by the late Greg Weber, former NATA Vice President
Through World War II, the Korean War and into the early 1950's, the USAF and USN had as their primary pilot training aircraft the North American T-6/SNJ. Originally designed in the mid 1930's, the T-6/SNJ was an airplane of modest performance with conventional landing gear; quite suited to training pilots who would be flying P-51 Mustangs and F4U Corsairs, but impractical for pilots transitioning to high performance jets with tricycle landing gear.
In 1948 North American won the Air Force design competition for a new trainer and two years later the first T-28As entered service with the USAF. With tricycle landing gear, hydraulically steerable nose wheel, complex systems. armament capability and a cockpit design similar to early jets, the T-28 was a major advancement over the T-6/SNJ. Additionally, the T-28 was designed with service and maintenance in mind and the aircraft was a delight for mechanics.
The "A" model was powered by an 800 hp Wright R-1300 which resulted in rather sluggish performance. This was actually a deliberate design feature which made the aircraft have a take off "feel" similar to the early slow spooling jets. Between 1950 and 1958 some 1,194 T-28As were produced and the majority of production was delivered to the USAF. With a desire to introduce jet aircraft into the pilot training program at an earlier point, the T-28A was replaced by a combination of the Beechcraft T-34 Mentor and the Cessna T-37. By 1956 the T-28 was no longer in the USAF Training Command although they continued to be operated into the late 1950s by Air National Guard units.
During the early 1950s the U.S. Navy conducted a number of evaluation trials of USAF T-28As to determine if the aircraft would be a suitable replacement for the aging SNJ. In order to meet Navy training requirements major modifications to the aircraft were required which resulted in North American designing a derivative aircraft, the T-28B, the "B" model differed in having a more power (1425 hp), a 3 bladed propeller, a hydraulically operated speed brake, fully castering nose wheel (the hydraulically steerable nose wheel was eliminated), low profile canopy and structural modifications that permitted higher performance.
The Navy purchased 489 T-28Bs with delivery concluding in 1955, however a further review of training requirements brought the Navy back to North American for the T-28C; essentially a "B" model with structural modifications and a tail hook for use in pilot carrier landing qualifications. Deliveries of the new "C" model started in 1955 and continued until 1957. The Navy received 299 of these aircraft from North American. The T-28B/C was in use by the U.S. Navy from 1955 until 1984, when the last "Charlie" models were retired from service.
Although originally designed as a pilot training aircraft the T-28 had another life as a true combat airplane; first with the French as the "Fennec" and later with the USAF and various foreign operators as the T-28D. During the mid 1950s the French government sought an aircraft for use as a close air support and counter insurgency weapon in troubled areas such as Algeria. With North American production resources committed to Navy requirements for the T-28B, the French tuned to a U.S. contractor to modify a number of "A" models with a higher powered engine end the installation of armament systems and cockpit armor. More than 140 aircraft were converted by the French and used effectively in North Africa. Subsequent transfer of the "Fennecs" to other countries saw the T-28 in combat service North Africa, South America, Central America and the Caribbean.
USAF tactical requirements identified the need for an aircraft to be utilized in the counter insurgency and close air support role, thus the T-28 was rolled out again. With large numbers of the type put into storage in the mid 1950s an evaluation was made to see if the various modifications developed for the T-28B/C and "Fennec" would result in an aircraft acceptable for the USAF mission. The "D" model was a modification of existing T-28A airframes to install the larger Wright R1820 1425 hp engine and strengthen the wings with hard points for weapons stores. The "D" models went through several product improvements resulting in the T-28D-5, T-28D-10 and the AT28D. Some of these later variants used both "B" and "C" model airframes which resulted in subtle airframe and systems differences but overall improved performance.
The T-28D saw combat with the USAF in Southeast Asia beginning in 1961. The type was eventually transferred to the South Vietnamese Air Force where it continued to be used by the VNAF until 1964. The T-28D was also used by special operations groups in Laos and Cambodia, and the by the USAF in Thailand until 1972. A number of Fairchild built AT-28Ds were delivered to the Philippine Air Force were they were used effectively against communist insurgents active in the South of the country. They gained international notoriety when used by rebel PAF officers against the residence of Philippine President Cory Aquino during an attempted coup de' tat.
During decades of service the North American T-28 has proven itself to be a excellent training aircraft and an effective, combat proven, gun and bomb platform. With civilian owners/operators in Australia, Canada, France, New Zealand and the United States, some 250-300 T-28 aircraft remain active today.
(Some unique, limited quantity, derivatives of the T-28 have not be mentioned)