AS PISTON ENGINE FIGHTERS WERE REPLACED by jets after World War II, the U.S. military began considering how best to train pilots to fly the radically new aircraft. Should prospective fighter pilots learn to fly in prop-driven primary trainers, then move on to jets for basic training, or should they start out in jets? In 1952, the Air Force decided on an all-jet program, and the winner of the ensuing design competition was the Cessna T-37, a twin-engine, bubble-canopy aircraft; the loser was the TT-1 Pinto, manufactured by Temco (for Texas Engineering and Manufacturing Company).
But did the Air Force make the right choice? With its uncomplicated design and single engine, the Pinto offered a lot of bang for the buck. Small, nimble, easily maintained, and—most importantly—cheap, the Pinto was the archetypical jet trainer. But it lacked three things: Congressional backing, a champion in the military, and a powerful enough engine. Temco had designed the engine bay and mounts for an engine such as the 2,850-pound-thrust General Electric J85/CJ610, but the only engine available at the time was the anemic 920-pound-thrust Continental J69-T-9. After building a single private-venture prototype, Temco managed to sell 14 TT-1s to the Navy, which used them to see if the service could start its pilots out in jets as the Air Force had.
“Jet envy,” says Texas businessman Lewis Shaw, who as an Air Force instructor pilot used both the Cessna T-37 primary and the Northrop T-38 advanced trainers. Shaw owns what is arguably the finest flightworthy example of a TT-1. “The Navy wanted some of what the Air Force had, but all-jet training takes a lot of money, and it didn’t fit the Navy’s pocketbook,” he says. Also, many in the Navy believed it was safer to stay with the better known and, at that time, more reliable piston engines for primary training. Eventually the service chose as its first jet trainer Lockheed’s F-80C, designating it the TO-1 and, later, the TV-1.
With over 1,000 hours of instructor experience in his logbook, Shaw is a good judge of an aircraft’s suitability as a trainer, and he says the Air Force made the right decision. “The T-37’s big advantage is side-by-side seating,” he says. “It’s a very good training environment because [the instructor] can observe the student.” He also agrees with the Navy’s assessment that the TT-1 was underpowered; he upgraded his model with the GE J85. But Shaw says the TT-1 is nonetheless an estimable trainer—and a lot of fun to fly.
“Unlike so many ex-military jet trainers, this is an affordable, flyable, and almost practical airplane,” he says. “You don’t need a ladder to get into it. There’s no putzing around. You just get in and go.
“It’s mechanical, as opposed to power-boosted,” he continues. “The controls are smooth, easily coordinated, and trouble-free.”
Shaw’s Pinto was brought back to airworthiness by Nelson Ezell and his son Ashley of Ezell Aviation, Inc., in Breckenridge, Texas. What came into the Ezell shop was a fuselage, a tail assembly, some wing parts, and odds and ends—all that remained of an aircraft that for many years had served as playground equipment in a Phoenix, Arizona park. What came out was a brand-new beauty in U.S. Navy-style dark blue paint with 7,000 feet of new wiring, a redesigned wing and vertical tail, modern avionics, and new hydraulic brakes and landing gear systems. So extensively was the aircraft rebuilt that it was registered not as a TT-1 but in the experimental category as an EJ-1, for Ezell Jet 1.
To give the aircraft more directional stability, Shaw requested that Ashley Ezell increase the area of the vertical stabilizer. Ezell also re-engineered the wings, because Shaw wanted internally mounted fuel tanks. “Designing a wet wing was a challenge, but the original aircraft was fuel-limited, not something you want in a jet,” says Ezell.
Had Temco gotten the engine it had wanted in the 1950s, U.S. military flight training might have followed a different path—or at least used a different trainer. Like Shaw, the late Allen Paulson of American Jet Industries, one of the first to buy the TT-1 when it became available to civilians in the 1960s, installed a more powerful GE J85 engine in the Pinto’s engine bay. AJI also bumped the fuel capacity from 124 to 196 gallons. In this much-modified configuration—unofficially referred to as the Super Pinto by AJI and its partner, Aeronca—the aircraft cruised at 400 mph and its rate of climb jumped from less than 2,000 to 10,000 feet per minute. In fact, the most historically significant moment in the TT-1’s career occurred not during its service with the Navy but during a 1972 National Championship Air Races event in Reno, Nevada, when AJI test pilot Dick Hunt flew a triple Immelmann maneuver shortly after takeoff that racing fans are still talking about. What a recruiting attraction that would have been.