A biplane engine failure, and the start of a new business

This is the story of how I came upon the idea of making replica aircraft body panels with personalized aircraft tail numbers.

One Sunday after church, my wife, who was about eight months pregnant, along with our two-year-old boy and I stopped by our family’s hangar at Anoka County Airport (ANE), Minnesota. A pilot I hadn’t yet met was renting a space in the hangar for his 1941 Naval Aircraft Factory N3N-3, a WWII biplane trainer. I kept missing him on previous trips, with today being no different.

However, this time his Jeep was parked next to the hangar and the airplane was gone. We decided to spend a little extra time in the hopes that we’d see that yellow warbird in the pattern. It was a warm, sunny day in early spring; a perfect day to spend at the airport. Our son Maximilian was enjoying watching all of the air traffic as he peddled around on his trike. Within about 20 minutes, we heard the unmistakable sound of a radial-engine airplane as the N3N entered the downwind leg to land on runway 18.

Biplane in flight
Never pass up an opportunity to fly in a biplane.

My wife and I have been around general aviation for many years, and I have always been particularly intrigued by warbirds. It would certainly be a dream come true to climb into one. So, when the Yellow Peril taxied up to our hangar, I introduced myself to owner Scott and we talked a few minutes. Finally, I said, “You’re going to have to give me a ride in this thing someday.” He responded, “How about now?” It was the ride of a lifetime!

After strapping myself into the front seat, the sights and smell of that nine-cylinder engine firing up with a few puffs of white smoke was the start to an absolutely wonderful experience. The open-air cockpit felt so free and exciting as Scott let me take the controls while heading for some fun in the pattern at a nearby grass strip. Flying a stick was a blast!

About a month later I asked him if he thought it would be a fun trip to go up to the Duluth airshow to see the Thunderbirds. Scott looked into it and managed to set us up to be part of the static aircraft display at the show. This worked out great as it also included two VIP passes for the day’s activities.

We met at ANE early in the morning for the flight up to Duluth. Scott provided me with one of his extra flight suits from his Air Force days so that we would look the part during the show. It was a beautiful morning with some patches of early morning fog settled in the low areas as we blasted our way up north.

Even though it was early July, the air up a couple thousand feet was quite cool, but the view above those patches of white and the fields and small towns visible below was incredible. We went on our way without much conversation or radio chatter to interrupt the serene morning of our dawn patrol. Soon we arrived to become part of the busy excitement that is an airshow. It was an honor to talk to many of the attendees about the history of this warbird and to see many of the other aircraft on display.

As the day’s festivities drew to a close, we still had some fun ahead of us for the flight back to the Twin Cities. I had brought along a GoPro camera and had a little bit of space left on the memory card to get some video from the viewpoint of the left wing strut. As we flew our departure leg to the east, past the lineup of Thunderbird F-16s, we headed out for a quick view of Lake Superior and downtown Duluth to get some great shots of the area to include the unique lift bridge.

On our way to “home-drome,” we made a slight diversion for a flyover at my house. My wife and young son were going to be waiting for us out on the deck.

Flight track
Not the track that was planned.

As we approached the Twin Cities area, I was in control of the aircraft and maintaining a heading towards my house as I enjoyed the view of that peaceful summer evening. Suddenly, I felt a slight vibration in the stick and told Scott that something didn’t feel quite right. He immediately took control of the N3N as the engine RPM dropped dramatically.

At this point, two airports were each about five miles away. Scott told me that he thought they were too far from us and the best option would be to pick a good field in which to land. He found a favorable spot just off to our left and turned to set up for a left downwind. About this time, the aircraft started shaking pretty violently and I told him that oil was spraying out the right side of the engine cowling. As Scott set up for the landing, he asked if I saw any other fields that looked better.

I told him that this one looked good to me and he started the descent with one continuous turn to final for the bean field. He told me he was aiming for a break in the tree line at the approach end of the field and with no flaps installed to help, started a full slip to dissipate our excess energy for a touchdown right at the beginning of the field.

I kept thinking, “This cannot be happening!” I turned around to look at Scott in the back cockpit. He had an expression of total concentration as he set up for the landing as a calm feeling came over me. I knew he had over 27,000 hours of experience and lots of practice at grass fields in the N3N, so maybe this would turn out alright after all.

I started to picture this whole scene as some old black-and-white film footage as we banked around to our full stop landing. As I cinched up my harness with a couple of last-minute tugs, the engine, now out of oil, ceased. Scott still kept the slip in with full rudder to bleed off altitude and airspeed until the last second as we touched down firmly, rolling parallel to the rows of growing bean plants. The field was much more hilly and rough than it looked from the air and we bounced our way along as Scott kept the stick full back. He told me later that he decided to ride it out without much braking for fear of flipping over on the rough ground.

We were actually landing in two adjacent fields separated by a road. We still had some speed to contend with as we approached the road. Being a taildragger with a large and long nose, we could not see too well ahead of us as we hit a berm that launched us over the road and a small ditch just on the other side. At the same time, I looked left and was surprised to see two motorcycles coming towards us as we crossed the road. There was also a small power line running along the road. Scott used a bit of rudder to avoid the poles as we entered the next field.

Biplane crash
A pretty good ending for the pilots; not so much for the airplane.

We saw a grouping of oak trees coming up and Scott used some left rudder to initiate a controlled partial ground loop. As we started turning to avoid the trees, we hit a small mound which caused the airplane to come off the ground. When we touched back down, the airplane was heading sideways just enough to collapse the landing gear from right to left. Of course, this stopped us right away with a pretty good jolt. Scott yelled at me to get out as he turned everything off in the cockpit. We both exited the airplane without a scratch. The N3N however, looked pretty sad with the gear folded, an oil stream on the side of the engine, the lower right wing damaged and one of the prop blades bent from hitting the ground.

Almost immediately the two motorcyclists along with the field’s owner and a county sheriff showed up to make sure we were all right. We then all shared our stories about what had just transpired. The entire event took about two minutes or less from the first indication of trouble. Scott did not make any radio calls for help mainly because of the lack of time involved and needing full concentration to locate a field and fly the airplane to a full stop with no possible go-around. Unfortunately, the GoPro had run out of video time, so the final minutes of our adventure were not captured to view.

In discussing the event later, and looking at our ground track from Scott’s ForeFlight app, we felt better that the field that was chosen was probably the best one. It was the closest and therefore better as a place we could easily make, instead of trying to shoot for a more distant location. It’s always better to have too much energy than not enough. We also talked about being careful what you are flying over, especially in a single-engine aircraft. Earlier in the flight, we were over some areas with very few options. This cannot always be avoided, but Scott told me he is always thinking about where he would go if he had to get on the ground right away. If there is an option to go around a questionable area, even though it may take a little longer, take it.

Tin Tail sign
Something to remember the airplane.

Since this incident, Scott and I have become good friends. Even though the airplane will be restored by a friend of his, Scott no longer owns it. I felt bad for him and I wanted to do something special. I own a sheet metal fabrication company and have a close friend who owns a sign and graphics company, so I thought I could build him a replica of the side of his fuselage with all of the exact markings and colors on it. This would include rivets and holes to make it authentic.

When I gave it to him, he thought it was super cool and said, “I don’t know why everyone with an airplane wouldn’t want one.” So, I thought about it for a few months and searched everywhere on the internet and found that no one was doing this kind of thing. I have realized that a tail number is very important to pilots. It’s the identity of an aircraft that they have flown or has some other meaningful connection. I have talked to pilots who are in their late 70s who still remember their first solo tail number when they were 17, so I knew there was something special there.

Now that I have this concept in full operation, the side benefit of getting to know people and their stories for me is irreplaceable. I have manufactured Tin Tail Numbers for a family to remember their late father who flew a B-57 Canberra in Vietnam, the first officer of “The Miracle on the Hudson,” an infant survivor of the Vietnam “Operation Baby Lift” C-5 accident, as well as many others who want a remembrance of an aircraft that is significant to them.

11 Comments

  • I do feel as if I had some connection to the planes I’ve flown. A year or two ago I moved to an electronic logbook and was remembering all the planes I flew. I began to look for the planes I’ve flown in the FAA registry. It was interesting to find many are now scattered all around the world from South Africa to England, Virginia, Japan, Russia to Austria as all points in between. Some planes there is no record with the FAA. Odd, because I have pictures of me flying these planes.

  • My favorite aircraft came in a pair. C-130 “A” models tail numbers 158228 and 158229. They were Air Force birds handed over to we in the Navy, to air launch BQM-34 Alpha and Echo RPV’s (Remotely Piloted Vehicles…target drones) for the dog fight students at NAS Miramar in San Diego, California. I was the ordnanceman in charge of all that was needed in the pyrotechnic and cartridge and shaped charge explosives departments……and loading these drones on wing launch pylon stations (two on each wing)…… to ensure successful missions. I performed this duty from April of 1972 to the end of my enlistment in August of 1975. I had often wondered what had happened to my old friends in the years since my “career” had ended. I sadly found out one day, after having a discussion with our company librarian Richard at Republic Airlines in Atlanta in 1985…and he showed me photo’s of my two friends being taken apart for scrap at “The Boneyard” at Davis-Monthan. It was sad to see and I admit to a tear. I had some hours of flight in both planes…and more than a few thousand ground hours getting them ready to do their duty, with me as their ground pounding provider. It was beyond sad to me, similar to finding out that someone you assumed was alive and O.K. had passed away years before, and you never knew. Strange……but it was then that I decided to re-contact many I knew through life that I had lost contact with. It worked and I feel much better with the attempt…….all due to some aircraft.

    • Paul P., Thanks for your thoughts. I was XO/CO of VC-3 1977/78. I recall 228/229 very often. A picture of both on our flight line is frequently the wallpaper on my computer. And, I also had wondered what had happened to them. I suspected the truth that you found out later. But never had such graphic confirmation as you have had. Last October I visited NASNI and found that our buildings are pretty deserted, and condemned for removal, but still intact. Roaming the deserted office and shop spaces was a little weird and sad. Some good old days.

  • Mitch, I flew with Scott one month before the engine failure in his N3N. I actually shared that same hangar with him for a while. When I rode with Scott I was reminded of how fast a biplane can dissipate energy and descend. I know Scott really enjoyed the biplane and I hope he can find a replacement. I also must mention the professional demeanor Scott has. It must be all those hours of flying the “big iron”.
    Best of luck to you on your new endeavor.

  • “Our son Maximilian was enjoying watching all of the air traffic as he peddled around on his trike.”

    What was he selling?

  • The restoration is moving along quite nicely. It’s in a hangar that I keep my airplane in. It is up on new gear legs and a new engine has already been hung. Won’t be too long before she is flying again.

  • A forced landing in a field has happened recently to one of the members of a group centered around the type of Experimental aircraft that I fly. As with Scott and his N3N, this person was flying low and when the engine started to fail he decided on a farmer’s field to land in. Results were about the same as with Scott and Mitch – a loss of the gear (only the nose strut in this case), a damaged prop and engine re-build and some reconstruction of the canopy area since in this case the airplane ended up flipping up on its nose and falling over upside down.

    This same scenario has happened many, many times to many pilots and reminds me how wise it is to always keep enough money in the bank (altitude) to give me time to perhaps better understand and possibly fix the problem but more importantly, altitude gives one landing options. With two fields five minutes away, flying just a bit higher would have seen that N3N sitting on a runway instead of a bean field.

    I’ve fortunately had only one forced landing in my life and the plane ended up on a runway in Venice, FL. I chose Venice out of many airport choices which my altitude of 10.5 gave me. I won’t go in to why I chose Venice but the point is I had those choices. If I’d have been on fire of course I would have chosen something directly below but in my case it was just a couple broken valve springs – although at the time it felt and sounded like I’d swallowed a valve.

    I’ve observed that many, many recreational pilots like to fly low – and I’ve never understood it. What’s to see? If one is just hopping over to a nearby airport to buy gas or for some other reason, it makes sense to stay low although even then I stay at the top of whatever is a reasonable altitude. This story above mentions that on their flight from Deluth thay had crossed over areas that would have been a lot less friendly than a bean field. It would have had an entirely different sort of story had the engine failed during those segments.

    Many pilots never get any higher than 5 or 6 thousand feet – if that. They feel comfortable flying low even on long cross countries – as if being closer to the ground is somehow “safer”. If it’s daytime you can see the landscape just as well or better from 12 to 14 thousand, the airplane flies faster and more economically when up high (I’ve got O2). It’s cooler (which may be the reason Scott and Mitch were flying low in that open cockpit plane), and there are other benefits as well but the main benefit is the time and choices altitude gives a pilot in case of engine failure. I routinely fly single-engine at night no matter what the terrain is below me knowing that there are very few places in the U.S. – practically none – where an airport/airstrip can’t be reached if you’re at or above 10K. With the GPS’s which we all now have, tapping the “nearest” button will always bring up something better than bean fields. Consequently my motto is, “Stay high!”

  • Nice job Mitch. When I was in US Air Force pilot training back in 1957-58 I ‘dead sticked’ a T-Bird (T-33). Here’s the story… I was flying solo and lined up, flying wing to a T-33 that had an instructor with a student in it. After checking that fuel could be transferred from all the tanks to the fuselage 50 gallon tank that supplied the fuel to the engine… the last thing you did was to pressurize the wing tanks so fuel would be transferred to the fuselage tank. Well, the instructor in the lead aircraft motioned to me… “,,,. come on Godston (that’s me flying wing) get with it… let’s go.. ” Well, I did NOT press the switch to transfer fuel to the fuselage tank, to the engine. At about 3,000 feet altitude the engine. I thought I had lost a turbine…the same symptom as when you run out of fuel… Well, I did a perfect emergency landing at the Air Base…touching down on the numbers….. I received 150 merits for executing a ‘perfect’ emergency landing… But a thousand plus ‘D-merits’ for ‘heads up and locked!’ for not activating the switch that would have given the engine fuel….Lesson Learned and 50+ years of GREAT flying!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *