice a momentary little “nod”, just before a fairly violet wing drop as the aircraft stalls and starts working its way towards a spin. Recovery is standard, unload the wing, apply power smoothly, recover flying speed, level the wings, climb away. 

Stalling the Harvard in the approach configuration is the same, but a few mph slower, without the warning “nod” and much more violent. At the stall the wing will drop 90 degrees, maybe more by the time you’ve noticed. Anything other than a swift recovery will see you entering spin territory. Even with a swift recovery from the stall you will lose a good 500’, maybe more. With that knowledge, it is then easy to see why the Harvard has this reputation for killing pilots. On a curved final approach with gear and flap they would have been at or below 500’ by this point. A little too slow, or a little too much “pull” in the turn, or both, and before they know it they’ve stalled and dropped a wing losing 500’ or more. If you’re at 500’ or less when that happens, then even with the best recovery in the world there is only one way it is going to end. 

Provided that doesn’t happen to you, the approach and landing is fairly straightforward. The undercarriage limiting speed is not overly restrictive and the flaps can come down from 120mph, which will be fine if you’ve got the gear down already. Keep the power somewhere between 15-19” and use the flaps to help keep the speed under control without needing to jockey the throttle too much. A comfortable speed of 100-110mph on downwind and 90mph or so on base/final keeps a nice margin on that stall. Give the “power push” a squeeze late downwind or base in case of go around and aim for about 80mph over the numbers and into the hold off. Not quite like the Tiger in that you don’t really want to stall on, remember the wing drop. So you’ll always land just a few mph faster and retain flying speed momentarily in the landing roll. If three pointing and the tail is up at all, just gently let it come down, then hold it down with firm back stick. If wheeling (landing on the mains only) keep the tail up for a while with increasing forward pressure. You’ll know when it wants to go down as you can’t hold it up anymore. As it goes down, follow it back with the stick and remember there’ll be a little bit of swing as it goes down, this time to the right. 

If you bounce and it’s a big one, don’t simply hold off again as that might induce a stall. Check forward, reset and guide her down. Or, if in doubt, go around. Be careful here as if you slam the throttle open you’ll rich cut the engine and receive no power while she coughs and bangs in protest. Smoothly open the throttle, even a modest increase in power is sufficient to keep you in the air, then aim for take off power settings, establish a rate of climb, get the undercarriage up, then the flaps, and start again. 

In my opinion the stall is the Harvard’s only vice as an aeroplane. The Harvard is well built, sturdy, can deal with a bit of a heavy landing every now and again, can be aerobatted well, looks, feels and sounds like a warbird and is an excellent trainer for when that magical next step presents itself. It’s not the easiest aeroplane in the world to fly and can be a little tricky on take off or landing, particularly in a cross, or gusty, wind situation. A lot of people say that if you can fly a Harvard well you can fly a warbird, so there must be some truth in that. Like any aeroplane you must keep your wits about you when operating it, and it is not over until you’ve switched off and are in the crew room with a cup of tea. Even then it’s worth walking back out to do an idiot check and make sure you’ve turned everything off that you should have. 

The Harvard will get you home. In the five years of flying them I’ve only had one real issue. On a trial lesson experience out of Goodwood the chap in the back was flying us in a gentle climb to the south, near Arundel, as we headed in the direction of the coast to get out from underneath a 1500’ cloud base. I suddenly got a distinct whiff of burning, then noticed a loss of power and smoke. “I have control” I said, followed by “sorry chap, but we’re going home”. Power was not what it should be at those settings and it seemed to be decreasing, opening the throttle the power increased marginally, but was still not what it should be. It was sufficient to maintain height. Reducing the power gave more smoke, white/grey smoke, whereas increasing it gave very rough running. 

We had about 10 miles to fly in a straight line to get to Goodwood so I called them up and let them know we were coming back with rough running, would like a priority landing and could everyone else please get out of the way. Flying us into a tight downwind for runway 14, just in case she stopped, I wanted to be sure of gliding in. With reduced power the smoke was really billowing. Undercarriage down, flaps, tight descending turn on final, deliberately slightly high and touch down about one third of the way in. All grass at Goodwood so at slightly faster than normal taxi speed I steered gently off the runway, avoiding the cones. When clear and coming to a stop I put the aircraft into a deliberate but very low speed half ground loop to spin her round facing downwind to make the smoke, which was by now quite substantial, blow away from the cockpit rather than towards it. As she spun round, everything off and as she came to rest the prop stopped. Quickly hop out, get my passenger out of the back, and get clear with the fire crews arriving just as we did so. Then and there my passenger proclaimed to having an absolutely wonderful time and subsequently signed up for his PPL as a result… 

She wasn’t on fire, luckily. But I didn’t fancy sitting around waiting to find out. After analysis by the engineers it turned out to be the supercharger impeller, which had detached itself and was, in effect, being eaten by the engine bit by bit. All the while this was happening, the engine continued to run. Albeit not smoothly, but it ran. It got us home, and what more can you ask for in an aircraft.