Aircraft of Columbus Army Flying School 1942-1943 Curtiss AT-9 "Jeep"By Aviation Historian, Dave Trojan, Feb 2012
Aviation Cadets at the Advanced Twin Engine Flying School at Columbus Mississippi flew the Curtiss AT-9 “Jeep” during the period 1942-1943. Aviation Cadets spent about 19 hours of military training, 60 hours of ground school, and 70 or more hours of flying the AT-9 to become qualified pilots on their way to earning their wings of silver. The AT-9 was purposely designed to be a difficult aircraft to fly or land, which made it particularly suitable for teaching new pilots to cope with the demanding flight characteristics of a new generation of high-performance, multi-engine aircraft.
Curtiss-Wright anticipated the requirements for a high-performance type training aircraft and designed the Curtiss-Wright model CW-25, which possessed the takeoff and landing characteristics of a light bomber aircraft. At the time, it was considered that something that processed the same basic design of the Cessna AT-8/AT-17 Bobcat, but was less stable was needed for pilot training. The CW-25 was designed for the specific transition of a pilot qualified on single-engine aircraft to a twin-engine high-performance aircraft and its very different handling techniques. The low-wing stressed-skin covered cantilever monoplane design featured a small layout. It grouped two Lycoming R-680-9 radial engines forward and used a retractable tail-wheel landing gear to achieve the performance necessary to meet the requirements of an advanced trainer. Evaluation proving satisfactory, the type was ordered into production under the designation AT-9. Named the "Fledgling" by Curtiss-Wright, it was commonly known as the "Jeep" in the United States Army Air Forces. A total of 491 AT-9s were produced and these were followed into service by 300 AT-9As with Lycoming R-680-11 radial engines and a revised hydraulic system before production ended in February 1943.
The Curtiss AT-9 Jeep was considered a "hot ship". Most of the guys that trained in these aircraft usually went on to fly P-38's and Martin B-26 Marauders. Pilots who flew both the AT-9 and the P-38 said that the P-38 Lightning was a relative piece of cake and should have been used instead to train pilots to fly the AT-9 Jeep. Designed to be a handful, it was both on the ground and in the air. One pilot once quipped that it was the only plane he ever knew about that took off at 120 mph, climbed at 120 mph, cruised at 120 mph, let down at 120 mph and landed at 120 mph. He said that “when landing your glide path was so steep they had put windows in the roof so you could see the beginning of the runway”. He was told that to do a dead stick landing you needed to simulate a dive-bombing of the end of the runway. However, he also said that the AT-9 really taught him how to fly. Another pilot said he was always a little afraid of this airplane. He claimed the AT-9 refutably would not fly on single engine and it was not the easiest aircraft to land. A different pilot said that he loved the AT-9, but thought it was “somewhat underpowered”. He went on to say that when flying the AT-9 on cool days and lightly loaded, with its high wing loading, it performed very much like a hot rod. Dave Hanst, who was an Aviation Cadet at the Army Flying School at Columbus in 1943, flew the AT-9 and remembers that it was a great flying machine, landed pretty fast, and was terrific for formation flying. He also said the wing was so short you could almost spit over the end from the cockpit.
Flight Instructor Reports
Flight Instructors had mixed feelings about the AT-9 Jeep. One instructor said that “The AT-9 had wings too small for a trainer, the fuselage was too short for the design and the wheels were not set up correctly”. Another said that he loved the aircraft, but said he practically froze flying the aircraft in the winter because it had no insulation to keep out the cold and a very meager heater. Many instructors were scared of the AT-9 and were ultra cautious at low altitudes and speeds because of its nasty stall characteristics. The AT-9 would stall out a wing before landing if you tried a three point landing. The pilot had to fly the airplane with power on and then bring the tail wheel down immediately. Waiting for the tail to come down on its own would result in an accident. Applications of power had to be done very smoothly as otherwise this would also result in an accident. When flown by the numbers, instructors said it had a reputation as one of the finest handling aircraft flying in the inventory. Although at one advanced twin engine training base, the policy was to NEVER allow students to fly the AT-9 without an instructor. Solo work was accomplished in other aircraft such as the Beech AT-10. One instructor said it was actually fairly fun to fly until one engine stopped producing and things went immediately downhill pretty quickly, both figuratively and literally.
AT-9 Jeeps at Columbus AAF
At least forty AT-9 Jeeps were assigned to training squadrons at Columbus AAF. A circa 1943 photo of Columbus AAF shows the flight line full of AT-9s. They were assigned to the 423rd, and 427th, Twin Engine Flying Training Squadrons. There were at least 47 accidents involving AT-9s assigned to Columbus between May 27, 1942 and November 14, 1943. Ten were major accidents that completely destroyed the aircraft with at least four different accidents causing fatalities. Accidents in the AT-9 Jeep were a regular occurrence that included everything from the landing gear being retracted when the engines were started for preflight, to colliding in flight with power lines while hedgehopping. A review of accident reports found 14 take off accidents, 22 landing, and a few bail outs during the less than two year operational period at Columbus. One unfortunate AT-9, serial number 41-5756 suffered from no less than three accidents. On 27 June 1942 it was involved in a taxiing accident; on 1 September 1942 it had a landing accident that involved a ground collision and on 23 October 1942 it had another landing accident due to mechanical failure.
The AT-9 Jeep remained in use for a comparatively short time at both Columbus Army Flying School and by the USAAF as a whole. The U.S. Aviation industry developed far more effective and safer training aircraft by the second half of WWII. The last few AT-9s at Columbus AAF were assigned to the 28th Head Quarters Squadron by September 1943. All AT-9s at Columbus AAF appeared to have been transferred out by the end of 1943 in favor of better performing Beech AT-10 aircraft. Because of its difficult flying characteristics, the AT-9 was not offered for sale to civilians after the war, although many non-flying examples were given to ground schools for training purposes.
Only two AT-9s survive today, AT-9A serial number 41-12150 is on permanent display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. This aircraft required extensive restoration, and was the product of restoration specialists incorporating two incomplete airframes together, along with parts fabricated on site. The wreckage of AT-9A serial number 42-56882 was recovered from a crash site in 2003 and was turned over to the Pima Air & Space Museum for restoration. This aircraft is incomplete and will require a long and extensive restoration for display. It crashed December 10, 1942 while on a search for a missing AT-17. The AT-9A struck a ridge of the Black Mountains in the Gila National Forest near Hot Springs NM.
Footnote: There are a number of AT-9 crash sites around Mississippi. I'm researching and investigating them. Hopefully I'll find one. I have a large collection of photos of AT-9s at Columbus AAF and elsewhere.