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Vintage planes to fill local skies
Texan T6
Planes like the T-6 Texan are expected to buzz the skies around the Modesto Airport this weekend.

The Sacramento Airshow is this weekend but you won’t have to visit Sacramento to see something interesting in the skies.

Powerful radial engines will be growling in the skies above Ceres and Modesto all weekend with the NATA (North America Trainer Association), an Indiana-based aviation group, hosting a training course for owners of antique propeller aircraft. Dozens of old airplanes will be taking off and landing from Modesto Airport all weekend to practice formation flying, a common sight near military bases but rare in Stanislaus County. 

Organizers point out that this is not an airfield event open to the public.

The aircraft that will be buzzing the skies this weekend are vintage from the 1930s-1950s era with an engine and propeller sound distinctively different from the normal light aircraft like Cessnas and Beechcraft flying out of the Modesto Airport. Those airplanes commonly sport engines of only 150-300 horsepower while the ones this weekend are powered at 600 to 1,400 horsepower.

Aside from last year’s training event, it’s been about eight decades since the Valley experienced the sight of piston-powered military planes flying in formation. During the 1940s the Valley was full of military airfields, including ones at Crows Landing, Salida and Turlock (Ballico), which was an auxiliary field to Castle Air Force Base.

The types of aircraft will include T-6 and T-28 airplanes, the “T” indicating they were designed for training as military training. The T-6 “Texan” was developed in 1935. 15,000 were built and it was used by the U.S. and other nations in both combat and noncombat roles during WWII.

During WWII an American student pilot sat in the front seat and his instructor pilot sat behind him. A one-way speaking tube allowed the instructor to shout at the student, but the speaking tube wouldn’t allow the student to talk back. The idea was that the student couldn’t have anything important to say! This arrangement obviously didn’t last.

Ever see the 1970 war movie “Tora, Tora, Tora,” about the attack on Pearl Harbor? The “Japanese” fighter lanes in this movie were actually T-6 Texans, painted in Japanese colors. Finding flyable surplus Japanese fighters proved impossible for the movie’s producers. 

Interestingly, both Israeli and Syrian forces used the American T-6 in combat against each other during in 1948. 

The T-28 “Trojan” also has an interesting history. American military leaders quickly recognized that the T-28 could be used effectively in combat, not just in training. 

In the early 1960s the United States supplied T-28s to the Laotian Air Force, to be used against North Vietnamese forces. 

In 1963 a Laotian Air Force pilot defected to North Vietnam, bringing his T-28 with him. He undoubtedly expected to be treated as a hero. The North Vietnamese immediately imprisoned him, seized his T-28, repainted the T-28 in communist colors and made this American aircraft the first airplane in the North Vietnamese Air Force.

The T-28 carried bombs, rockets, and machine guns, and was used in other guerrilla wars in subsequent years. It was even flown by CIA pilots in the Belgian Congo in the 1960s.