New Experiences in the Air

Not the S-word

“Did you call it a Stearman?” The person in front of you casts a gaze indicating your fantastic display of ignorance. That’s what you’ll get if you’re talking to a Navy N3N driver and incorrectly identify their plane as a Stearman. How do I know? Well, a buddy of mine told me of a time when he did just that. Okay, I may have done it myself. However, I’ll never do it again. Here’s why.

A Yellow Biplane

Our local airport museum was hosting a handful of planes for an event a few months ago. One of the wings of the Commemorative Air Force brought a B17 Flying Fortress, A26 Invader, B25 Mitchell, and, among others, a yellow biplane. Wait, what? That won’t do! We’ve got to get a bit more specific on this yellow biplane. It’s canary yellow, does that help?

New Experiences in the Air

I was on hand, as a representative of the media, to help publicize the event. Thusly, I would be afforded a “media ride” in one of the planes. I didn’t know which and I’m not picky. However, I was pumped to learn I’d be going in the open cockpit biplane, the following day with a friend, nonetheless.  Chris Walker, a super fantastic airline pilot and warbird supporter via the Commemorative Airforce’s Houston Wing, would be the pilot in command. Several hours passed before it occurred to me that I would have not one new experience, but three on this flight. This would be my first flight in a Navy N3N, first biplane and first open cockpit flight. Of this “new experience” business, I’m a proponent

New Experiences are Good

The great thing about new experiences is they can be fun and educational. I was recently listening to a podcast, I forget which, where they cited a study on human satisfaction as it pertained to obtaining things as opposed to experiences. The prevailing thought seems to be that people who spend their disposable income on new experiences are more fulfilled for having done so. In fact, on, “Investigators, led by San Francisco State University Professor, Ryan Howell, discovered that habitual ‘experiential shoppers’ reported greater life satisfaction.” The article goes on to highlight that experiential types tend to be more extroverted, which makes sense, since seeking and engaging in new experiences essentially requires it. They also highlight the level of risk, given there is no return policy on new experiences. This is akin to mental space of a pilot who commits to a takeoff, while optional, is fully obligated to landing with no guaranteed of outcome. I would offer, my love of flying is just this, experience first, people second, machines third. Hmmm, maybe people first — let me give that some thought. Well, that’s enough of that. What about that yellow biplane?

About that Yellow Airplane

The Navy N3N. Yeah, from a long way off it looks like a — well, you know, s-word. However, when you get closer a few differences begin to be revealed. The N3N was a Navy primary trainer built in Philadelphia by the Naval Aircraft Factory, owned by the Navy. If I understand it correctly, this is the only government owned aircraft manufacturing operation in United States History. These planes were nicknamed, “Yellow Peril” by trainees afraid of failing to become aviators if they didn’t master the bird. Myriad small differences distinguish the Stearman and N3N. Heck, many of the N3Ns were on floats — it was the Navy after all.  

I won’t go too far into the technical of how it’s different. That’s not the point of these pages. However, you’ll notice the bracing on the vertical stabilizer is a beefy bar instead of cabling. The body structure of the N3N looks like a replica of a bridge. The skeletal structure of the wings is aluminum instead of wood. And overall, it’s a little bit bigger plane. You can read a more technical delineation on the ‘Not a Stearman’ blog. Oh, neither of the planes have windshield wipers, okay? My nonpilot friend Kenny always asks about that. You can read about antics with Kenny in “Friends Who Fly Partial Panel.”

Let’s Go Fly this Plane

After learning a few of the N3N’s unique attributes on the ground, we saddled up and took to the air. The weather was perfect for low and slow flying over the lush countryside. That’s the proper way to experience this plane. The 300 horsepower Lycoming radial is loud, as it should be — the wind is louder. Whether the noise canceling was on or off I couldn’t hear Chris in the back. So, we resorted to hand signals via the mirror overhead, which seemed kind of perfect. After a few minutes, we made some turns near the edge of a nearby lake, left…then right. The plane felt incredibly stable and rather friendly. Of course, the real magic is upon landing. On one turn we spotted some traffic between us and the airport. It was the B25 Mitchell on climb out. Chris altered our course and rocked our wings to be sure they saw us. For just a moment, at 1500 feet and beyond any evidence of modernity, imagination easily transported me to a time when these planes were the modern airships. I was almost there for a couple of minutes.

New Experiences in the Air

No ‘Yellow Peril’ Today

With a numb forehead from the buffeting wind and huge smile, it was time to head back to the airport and reality. As we turned final, I could tell the N3N had the glide ratio on the order of a pallet of cinder blocks. Chris made a perfect landing and coaxed the canary yellow biplane back to its parking spot, free of peril. As far as experience, this kind of flying is aviation’s answer to the motorcycle. It’s incredible and you should do it sooner than later.

New Experiences in the Air

Just like that, I’ve gone from knowing about flying in an open cockpit biplane to knowing. The difference is some of the better stuff of new experiences. Been there, done that — got the tee shirt to prove it. Go, do, and be fulfilled. But take a second before you blurt out the s-word.


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2 Comments Leave a comment

  1. My father trained WWII Navy pilots in the N2S. I took a ride in one about 9 years ago.

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