From the moment I saw a Ryan PT-22, twenty-five years ago at the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio I was attracted to its sleek, sexy lines. Although taste is subjective, I’ve yet to meet anyone who doesn’t consider it a pretty little airplane. To be fair, I’ve yet to lay eyes upon an airplane I didn’t find attractive, but there was something special about the Ryan.

As I stood ogling its elegant form, an ancient museum docent strolled up behind me and with hushed tones broke my reverie. “Son, that airplane killed more Americans than Messerschmitts did.”

Puzzled, I invited him to go on. It seems he had a real beef with the airplane after he’d lost three friends to it in 1942, all novice air cadets who’d succumbed to the quirky flying characteristics of the Ryan PT-22. Stories like this gave rise to a mystique, an ominous legend that follows the Ryan to this present day. “It’s a dangerous airplane,” the docent said, “A killer, but the Ryan wasn’t always a killer. It evolved into one because of hasty retro-engineering using mediocre science to meet a general order.”

The author's PT-22 sits on the ramp at Bluegrass Airport in Lexington, Kentucky in front of the setting sun.
The author’s PT-22 sits on the ramp at Bluegrass Airport in Lexington, Kentucky in front of the setting sun.

The Ryan PT-22 Recruit trainer, today recognized as one of the most iconic aircraft designs of the 20th century, began life in 1934 as the Ryan STA (Sports Trainer, Aerobatic). Brainchild of T. Claude Ryan, the STA featured a then futuristic aluminum monocoque fuselage, tandem open cockpit seating, and was powered by an in-line Manesco engine. More than gee-whiz science, the STA was an article of sculptural beauty, a quintessentially art deco design with bulbous aluminum wheel pants reminiscent of Buck Rogers and all things modern.

As originally designed, the STA was a delight to fly with few, if any, bad aerodynamic characteristics. At the insistence of General Hap Arnold, those delightful handling qualities were required to change. The STA was designed as a sport trainer for pleasure flying in peacetime, but since thousands of pilots needed to be quickly minted to meet the anticipated demand, it had to be modified, morphing to adapt to the rigors of wartime training. The first aircraft accepted by the Army Air Corps and newly renamed STMs for Sport Trainer, Military, were found to be deficient in both power and resilience.

America, at the time woefully behind the remainder of the world in militarization, was forced to be reactive rather than proactive. Training at this pace would require a stamina and practicality that the STM originally lacked. The Monesco power plant was quickly replaced with the more powerful and reliable Kinner radial engine. Gone too were the elegant wheel pants, which were found to hinder daily undercarriage inspections. Thicker alumi-clad skin, a heavier engine, and beefier landing gear all added weight. These modifications drastically changed the center of gravity, necessitating the wings be swept rearward four degrees in compensation. The resulting aircraft was indeed tougher, but the Ryan PT-22 now claimed a higher wing loading and in the process had developed a cadre of bad habits, giving it the narrowest margin of safety for any trainer in that era.

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In the hands of a competent pilot, these bad characteristics represented nothing more than the ragged edge of the performance envelope. Respect those limitations, avoid the boundaries, and the Ryan was just another aircraft. The trouble was that this aircraft was used as an introduction to flying for thousands of farm-fresh recruits, none of whom had the vaguest notion of a flight parameter envelope. That inexperience, coupled with an aircraft very unforgiving of mistakes, quickly garnered for this trainer a reputation as a killer—and kill it did. This reputation persists today, but does it reflect a fair assessment?

Rescue personnel and investigators look over the wreckage of a PT-22 that suffered an engine failure on takeoff and crash-landed on a golf course in Santa Monica, California.
Rescue personnel and investigators look over the wreckage of a PT-22 that suffered an engine failure on takeoff and crash-landed on a golf course in Santa Monica, California. (Photo Courtesy of the LA Times)

I frequently pondered that question with the airplane continuing to intrigue me for years after my first encounter. In 2007, I was fortunate enough to acquire a basket case PT-22 as a rebuild. The project was almost complete save for three or four minor components. Those components had to be acquired, as they were either missing or damaged beyond recognition. No big deal, I thought, as these airplanes were manufactured in substantial numbers. Surely someone will still have the parts I need. That was a misconception however, for while I was not completely naive, there were no little 24-hour Ryan part stores on the corner where I live. I reasoned we should be able to come up with parts on the Internet. Wrong again.

We spent the better part of the first two years searching in vain for two parts: a left engine compartment longeron, and a one-ounce dog for the flap ratchet mechanism. The second seemed inconsequential, but we discovered that at least two other Ryan owners in the past 50 years held our same misconception, reproduced the small dog out of aluminum, and then died in the crashes precipitated by the failure of those tiny parts. Seems the dog is what keeps the flaps deployed, so you can guess the conclusion of both of these tragedies. The original design called for a very hard and durable part to be constructed of a heat-treated copper-beryllium alloy. After scouring the net for years, we broke down and had our local machine shop produce the part to specification. Let’s just say that the one-ounce part cost me more than what I spent on my wife’s wedding band and engagement rings combined. (Let’s not tell her that, please!)

The engine compartment longeron proved equally elusive. We had a broken longeron, which we pieced together enough to make a mold. Then using un-annealed aluminum, we had several duplicates pressed, then sent them to a fellow in Michigan to be heat-treated. The same is true of prop bolts. It cost the same to have 100 manufactured as it cost to have 10, so I have lots of spares.

Overcoming these initial obstacles, for the next three years friends and I meticulously reconstructed the Ryan PT-22. There were old structural components, new aluminum skin, new fabric wings, a new Sensenich prop, new stainless steel flying wires (still being produced by the original manufacturer in Scotland), an Al Ball-rebuilt Kinner radial engine, all reassembled, painted and polished to perfection. I can honestly say I know every nut, bolt, and screw on this airplane. When at long last completed, she was again a thing of beauty, a Phoenix from the ashes.

In July 2011, the long awaited day finally arrived, the first flight of 056. I waited for a windless summer day, both to increase my margin of safety and to screw up my courage. I’d been listening too long to the hype to totally ignore it. Better men than I had died at the Ryan’s controls, so I was doubly determined not to join them. My previous 120 hours of flying had been in a P-51, so no big deal right? You guessed it…wrong! I was remarkably nervous, and because of that, extraordinarily wary.

A PT-22 getting airborne on a gorgeous day, perfect for some open-cockpit flying! (Photo Courtesy of the London Daily, UK)
A PT-22 getting airborne on a gorgeous day, perfect for some open-cockpit flying! (Photo Courtesy of the London Daily, UK)

Advancing the throttle slowly, I began to roll, surprised at how rough the Kinner felt at full takeoff power—so much so that I aborted the first takeoff, shut down and checked the engine. After a thorough inspection, my mechanic assuring me that all things were as they should be, I fired up and taxied out again. This time I ignored the roughness, what I’ve come to realize is just a normal PT-22 idiosyncrasy, and let the plane lift me into the air. It was slow but effortless as the Ryan had little tendency to pull to the left. Twice around the pattern, remaining close enough to put her on the runway should the need arise, I departed the field, slowly gaining altitude for some initial air work.

First, stalls. Engine to idle, the airplane slowed then stalled cleanly at precisely 62 mph, with plenty of warning buffet prior to departing. No surprises here. Next stalls with the ball displaced right or left. The Ryan abruptly departs and spins rapidly at a steep, nose down attitude. Recovery was easy, but it was surprising how much altitude I lost in 3 rotations. Here it was—the first real glimpse at the killer side of the Ryan. Picture it: a novice pilot, low and slow, making a tight turn from base to final adds a little bottom rudder and spins, too low to recover and too high to survive. There is just no margin for error.

Satisfied that I’d identified the edges of the envelope, I tried some simple aerobatics. With limit load factors of plus 7.6 and minus 3.5 Gs you can do pretty much any aerobatic maneuver you desire, but being a wimp, I limit myself to 2G maneuvers or less. Ryan had been liberal with the ball bearings, making the flight controls exceptionally smooth, light, and sensitive. Fly the airplane within the operational parameters and the Ryan is surprisingly light and nimble, in spite of its heavy wing loading. Gliding is not the airplane’s strong suit. Cut the power and hold the published best glide speed and the Ryan sinks like a rock, very much like a Texan. Again, another bad characteristic for what was a primary trainer.

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Now for landing—always the place in flight where I am most vigilant. On downwind, I ratcheted in full flaps but am not sure why. The flaps dramatically increased the sink rate, while only lowering the stall speed by 2 mph. Given their proclivity for failure at inopportune moments, I decided that all future landings in the Ryan would be made with flaps up. I suppose they’d been included in the original design to get new pilots fluent with the idea of deploying them. The approach was extremely uncomfortable, requiring an exaggerated, nose-high attitude that completely blocked the ground or runway from view. I know firsthand why flaps were considered so important, but in the Ryan they proved more dangerous than useful, so I took them off my landing checklist.

The landing touchdown in the Ryan is interesting. The massive trunnion landing gear incorporates long-stroke oleo struts that absorb any tendency to bounce. I wasn’t even sure I’d landed until the tail settled to the ground. Of course, like most tail draggers, here is where the fun begins. Forget to be attentive at this point in the landing rollout and you’ll quickly discover why so many Ryans were damaged by ground loops. Almost every Ryan in the fleet suffered damage from a ground loop at some point in its military career.

The front office of the author's Ryan PT-22.
The front office of the author’s Ryan PT-22.

So, is the Ryan in fact a killer? It easily could be in the hands of an inexperienced or inattentive pilot, but its areas of weakness are well-known, demonstrable, and documented. I think the Ryan’s bad reputation is more an indictment of the men who modified it and then chose it as a primary trainer, rather than of the airplane itself. Common sense would dictate that a trainer be both resilient and forgiving. Sadly, the war effort sacrificed one of those elements in exchange for the other.

Despite afterthought engineering, the airplane flies well. Just fly the airplane as it was designed and the two of you should be friends for years. Just remember, keep thine ball centered and maintain thine airspeed lest the ground rise up and spite thee mightily.