In September 1911, Orville Wright delivered a crated Wright model B-1 to an armory in Annapolis, Maryland. Lieutenant John Rodgers, only the second aviator to have flown for the U.S. Navy, assembled the biplane in the course of an afternoon with the help of a few midshipmen. The next morning, Rodgers rose from Farragut Field in the tiny craft. The armory is now the U.S. Naval Academy’s Dahlgren Hall, and the historic space is home to a student union, restaurant, ice hockey rink, and, until last summer, a 1941 N3N-3 floatplane.
On June 11, 2002, a team from the Collections Processing Unit of the National Air and Space Museum set up operations in Dahlgren to retrieve the Navy trainer, which had been on loan to the Naval Academy for 23 years. The aircraft had been hanging from the building’s rafters by its hoist sling, and with the rink drained for summer, senior Museum specialist Ed Marshall, team leader Lars McLamore, and team members Jeff Mercer, Doug Dammann, Scott Neel, and Samantha Gallagher took the opportunity to bring the N3N-3 down and transport it to the Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration and Storage Facility in Suitland, Maryland, where it will be buffed and shined for display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, which is scheduled to open at Washington-Dulles International Airport in northern Virginia late next year.
It took three days to rig, lower, disassemble, and secure the aircraft on the trailer for the ride to Garber. “We really rock and rolled,” says McLamore. “We’ve got 300 more airplanes to move.” Samantha Gallagher, who earned her commercial driver’s license early this year, got her first taste of transporting an artifact. “The U.S. Naval Academy streets are not made for tractor-trailers,” she says, “but there were plenty of eyes watching out for me.”
The Naval Aircraft Factory in Philadelphia began manufacturing land and floatplane versions of N3N-3s in 1938, turning out more than 800 of the trainers. The N3N was nicknamed “Yellow Peril”; depending on whom you ask, the nickname refers to its tricky ground-handling characteristics or the challenge it presented to student pilots, who couldn’t advance until mastering the yellow-painted trainer. N3Ns were used in primary Navy flight schools throughout World War II. Afterward, some 200 were sold as surplus; the 235-horsepower Wright R-760-8 Whirlwind 7 radial was powerfully suited for cropdusting. The Museum’s N3N-3, number 3022, was among a group transferred in 1946 from Cherry Point, North Carolina, to a seaplane base at Annapolis. Four years later, Annapolis was designated a Naval Air Facility, and cadets continued to train in N3Ns over the Severn River. In 1961, Yellow Perils, the last biplanes in U.S. military service, were retired, and number 3022 became part of the Museum’s collection.
In 1979, the airplane returned to Annapolis. Dolphin Overton, a Korean war pilot and antique airplane collector, underwrote the aircraft’s restoration at the National Air and Space Museum and requested that it be loaned to the Naval Academy to honor the occasion of a friend’s retirement. The friend was Overton’s cousin, Admiral James Holloway III, a naval aviator and Academy graduate who retired as Chief of Naval Operations in 1978.
Though 3022 never saw combat, it occasionally found itself in the line of fire once it got to Dahlgren Hall. Hanging 20 feet above one of the hockey rink’s goalposts, it blocked a few shots. McLamore points to chips, crinkles, and scuffs on 3022’s fabric skin. Garber staff were able to erase most of the puck scuffs with Simple Green, a degreaser.
The Yellow Peril also must have proved an irresistible target for spectators sitting in the rink’s balcony seats. When the collections processing team looked inside, they found hundreds of little triangular paper “footballs,” the kind high school kids—or midshipmen at hockey games—flick through imaginary goal posts.
For now, the N3N-3 sits partially disassembled in Garber’s Building 20, awaiting next summer’s 38-mile haul to the Hazy Center. “It’s a floatplane, not an amphib or plane with landing gear, so it’s not meant to sit on its float forever,” says Tom Alison, chief of the Museum’s collections division. After assembly and a good scrubbing, the hanging point on the aircraft’s hoist sling will be reinforced, and the Yellow Peril will hang from the rafters of the aircraft display hangar near Dulles for years to come.
—Roger A. Mola