As our nation watched World War II escalate in Europe, America’s armed forces felt more urgency to prepare for the possibility that the U.S. would be drawn into the conflict. The Army Air Forces were procuring an expanding arsenal of larger, more powerful and harder to handle bombers. This meant that training requirements for pilots increased, too.
Cessna responded to this need with the AT-17/AT-8 Bobcat, a fairly conventional advanced trainer (“AT”) based on their new civillian T-50 twin. Curtiss-Wright, however, developed the AT-9, a purpose-built, all-metal, twin-engined advanced military trainer that went into service just months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was notable for being notoriously hard to fly and land, and deliberately so. It was also, in my opinion, one of the absolute coolest-looking planes to come out of the WWII era.
Since the AT-9 was designed to prepare pilots to fly large warplanes, the plane was deliberately designed to be unforgiving, with high wing loading, high landing speeds, and uncommonly little pitch and roll stability. The thinking was that once students had mastered the AT-9, they would have the skill and experience to properly control big, heavily laden bombers. The AT-9’s designers may have overshot the mark: once pilots graduated to Lightnings, Marauders and Liberators, they often reported that those warbirds were actually easier to handle than the AT-9. Even so, many aviators who trained in them have fond memories of the AT-9.
Since it had to mimic a large plane but (as a trainer) needed to accomodate only two occupants, the AT-9 had odd proportions. It combined a large fuselage with a fairly tiny cockpit that was accessed through two over-the-wing doors. The two Lycoming R-680 radial engines were housed in comparatively huge nacelles that were wholly within and forward of the wing, extending forward beyond the snubbed nose of the fuselage. The engines were positioned mostly below the wing, but the main fuselage was completely above it. The resulting plane looks agressive and dramatic, yet somehow vaguely un-sleek — somewhere between a trio of teardrops in formation and a collection of bullets flying backward. The overall look is strikingly unique, especially with the main landing gear retracted aloft. It is truly one of those special craft that look far more at home in the sky than on the ground.
Curtiss initially christened their new plane the Fledgling (a young bird that’s learning to fly), but the AAF used the name Jeep instead. (Yes, this is in mid-1941, almost exactly concurrently with the introduction of the famed 4×4). With those big, round engine nacelles pushed so prominently toward the front of the plane, Air Force instructors later on also compared the AT-9 to well-endowed actress Jane Russell, after she became famous in 1943’s The Outlaw.
Just under 800 AT-9s and AT-9As were built between 1941 and 1943, and all were retired from service prior to VE Day. Only two survive today, and neither is currently airworthy.
The AT-9 is largely forgotten, a footnote in aviation history, but it remains one of my favorite aircraft. With it’s 152 knot (174 MPH) cruising speed, I can’t help but imagine what a post-war civilian version would have been: an extremely stylish executive transport for businessmen who felt up to the task of mastering an impetuous, airborne Jane Russell.
[Photos are from the Air Force historical archives and as such in the Public Domain.]