AOPA Pilot Magazine - July 2013 - 74
The T–34 Mentor is proportional,
refined, and elegantly crafted. From the
perfectly clear Plexiglas to the gleaming
stainless-steel canopy frames, and tight fit
of the landing gear doors, it projects a durable and timeless sense of quality and grace.
It’s smart, honest, and exudes a quiet
Midwestern pride—just as you’d expect
from Beechcraft, which was building
Bonanzas and Barons at the same Wichita
factory on parallel assembly lines.
The CJ–6, on the other hand, is bathed
in a sooty film of oil tossed aside continuously from its throaty radial engine. It
thrashes about noisily and awkwardly on
the ground, moaning and bending each time
pneumatic brakes are applied to its trailinglink landing gear.
Its disproportionately long legs, monstrous wing dihedral, and thick metal skin
held together by an overly generous quantity of rivets make the CJ–6 look cartoonish:
think Pig Pen meets Brutus.
Both aircraft were produced at the
height of the Cold War to train military
pilots, and despite their obvious differences,
they both excelled at this demanding task.
During the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, they
were the dominant trainers for the world’s
air forces. More recently they’ve become
extremely popular among civilian owners
who value their history, durability, and flying qualities. More than 400 T–34s are on
the FAA’s aircraft registry, and there are a
roughly equal amount of CJ–6s and Yak–52s
(the Russian version based, like the CJ–6,
on the Yak–18).
T–34B owner/pilot Billy “Smitty” Smith
and CJ–6 owner/pilot Rich Romaine agreed
to fly wing-tip-to-wing-tip to see how their
airplanes compare. Their two airframes
seemed particularly well matched since
both are equipped with 285-horsepower
engines—a six-cylinder Continental IO-520
Top Speed: T–34
Rate of Climb: T–34
Stall Speed (Clean): CJ–6
Stall Speed (Dirty): Draw
Roll Rate: Draw
Takeoff/Landing Distance: Draw
74 | AOPA PILOT July 2013
in the T–34 and a nine-cylinder Housai
HS–6A in the CJ-6.
AOPA Editor in Chief Tom Haines (a
Bonanza A36 owner/pilot) joined Smitty
in the T–34 while I flew with Romaine at
Frederick Municipal Airport in Maryland.
FLY OFF. A stiff, 20-knot northwest wind
was blowing right down the centerline of
Runway 30 when the two subject airplanes
followed the Bonanza A36 photo ship into
the air. The T–34 was off the ground in
about 800 feet and the CJ–6 ground run
was virtually identical using normal takeoff techniques.
The T–34 is normally aspirated and
the CJ–6 has a small supercharger, so you
might expect the CJ–6 to have an advantage at high altitude, but it doesn’t. The T–34
with nearly full fuel tanks (50 gallon capacity) and two people aboard easily matched
the Continental IO-550-powered Bonanza
(with three people aboard) during the climb,
while the CJ–6 at full power (and full fuel
tanks) fell back slightly. Once level at 10,500
feet, the first order of business is an aerial
drag race. With the T–34 and CJ–6 in a lineabreast formation, both airplanes go to full
power. They stay together for about five
seconds, but then the T–34 begins to claw
ahead, and the speed difference becomes
greater as the T–34 pulls away. The T–34
tops out at 160 KIAS (or 192 KTAS) while
the CJ–6 reaches 138 KIAS (or 165 KTAS).
We rejoin to compare rates of climb at
VY and full power. At 10,000 feet, the T–34
shows a higher rate of climb. The difference
is hard to quantify (the CJ–6 VSI shows
“Quantity has a quality all its own”
The T–34 is superior to the CJ–6 only when evaluated through western eyes.
If you fly from a gravel runway, or an icy or muddy one—as they do in the
former Eastern Bloc, the long legs and spongy, trailing-link landing gear on a
CJ–6 might look pretty good. And if you fly in a climate so cold that batteries
go dead in airplanes left outside overnight, and thin hydraulic lines freeze and
crack, the pneumatic system that starts the engine and operates the brakes,
flaps, and gear retraction system on a CJH–6 is ingenious.
Sure, the T–34 has a superior fit and finish, and its gear doors fit snugly
and lay flush against the belly of the aircraft in flight. But for primary flight
training in which some number of gear-up landings is inevitable, the CJ–6 and
especially its close cousin, the Yakovlev Yak–52, recognize this reality. A gearup landing in a T–34 requires a complete engine teardown and inspection. It
costs tens of thousands of dollars and takes weeks to complete. The same
mistake in a Yak–52 causes almost no airframe damage because the wheels
don’t fully retract—and they continue to turn and the brakes work in a gearup landing. When the startled student comes to a stop, no special equipment
is required to raise the airplane off the ground. As soon as the broken woodcore propeller is replaced, the airplane is ready to fly again.
The CJ–6 and Yak–52 also allow the instructor pilot in the back seat to fail
instruments and entire systems in the front cockpit at will. Instead of simulating electrical, static, and/or instrument failures, the instructor can shut down
(and restart) the front cockpit systems with the flick of a switch.
The CJ–6 has so many rivets it makes you wonder whether The People’s
Rivet Factory was having a clearance sale. The fact that they’re so overbuilt
and required so much labor provides peace of mind to those pulling Gs in
them now. That inherent strength makes the CJ–6 (and especially the Yak–52)
a robust aerobatic performer.
Westerners harp on the lack of fuel and short range of Eastern Bloc trainers. But it isn’t a shortcoming so much as a diabolical design feature. The
Nanchang engineers didn’t want flight students defecting in their airplanes,
so they intentionally limited aircraft range to keep them from hopping across
international borders. Now that the Berlin Wall has been relegated to the ash
heap of history, we in the West can finally appreciate these fine aircraft. And
the fact there are so many on the FAA registry speaks volumes.
“Quantity has a quality all its own” is a statement widely attributed to
Josef Stalin, the former Soviet dictator. But even he would be surprised that
so many former Russian and Chinese military trainers today are owned and
flown by capitalists.