The Birthday Gift


I believe that pilots, as a group, all tend to have a little bit of "Walter Mitty" in each of us. In the twenty years that I have been flying, I can remember the many occasions where any number of us pilots would get together for some plain "hangar flyin ". I recall some of the "what if's" regarding our remote chances of either owing or flying some exotic aircraft. And then there were the times when the subject would arise as to, if money were no object, what would be you choice or vision of the "ultimate" aircraft. In almost every instance, these were fun times and allowed for us pass the time with some one who had a similar interest in the pastime that we lovingly call, flying. Well, since last week was my birthday, my loving bride chose to allow me the chance to "live" one of those Walter Mitty day dreams by arranging for me to get a ride in a fully restored, WWII, Navy N3N-3.

For the past 6 month or so, during our Sunday morning breakfast at either Scottsdale or DeerValley , we would witness the arrival of a bright yellow bi-plane. The pilot would alit the aircraft and doff his canvas helmet and head for the restaurant entrance. If his yellow brochure was not already on the tables, he would stop by each table and introduce himself and offer the potential customer, a ride in his aircraft, just like the old barnstormer days. I recall one Sunday morning early last summer when my wife and I spoke with him about "someday" taking him up on his offer but that I would like to get a more "up close and personal" look at his aircraft. The warm morning temperatures did not discourage me from spending some time inspecting his aircraft and, while digesting every detail of the airplane, asking questions of the owner.

On the Sunday of 15 December, my wife and I, along with our youngest son, daughter and son-in-law, and two grandchildren, met for breakfast at D-Atri's in the Scottsdale Airport terminal building. Towards the end our breakfast, and after opening a couple of birthday gifts, my wife stated that my other gift "had arrived". She was pointing out toward the ramp but from my vantage point, I could not see anything. I leaned forward to peer around the side of the fireplace where I spotted the yellow bi-plane parking on the ramp but since I did not see it taxi-in, it did not dawn on me of what she was talking about. My wife explained that I was going for a ride in the Navy bi-plane. I asked myself, was this for real?

Donald W. Mayes, the owner/pilot, came by our table and inquired as to who the "birthday boy" was. After stating that I was the party that he was seeking, he said that he would be getting some coffee and that whenever I was ready, "just let him know". After finishing my last cup of coffee, I walked over to his table to let him know that we were finished and that I would make a "pit stop" to off load some of the coffee ballast. I rejoined the group in the terminal lobby where Don was talking with the rest of the family. Probably getting some last minute instructions, I am sure. 

We retreated from the terminal building, enmass, through the coded gate, and onto the ramp area. As we approached the parked aircraft, I was reminded that it was only about 42 degrees and the wind chill from an open cockpit aircraft, as least to some one whom has lived in the desert for over 30 years, could be rather mind numbing. Besides the winter jacket that I already had on, my wife handed me some gloves that I had not worn in many years. The aircraft, a 1940, Navy N3N-3, is only 1 of about 100 that are still flying. Don said that the original version of the aircraft, had a 250hp Wright engine but when the bred was also used for crop dusting, some of them were "re-engined" with up to 650 hp Pratt & Whitney's in order to carry the huge chemical loads. This particular aircraft had a P&W 985 that produced 450 hp. Don said that he purchased this aircraft in 1999 but that he has been flying since 1967. Don said that with his ticket at 41 hours, he got his first flying job and in 1970, he went to work for an FBO in Redding California flying cattle buyers around a three state area. Up until just a few years ago, he said that he flew various iterations of fire patrol aircraft as well as fire bombers.

After buttoning-up, zipping-up, and donning the gloves, Don showed me where to put my feet while climbing into the front cockpit of the airplane.  He showed me how to secure the three point harness and after making sure that I was strapped-in securely and had donned the canvas helmet and headset, he climbed into the rear cockpit.  All the while, the rest of the family members were standing off the port side of the aircraft, watching us go through the boarding procedures.  After going through the pre-start check-list, Don pressed the starter button and the huge Pratt sprung to life with ease.  He said that we had to wait until the oil temperature rose to 30 degrees Celsius before he would begin taxing.  Don said that his gauge had taken a dive the day before so I needed to monitor the gauge on my panel and to let him know when the needle pegged on 30.   Considering the brisk morning temperatures, it took about 10 minutes for the oil temperature to reach the 30 degree mark.  When the needle pegged on thirty, I gave Don the nod and he began our taxi to runway 3.  For those unfamiliar with "tail draggers", and in particular those with the BIG round engines, forward viability is nil at best thus requiring the "to and fro" dance till we reached the run-up area.  We waited for two landings and one departure and then the tower gave us the "taxi into position and hold".

When Don got the "cleared for take-off", he smoothly advanced the throttle and big Pratt surged to life.  In less time that it would take to tell about it, the tail was off the runway and in even less time, the mains were airborne.  We had a 10 knot wind out of the northeast and with the brisk temperatures, the old bi-plane ascended like a home sick angel.  As we came abeam the ramp area from where we started, I noticed that my family members were still there to watch our departure.  I extended my left arm out of the cockpit to give them a wave and it was then that I realized that an 85 mph demon had grabbed me to remind me that this was not the same type aircraft that I had spent the last 20 years flying around in...........big mistake.

We headed straight-out for about 3 miles and then made a right turn and directly at the McDowell Mountains.  To my amazement, there was a pass right smack dab in the middle of the range.  I have been flying out of Scottsdale since 1982 and I have never noticed that this pass ever existed.  We skirted along the north side of the pass and then zigged zagged back and forth while navigating the wind currents that took up residence in the pass.  As we exited the pass on the east side, Don brought the aircraft down to about a 150' above the desert floor.  Again Don would maneuver the aircraft back and forth to allow him to scan the area ahead of us.  I noticed the multitude of washes that dominated the scene and so many of the scrub trees that were uprooted.  It's funny how you never notice these small things when you have nothing to do except to concentrate on sightseeing.  The small windscreen that was in front of me was only about 8" high and when I tried to raise my head up to see what was in front of us, I realized that I had made another big mistake.  From where my sunglasses left off and the beginning of the canvas helmet took over, there was a portions of my face that was exposed to a 120 mph wind with a wind chill factor that I would only estimate at a mind numbing,  minus 20 degrees.  Talk about a reality check.  It was at this point that I was committed to limiting my sightseeing to either the starboard or port side of the aircraft.  Another thing that quickly reminds you that this is an open cockpit aircraft is that, the staccato clapping of the wind on your head and face as well as in the headset.  These conditions sure conger-up a whole new respect for those pioneers who endured this type of flying on an everyday basis.

We maintained the low level flight for a while and then made a left turn to the north toward Dynamite Road.  After crossing the road, Don put the aircraft into a climb mode til we reached about 4200' and at a point directly east of CarefreeDon said something over the intercom but I could not make out exactly what he said.  At this point, Don put the aircraft into a very shallow dive to gain airspeed and then abruptly pulled-up into a steep bank to the left.  We continued around til reversing coarse and then into another dive with the same maneuver in the opposite direction.  For those more familiar with aerobatics or commercial moves, this was referred to a "lazy eight ".  We then did what turned out to be a "wing over" and then Don served-up the grand finale, a "loop".  I served-up a big whaaawhooo as we pulled-out of the dive but I don't believe that Don heard me.  From this point on, it was a return back to Scottsdale via Rawhide and Chauncey' s.  Don did a perfect 3-point landing with nary a screech or a bounce-just smooth as silk.  I figured that this must not have been his first time.

After Don shut-down the big Pratt, I existed the front cockpit, more or less in the reverse manor of when I got in.  The only difference being that my face felt like a piece of ice sculpture that would take 24 hours to thaw-out.  We congregated in the restaurant once again where my wife paid Don for the flight.  Don filled-out my certificate that commemorated my "flight as it used to be ".  All-in-all, a truly memorable experience that I will never forget. 

When we got home, and checking my e-mail, I found that my son-in-law had already sent me some pictures that he had taken when we were still on the ramp.  I will share these with you buy having you click on any of the links at the bottom of the story.  Also, if you would like to release some of your own pent-up Walter Mitty, you can reach Don at: 480-419-5736.  I have seen him at both DVT and SDL but I am sure that he would be willing to meet you at an airport near you.

Click on the Navy N3N Plane Ride link to view some photos of this plane.