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.
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.
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.
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.
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.