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The Yellow Peril: N3N

The Navy's own primary trainer

by Laverne Hoestenbach

Copyright 1992 by the Confederate Air Force and Laverne Hoestenbach. All rights reserved.

Originally published in The Dispatch magazine, Volume 17, Number 4, Winter, 1992 edition. If you are interested in subscribing to The Dispatch please write to The Commemorative Air Force, ATTN: Dispatch Editor, PO Box 62000, Midland, TX 79711-2000 or call (432) 563-1000. Reproduced with permission.

It may be old hat to some of our old salts, but for the rest of us it may be of some news that the U.S. Navy used to be in the aircraft manufacturing business. The Naval Aircraft Factory, where the West Houston Wing's N3N was constructed, was established at League Island, South Philadelphia in 1917. This was the only aircraft factory ever owned by the U.S. government and for several years was known to manufacture the majority of the aircraft used by the Navy in its growing air arm.

The Naval Aircraft Factory had a total of 3,600 employees during WWI and 12,000 during WWII. During the Second World War, the factory built 1,407 aircraft of six different designs and manufactured 1,305 aircraft engines. This included 817 N3N trainers manufactured between 1940-1942, before the assembly line shut down a few months after Pearl Harbor.

The N3N has a gross weight of about 3,000 pounds, with a 34-foot wingspan. It is built entirely of riveted or bolted aluminum extrusions and is devoid of any wood, mainly because there was a large surplus of aluminum extrusions left over from the dirigible program. Fuel, which was normally carried in the top wing of trainers, was placed in a 45-gallon tank just ahead of the front cockpit. For ease of maintenance, the entire port side could be opened to inspection by removing six panels secured by Zeus fasteners. The rest of the fuselage was covered mostly in fabric, as were the wings and control surfaces.

The easiest way to distinguish between a PT-17 and an N3N is by contrasting the landing gear. The Stearman's gear legs are gracefully covered by smooth fairings, while the N3N's are bare in standard configuration. A horizontal spreader bar joins the N3N's gear legs, but the Stearman has no connecting link between the legs.

Instrumentation in the cockpit is sparse but adequate, reflecting the time period that the N3N was built. The main features are airspeed indicator, altimeter, turn and bank, tachometer, magnetic compass and combination fuel and oil temperature/pressure gauge.

The rear cockpit is quite roomy, even large by trainer standards. The seat is adjustable only vertically, within comfortable reach of the stick in the front pit, but slightly too far removed in the rear. Though the rudder pedals are well-positioned, the somewhat awkward stick position makes cross country flights tiresome. The cockpit is further equipped with a rather large protractor-style trim tab control and wobble pump handle on the left with the tail wheel lock on the right.

Before worrying about flying the plane, the first thing an N3N pilot must master is the taxiing peculiarities. Visibility in the three-point attitude is bad from the rear seat and worse from the front, as you would expect from any aircraft with conventional landing gear as opposed to tricycle. With the footwork of a double-clutching race driver, you can taxi the N3N with apparent ease but it will forever look just like an over-laden Pterodactyl because of the high CG and the narrow gear tread.

At 65 knots (75 mph) and about 1800 rpm, the N3N-3 is a fair climber and will do roughly 900 fpm. Cruise is approximately 105 knots. The N3N is a prime example of a rudder class type plane with a large rudder reminiscent of an SB2C.

A 7-G pullout can be accomplished at 174 knots (200 mph) without approaching the 9-Gs listed as the "do not exceed" limit. The rugged construction of the N3N made it an extremely popular crop duster after the war.

Although a pleasant airplane to fly, when the Yellow Peril gets ready to land, she can be very troublesome. With a six-foot wheel track under a 34-foot wingspan, she'll swap ends at the mere suggestion of the idea. And, once she gets the notion in her head, you're busier than a cranberry merchant at Thanksgiving.

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Please note that the members of the Confederate Air Force voted in 2001 to change the name of the organization to the Commemorative Air Force and this name change took effect on 1 January, 2002. Articles copyrights should reflect the name change. Articles reproduced on this site are with the permission of the authors and copyright holders.