Save the Mentor!

T-34 owners are the latest to prove the value of good old-fashioned American ingenuity.

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New spars-two are required-cost around $12,000 each, and the additional cost of dismantling the airplane and wing and refurbishing the wings as needed (it would be foolish to take the wings apart and not bring them up to near-new standard) runs another $12,000 to $20,000. Nevertheless, says Jud Nogle, the mod sells itself. "Pilots take one look at the new spar next to an old one, and they want to have it."

T-34 owners grumbled over the cost of modifying their airplanes. Many felt that the FAA had overreacted to the cracks. After all, only one airplane had had the problem, and that airplane, they felt, had been systematically abused. The same might be true of all airplanes used in air combat schools, which also provides "upset training" to pilots wanting to learn to recover from unusual attitudes, such as those produced by an encounter with the wake of a larger airplane. Surely it was unfair to lump them together with the T-34 operators who used their airplanes primarily for weekend outings and formation flights, and who rarely, if ever, indulged in acrobatics. It was rumored that in addition to the fatal Sky Warriors accident, a couple of other T-34s had experienced partial wing failures and had flown home to be repaired, and that these too had been air combat school airplanes.

As more and more airplanes underwent eddy-current testing and emerged with clean bills of health, and as more and more of the spars removed and inspected by the Nogle and Parks organizations proved free of cracks, owners and maintainers increasingly complained that the whole business was, as Earle Parks put it, a "fool's errand."

Then, on November 19, 2003, a second wing failed, in nearly a carbon copy of the first: The airplane, operated by Texas Air Aces of Houston, shed its right wing while maneuvering. The failure occurred at the same point as the failure on the first airplane. Both pilots died. The airplane's spars had not been modified, and it seemed probable that the airplane had been operating beyond the 2.5-G, 175 mph limits imposed by the AD.

Now the FAA raised new concerns. It had found cracks in the rear spar of the accident airplane. Owners became frantic, worrying over rumors of a new AD and possible cancellations of the existing AMOC authorizations. In the meantime, stung by suggestions that the local office had looked the other way while Texas Air Aces continued to operate its non-AMOC'ed airplane in violation of the 1999 flight restrictions, the FAA ordered a fine-tooth-comb inspection of all T-34 logbooks, paperwork, and service and maintenance histories.

The resentment many owners felt toward the air combat schools rose sharply. Was there not some way to differentiate between ordinary users and those who routinely applied high stresses to their airplanes?

The difference was not as great as all that, countered Robert Gold, owner of Sky Fighters, a Denver T-34 operator specializing in mock dogfighting and upset training. His company, Gold said, specifically discourages pulling lots of Gs during air combat maneuvering; in fact, it has a "strict and absolute limit of four Gs" and usually pulls no more than 3.5 on a simulated combat mission. Gold summed up the bottom line with an earthily persuasive argument: "It's not that much fun cleaning vomit out of the airplanes." In fact, said Gold, upset training occasionally involves higher G loadings than the "very choreographed" dogfighting does. Other operators of air combat schools flying different aircraft types, such as Siai-Marchetti 260s and Extra 300s, back Gold up. They don't pull lots of Gs because most customers don't like it.

The FAA had already turned a cold shoulder to the proposal that combat school airplanes be treated differently, arguing that because parts of airplanes often get exchanged without detailed record-keeping, it is impossible to know the service history of, say, a given set of wings. Nevertheless, it began to categorize T-34s as Type 1, those used in aggressive air combat or upset training, and Type 2-all others.

Early in March, the FAA published the latest revision of the T-34 AD. Citing new cracks found in the vicinity of the landing gear pivot fitting on the rear spars of several aircraft, it cancelled all the existing AMOCs and grounded, as of March 15, all T-34s that were not in compliance with the original 80-hour-interval Raytheon inspection requirement.

T-34 owners were furious. "Great news, guys!" announced one sarcastic posting on . "Scrap aluminum hit .71 a pound today!" Another presented a sketch of a T-34 mounted atop a house as a weathercock, labeling it the FAA's "final AMOC." A new wave of resentment against combat schools arose, with the same arguments pro and con.

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