Ancient Mariner, Bill Thompson and his N3N
As vice-president of the Canadian Museum of Flight, Museum Founder Bill Thompson helped, with his tugs, in the underwater recovery of its Handley Page Hampden and Supermarine Stranraer.
The loss of the airship Macon on February 12, 1935, marked the end of the US Navy’s inter-war dirigible programme. Eventually it was decreed that aeroplanes were to be built to use up the remaining stocks of duralumin and other materials. The Naval Aircraft Factory N3N primary trainer of 1938 was the result.
More than 50 years later, a rare survivor flies regularly on Canada’s West Coast, out of Garden Bay in Pender Harbour. Its owner is Bill Thompson, a retired Master Mariner.
In 1941, aged 14 and with his eyes on the sky, Bill was an aircraft cleaner at Vancouver’s airfield. At 15 he was a fabric worker in Boeing’s factory there. A photograph taken at the time shows him in a leather jacket, helmet and goggles, the aspiring birdman gazing skywards, half standing in the cockpit of a Fairchild 21, right hand on the coaming, left on the upper wing centre section. Alongside is an identical 1992 portrait of Bill in his N3N.
Wartime restrictions cut short Bill’s early flying lessons. At 16, lying about his age, he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force, but was found out and discharged. He tried again at 17, asking to be an air gunner because the six-week course was the shortest way to the war, which might soon end. The recruiting officer said that his ability to identify a gooseneck spanner showed mechanical aptitude, and that he should be a flight engineer. Bill walked out and joined the Merchant Navy instead.
Halfway through his first transatlantic trip in 1945, the lights went on; he had missed the war after all. Later he sailed to the Pacific, finally returning to a job as a tugboat captain, mainly towing logs on the coast of British Columbia. Soon he had his own business, operating five tugs out of Pender Harbour.
Bill never lost the flying bug. In 1960 he bought an Aeronca Champ, gained his licence, and then converted it to floats. Most of his 4,000 plus hours have been on floats - “This is floatplane country,” he says. After three years he traded the Aeronca for a Cessna 172 which he still owns; it is now flown by “number two son.” Another of his four sons (he has a daughter as well) also flies.
A few years ago Bill added a Cessna 180, and somewhere along the way he was part of an unsatisfactory syndicate home-building a Pietenpol Aircamper.
As well as flying and running his tug business (which involves long periods away from home), he devoted a great deal of time to the Canadian Museum of Flight and Transportation at Crescent Beach, near Vancouver, four hours south by road and ferry. As vice-president of the museum, Bill helped, with his tugs, in the underwater recovery of its Handley Page Hampden and Supermarine Stranraer. Later he searched unsuccessfully for the Stranraer’s nose section, and made other far-ranging salvage trips by air and sea.
Having sold most of his business, and describing himself as retired, Bill is as busy as ever. Currently he is converting one of the old tugs, built in 1924, to a yacht for long cruises. In addition, in one of the buildings scattered around his comfortable house on the cliff are the pieces of a Stearman he is rebuilding.
Bill first saw an N3N while manning the museum’s booth at the 1978 Abbotsford International Air Show. A year later Ed Zaleski, the museum’s founder, telephoned from Philadelphia to say that one was for sale for $7,000. This was 4402, a Mark III built in 1942. He bought the aircraft and had it trucked the 2,500 miles back to Pender Harbour for a 12-year rebuild.
The N3N’s 1938 design was very well thought out. For example, the fuselage attachments for the wheel undercarriage use a ball and socket joint which allows the unit to come off cleanly in a crash. The wingtips are easily detachable, undoing by six screws, for replacement after groundloop damage. The whole of the port side and most of the underside of the fuselage paneling is also quickly removable, making maintenance especially easy.
Only 200 N3N Mk I’s were built, and very few Mk II’s; the rest of a total of 1,000 were Mk III’s. Used mainly as primary trainers, they were operated either as landplanes or as seaplanes with a distinctive main float and outer stabilising floats. They were completely US Navy built, even down to their Wright R-760E seven cylinder radial engines. That, and the thorough design, was the problem. They cost three times as much as Stearmans, so production ceased in 1942.
After the war they were used, mainly as landplanes, for a variety of jobs such as cropdusting and banner towing, usually fitted with the more powerful Pratt and Whitney R-1340 engine.
Bill’s N3N was once altered to simulate a red single-seat German First World War fighter for a film.
In temporary sheds near his house above Garden Bay, 4402 was completely rebuilt. The single raised and enclosed cockpit fitted for cropdusting was replaced by the original twin open cockpits, and the smaller engine was reinstalled. It proved impossible to find a correct 9ft diameter ground adjustable propeller, so an 8ft 6in unit was used, without affecting performance. A float replaced the wheels, of course.
With the restoration completed, the problem was how to get 4402 the short distance down a steep 300ft slope to the water. In the end it had to be broken down into its component parts and trucked by road to a spot where a scow was moored. It was then assembled on the scow and towed over water - a total of ten miles for a 100-yard trip.
With the scow and its charge safely moored at the foot of the slope below the house, the endless paperwork completed and the N3N re-certificated, Bill’s first flight in 4402 was made on October 11, 1991. It was completely successful.
Unlike the twin-float Cessnas, the single-float N3N cannot simply be lifted from the water by floating docks. Moreover, the single-float layout makes it impossible to approach or tie-up alongside the scow or a wharf, as can be done with a twin-float seaplane, because the wingtip floats would get in the way and be prone to damage. So, once on the water, it must be positioned head - or tail - on to the dock. Nor can the single float be used as a walkway for easy access to the cockpit or for mooring and unmooring.
Consequently it was a big problem to get the N3N off the scow and on to the water, and then back again, without damage. This was no problem at the wartime naval bases at Annapolis and Pensacola, where cranes were available to lift and move the aircraft, and large numbers of USN personnel could beach or unbeach, fend off, moor and untie the seaplanes and carry the pilots to and from their machines.
Initially, Bill found that he needed a tug with an A-frame and six men to transfer his baby safely from scow to water and back again. Then he fitted the scow with a hangar, open on one side, and rails supporting the trestle/trolley on which the float rests. The N3N can now be pushed out sideways along rails to a derrick with a winch and electric motor, lifted and turned out over the water.
The seaplane is then deposited with its tail towards some styrofoam bumpers attached to the main float and alongside a large projecting styrofoam floating arm, the port wing straddling the arm so that the wing float is on the other side. It is then easy to board the aircraft from the styrofoam float. This can be done by Bill alone - although, particularly if there is any wind, it helps to have his wife (and frequent flying companion) Wilma to fend off if necessary.
At the time of my visit, in June 1993, Bill had flown 65 hours in 4402, including a nostalgic escort trip over the USS Saratoga (now mothballed) during a goodwill visit to Vancouver by the aircraft carrier in 1992.
It was a very special surprise for this landlubber to be offered a trip in the N3N, my first open-cockpit flight since I had flown a Tiger Moth of 130 Squadron from Catterick in 1943. In my borrowed leather jacket and helmet and goggles, I felt singularly useless during the launching process. Climbing into the front cockpit was easy, however, and there was plenty of room among the sparse but adequate instruments and controls.
With no mooring, we began to move out as soon as the engine started, then circled our corner of the harbour for five minutes while the Wright warmed up and the magnetos were checked. A chartered Beaver also circled, its pilot delaying take-off out of interest in its more elderly neighbour.
Although, particularly in a high wind, its large surface area makes the N3N difficult to handle on water, Bill says that the unauthentic water rudder fitted to 4402 is an unnecessary frill. However, he is a very experienced waterman.
There was little feel of movement when the throttle was opened, and no spray was visible. We were airborne almost immediately and imperceptibly, and climbed away with remarkably little noise and slipstream. The Beaver followed us and soon appeared beneath, turning and climbing northwards.
This coast, with its thousands of islands and inlets, is wooded and mountainous. Almost in the harbour circuit there are 2,000ft hills, and inland they reach over 10,000ft. A mariner’s local knowledge of the coast and its weather is an enormous advantage, as well as safety insurance for anyone flying here in other than perfect weather.
It is easy to see why Bill calls this “floatplane country.” He is even considering putting his Stearman on floats, although this would affect its aerobatic potential, in which he is also interested. The float-equipped N3N is cleared for all aerobatics other than snap rolls and for spinning, although with floats these might, at best, be uncomfortable. The maximum level flight speed is 124 mph, which might be optimistic with floats. The unladen weight is 2,390lb, and all-up it weighs 2,940lb.
It was nearly 20 years since I had flown an aircraft, but I had no difficulty with the N3N. However, that enormous appendage hanging below, and the two smaller ones at the wingtips, were very apparent both as pendulum effect and as built-in drag and extra load. Although it handled well and easily, these undoubtedly made the aircraft sluggish, and it seemed to do most things at a steady 85 mph. In no way did this interfere with the joy of flying unrestricted and uncontrolled in such beautiful surroundings.
Flying inland over the mountains, we always had a least one lake somewhere within easy gliding distance. Bill says that it is easy to know who is flying the other aircraft which use Pender Harbour regularly, as each pilot has his own special habits and techniques. He is called “Two-pass Thompson”, and if ever he omits the first one, or goes round again for a third, there are phone calls asking what was wrong or who else was flying his aeroplanes.
This time Bill was true to form; a pass over to check for hazards in the water, then a steep turn downwind for the final tight circuit. The view forward from the back seat is poor, so Bill uses a steep sideslip approach at 60 mph to touch down just beside a buoy and close inside the cliffs. I may have interested him in a Spitfire approach as an alternative.
To a “wheels man” it was difficult to know when we actually touched down. Then the nose soon dropped and with no undercarriage rumble we were quickly quiet, almost still and turning in to the dock. Then came complete silence as the engine was stopped.
Although we seemed a mile away from the dock, we drifted smoothly and accurately in to where Wilma was waiting for us. Even if she had not been there to fend off, we would have met the small polystyrene bumpers head-on so gently that we did not even risk the float’s paintwork. Such skills are a completely new world to a landlubber.
Winched in again on to its trestles, the N3N had the salt spray hosed off, the oil wiped from the front fuselage, the drip cans and tonneau covers fitted, and was pushed back into its shelter. Next morning I looked out anxiously to see it still there. Bill had even less concern about that than he did about a boat sinking overnight.
Short CKVU TV special of Bill Thompson and his N3N
Posted by Pat Thompson on Wednesday, April 1, 2015