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EAA AirVenture Oshkosh RSS Feed The N3N Biplane: Seen on land, sea, and snow

Story and photo by FREDERICK A. JOHNSEN
Bill Hirzel wipes the previous night’s moisture from a centerline N3N float. His landplane version of this trainer is displayed behind him in the Warbirds area.

Bill Hirzel is on a mission to display the durable Naval Aircraft Factory N3N biplane at Oshkosh in all three of its guises: landplane, seaplane, and skiplane. For AirVenture 2011, Hirzel and his team from EAA Chapter 582 of Millbury, Ohio, have surrounded their landplane N3N with the kit needed to convert it to sea or ski. Next year, Bill vows just shy of a promise that he intends to deliver three full-up N3Ns in all the configurations.

Four decades ago, Bill was in the mood to restore a Stearman Kaydet primary trainer.

Or so he thought.

On a business trip to Idaho, he followed a crop dusting biplane back to its airstrip where he inquired about the availability of a Stearman.

What followed was a convincing sales pitch on why he should fly a Naval Aircraft Factory N3N biplane instead.

So without throwing rocks at the popular Stearman, Hirzel became a Naval Aircraft Factory convert.

From dirigible to biplane
The N3N’s durable aluminum girder fuselage and one-piece top wing were valued by postwar crop dusters for their crashworthiness.

That prewar aluminum is the stuff of legends.

N3N lore says it came from leftover dirigible stock when the Navy canceled construction of rigid airships following some spectacular crashes.

Hirzel quizzed the former Naval Aircraft Factory plant manager, Harry Nordheim, about the dirigible details, and Nordheim confirmed the use of some surplus Kaiser metal alloy sheets originally intended for airship construction.

But don’t go looking for airship girders under the hide of the N3N—just some raw flat sheet was available to cut and stamp for N3Ns, evidently.

Hirzel believes he has another shred of evidence supporting the airship-aluminum theory: Most of the N3N internal structure is made of only one thickness of metal, which could imply availability of common surplus.

Hirzel says where the N3N’s loads demand extra strength, more pieces of the same thickness are employed.

NAF: An in-service aircraft maker
The Navy was ordered to build some of its own aircraft in the 1930s in an effort to map manufacturing costs, and to stay in touch with the ever-moving state-of-the-art.

The Naval Aircraft Factory N3N series of training biplanes was a successful result.

It was designed in part by a famed EAA member, the late Molt Taylor.

The Navy touted these yellow biplanes as the “Naval Aircraft Model N3N-3 Convertible Trainer, Land, Sea, and Snow” according to signs Hirzel has posted by his display.

Floatplane variants survived as the last open-cockpit biplanes in U.S. military service, training fliers at the Naval Academy as late as 1960.

Landplane N3Ns served crop dusters for decades.

But the skiplane is more elusive.

Hirzel tracked down a set of N3N snow skis in the extreme southwest, just north of the Mexican border, not known for its snowy conditions. He has one photograph of an N3N on skis, but the rationale for using hardware to mount the ski to the strut is still a riddle.

Continuing the type…
Hirzel’s original purchase of enough N3N bones to reconstruct two has grown over the years as he learns of pockets of N3N parts around the country.

He has made discoveries in Georgia, Idaho, Oregon, Arizona, and anywhere N3N parts wandered.

From one key float to a couple of semi-loads, N3N parts find a home with Hirzel.

He likes to show the cosmopolitan nature of his AirVenture display by recounting that parts have come from at least 11 states to restore his airplane and add the skis and floats for show.

As he pulls a well-made replica canvas covering from his N3N’s engine, an original art deco Naval Aircraft Factory prop spinner twinkles into view.

But even Bill Hirzel has been stymied in his quest for the consummate N3N.

He still needs an original pump and fuel gauge, designed to run on hydrostatic pressure more common to battleship systems than aircraft, and evidently quickly replaced and discarded by postwar N3N owners.

Bill Hirzel continues to refine his N3N collection, which now has enough momentum to spin off project planes to other potential devotees of this rugged training warbird.


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