12 May 2011

The Fairchild XNQ-1/T-31 Trainer

In USAF markings as the T-31
As the Second World War began to wind down with victory in Europe established and the end of the Pacific War on the horizon, the US Navy set out to issue specifications for a replacement for the basic and primary aircraft trainers that were used during the war (like the PT-19 or the BT-13, PT standing for "Primary Trainer" and BT standing for "Basic Trainer in the Navy lexicon) as well as the North American SNJ/T-6 Texan. These specifications were released to the industry on 26 April 1945 by the Bureau of Aeronautics (BuAer). Three companies entered designs- Temco entered the T-35 Buckaroo which was adapted from the Globe Swift general aviation aircraft, Beechcraft entered the T-34 Mentor which was a tandem seat adaptation of the Bonanza and Fairchild entered a custom-designed aircraft that had the Navy designation XNQ and the later USAF designation T-31. History, of course, shows that the Beech Mentor won the competition and one of it's strong points was its tricycle undercarriage layout compared to the taildragger layout of both the Buckaroo and the XNQ. For the forward thinking armed services, taildragging aircraft were obsolete. 

Fairchild's chief engineer, Armand Thiebolt, had already established a name for himself having designed a number of training aircraft during the war, from the PT-19 Cornell to the AT-21 Gunner. His work on the XNQ was based on his own experiences and what he felt was a balance between state of the art and simplicity. Registered with a civilian tail number N5726, the first XNQ, built at Fairchild's Hagerstown, Maryland, plant, made its first flight there on 10 February 1947 with Fairchild's chief test pilot, Richard Hansen, at the controls. The 20-minute maiden flight was uneventful and showed only some simple rework of the aileron tabs were necessary. After a series of company test flights, the XNQ was delivered to the US Navy at Anacostia, Washington for formal evaluation. After an initial series of flights in the Washington DC area, the flight test program continued at NAS Patuxent River after which the aircraft returned to Fairchild to prepare it for evaluation by the USAF as the T-31. 

By this point the second aircraft had been completed and both XNQs as T-31s were flown to Randolph AFB outside of San Antonio, Texas, for their formal USAF evaluation in a fly-off with both the Beech and Temco candidates. At the time the USAF also considered the De Havilland Canada DHC-1 Chipmunk as well as the British Boulton Paul Balliol, but both were quickly eliminated from consideration, leaving Fairchild, Beech, and Temco remaining in the USAF evaluation. Like the US Navy, the USAF selected the Beech T-34 Mentor, again, its tricycle landing gear layout being one of its strong points. It was the second rejection of the Fairchild design. The aircraft was passed on to the US Navy where it was flown by student test pilots at the US Navy's Test Pilot School at NAS Patuxent River and after a gear up landing that resulted in only minor damage in 1953, the Navy declared the unique aircraft surplus to its needs after it had only amassed just over 1,000 flight hours. 

The wing commander for the National Capital Wing of the Civil Air Patrol arranged to take ownership of the XNQ and in October 1953 the aircraft was repaired at NAS Patuxent River before being flown to a small airfield south of Alexandria, Virginia where it was stationed for the next 2 years, only clocking 12 flight hours in that time period. Part of the problem with the XNQ wasn't its performance or handling, but that its wingspan was just over a foot too wide for the standard 40-foot hangar at the airfield and it ended up spending most of its time outdoors which adversely affected its condition. In 1955 the aircraft was ferried to Rockville, Maryland, but again, was stored outdoors which resulted in further deterioration. When that small airfield was closed, the Fairchild was abandoned in situ. 

In her original US Navy markings
John St. Clair, the operations officer of the Congressional Squadron of the Civil Air Patrol, trucked aircraft to his home 8 miles away to try and save it given its unique history. He later assumed formal ownership of the aircraft to keep it from going to the junkyard. Fast forward to 1978, the aircraft is still on the St. Clair farm in rural Maryland and Armand Thiebolt's son visited John St. Clair and asked about purchasing the aircraft, the deal of which fell through. Later, Robert Taylor, the founder of the Antique Airplane Association, asked St. Clair if he would done the XNQ to a museum, which he agreed to and a crew from the association trucked what was left of the aircraft to Waco, Texas with plans of restoring her to flight status. The history of the XNQ took a new turn after its arrival in Waco when general aviation pilot Don Pellegrino and his wife were weathered in at the airport and he found the XNQ in storage in a hangar and approached Taylor about purchasing the aircraft. 

While negotiations proceeded, the aircraft was moved to Oklahoma City in 1982 but still no restoration work had started. At a fly-in in Iowa, Taylor approached Pellegrino and told him "Make me an offer I can't refuse" and with that, Pellegrino become the XNQ's new owner for $800. In September that year Pellegrino trucked the aircraft to his farm in Iowa and began restoration work in earnest. After ten years of working on it in his free time, the XNQ made its second maiden flight on 1 June 1992, the first time the aircraft had flown since 1955! Pellegrino flew the 25 FAA-required hours of flight testing himself and since then he has since moved to Rhome, Texas, just outside of the Dallas-Fort Worth area and has flown the XNQ to airshows around the country. And yes, she still has her same tail number of N5726 after all these years!

Bill Spidle has three pages of detailed photographs of a walk around of the XNQ.

Source: Air Enthusiast, No. 117, May/June 2005. "Their Loss, My Gain: Fairchild's XNQ-1- Twice Rejected for Service" by Gilles Auliard, p78-79. Photos: US Naval Test Pilot School Alumni.


  1. Cool!

    Also - cool site. I especially like your "What if" airplanes on the sister site.

    Best of success to you.

    John Mollison
    johnmollison (dot) com

  2. I caught the XNQ at an airshow a few years ago - I love it when aircraft which are a little bit different and rare are able to survive - particuarly in flying condition

  3. I used to work for Fairchild Aircraft in Hagerstown and I remember very well watching the T-31 (XNQ) doing aerobatics. The snap rolls were fast and very impressive. I also have some original Fairchild 8X10 photos of the T-31 and other Fairchild aircraft.

    1. Hello Mr. Rainville, would it be possible to obtain copies of the photos of the T-31? Thank you, Walt