by Jack McKillop


The Wright Brothers are credited with the first powered flight in December 1903 but there was little development of the airplane in the U.S. after 1910 and the state of the industry and the military was pathetic. The U.S. Army did not purchase its first aircraft until 1909 and the U.S. Navy (USN) followed in 1911. When World War I started in 1914, the USN had 12 heavier-than-air aircraft, six seaplanes and six flying boats. The approximately twenty companies in the U.S. manufacturing airplanes sold only 49 aircraft that year. The declaration of war against Germany by the U.S. on 6 April 1917, found United States Naval Aviation unprepared for the task ahead. The strength—almost too optimistic a term—of Naval Aviation stood at 48 officers and 239 enlisted men with some aviation experience, and the equipment consisted of 54 aircraft of training types; one free balloon; one kite balloon; one unsatisfactory non-rigid airship, the DN-1 and one air station at Pensacola, Florida.


Soon after the U.S. entry into World War I, a joint Army-Navy board was established and issued a plan whereby the U.S. would eventually establish a force of 12,000 aircraft. To accomplish this, the Army began ordering large numbers of training planes to train pilots. Large scale orders were also placed for British and French fighter planes but these were eventually canceled. The USN on the other hand, needed a small number of specialized aircraft, long-range seaplanes, to patrol off the East Coast of the U.S. and in Europe. Because of the small number of aircraft required, the aircraft manufacturers were not interested and this caused the USN to establish the Naval Aircraft Factory (NAF) to assist in solving the problem of aircraft supply. The Navy considered this a normal step since they had been operating naval shipyards since 1801. The NAF 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.


Construction of the NAF began on 10 August 1917 at the Navy Yard, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; the factory was tasked with constructing aircraft, undertaking aeronautical developments and providing aircraft construction cost data. The entire plant was completed by 28 November 1917.


To meet its patrol plane needs, the USN selected the Curtiss H-16, a twin-engine tractor biplane seaplane, and 184 were built by Curtiss and 150 by the NAF. The first NAF-built H-16 was launched on 27 March 1918 and Curtiss followed with their first on 22 June 1918. On 2 April 1918 the first two NAF-built H-16s were shipped to the patrol station at Killingholme, Lincolnshire, England. Additional aircraft were sent to units in Ireland and France and they provided convoy escort, conducted submarine searches and long-range reconnaissance, and gave early warning of the approach of enemy aircraft or surface vessels.   The last H-16 came off the NAF  assembly line in late 1918 after the Armistice.


The second aircraft built by the NAF was the F-5-L which was built too late for the war but saw extensive service after the Armistice. The F-5 was a British design based on a Curtiss design. The wings, empennage and engine arrangement were essentially Curtiss but the hull was an improved design by Royal Navy personnel. The aircraft was built at the government aircraft plant at Felixstowe, Suffolk, England, and was designated F-5. When the U.S. entered the war in 1917, the F-5 was one of the British aircraft selected for production in the U.S. The NAF, which  received plans for the aircraft >from the U.K. on 24 March 1918,  was tasked with creating detailed production drawings from the British blueprints. In USN service, the aircraft was equipped with Liberty engines and was designated F-5-L. Work began on the first NAF F-5-L on 26 April 1918 and it made its first flight on 15 July. A total of 228 F-5-Ls were built, 60 by Curtiss, 138 by the NAF and 30 by Canadian Aeroplanes, Ltd., of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The last NAF-built aircraft was launched in September 1919.


Aircraft production in the U.S. had increased from 2,148 aircraft in 1917 to almost 14,000 in 1918. It was estimated that the U.S. aircraft manufacturers could produce 21,000 airplanes annually however, most of the contracts were canceled after the Armistice in November 1918 and the aircraft industry fell on hard times. On the other hand, the NAF managed to produce a number of aircraft, including 80 Curtiss MF seaplane trainers in 1919; 59 Vought VE-7 advanced trainers in 1919 through 1922; 36 Loening M-81 monoplane fighters in 1920 and 1921; 15 PT-1 and 18 PT-2 NAF designed twin-float torpedo bombers in 1921 and 1922; and the last six of ten NC seaplanes in 1920 and 1921. The aircraft manufacturers, subject to government restrictions concerning competitive bidding, design rights and the lack of a government master plan regarding aviation, began complaining about the “unfair advantage” that the NAF had over them. Their complaints reached the Congress and several hearings were held. Finally, in January 1922, Rear Admiral William A. Moffett, chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics (BuAer), issued a statement stating that “the NAF is to all intents and purposes no longer an aircraft factory, but a combination of naval aircraft base, naval aircraft storehouse, naval aircraft experimental station, and in general a naval aircraft establishment.... It is not the policy of the department to go into production of aircraft at the Naval Aircraft Factory.”


For the next 13 years, the NAF built 57 aircraft, one balloon and one rigid airship. The fortunes of the NAF changed again when the Congress passed and President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed, the Vinson-Trammell Act in March 1934. This act authorized further new naval construction up to the full limit provided by the naval-limitation treaties and the necessary replacement of overage vessels. Included in the act was the statement that “not less than 10 percent of the aircraft, including the engines therefor...shall be constructed and/or manufactured in Government aircraft factories.”


In October 1934, BuAer ordered the NAF “to design and construct an experimental primary training airplane” to replace the Consolidated Aircraft Corporation’s NY trainers. The NYs were first delivered to the USN in May 1926 and were in service at training bases and by the Naval Reserve.  BuAer also specified that “the major purpose is to develop in this type of airplane maximum ruggedness and ease of maintenance consistent with general stability for primary training purposes and meeting the specified performance.” The new aircraft was designated N3N and the NAF was ordered to prepare cost estimates for a prototype and 45 production machines.


The N3N Yellow Peril was a typical open-cockpit, fabric-covered biplane primary trainer of the day powered by a radial engine driving a two-bladed propeller. The name Yellow Peril was not the official name of this aircraft but a generic name applied to several primary trainers including the Boeing/Stearman NS and N2S Kaydets, q.v. The name originated from the fact that all naval trainers had been painted orange-yellow since 1917 as well as from its use in Naval Aviation Reserve bases where prospective Aviation Cadets received their first training. In the event that a cadet failed to solo within a certain period of time, he was in "Peril" of not being appointed an Aviation Cadet. The aircraft accommodated two, instructor and student, and could be flown with a landing gear or a single main float with stabilizing floats on the wings. It was an all-metal aircraft but instead of steel, the NAF used aluminum. The front of the aircraft back to the firewall in the front cockpit and the vertical stabilizer were metal covered and the rest of the aircraft was fabric covered. Other unique features were a single integral top wing and five removable panels on the left side of the fuselage giving maintenance personnel easy access for inspections.


The XN3N-1 was powered by a 220 hp (164 kW) Wright R-790-8 (Wright Model J-5 Whirlwind 9) nine-cylinder, single-row, air-cooled radial engine, the same engine that powered Charles A. Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis. This obsolete engine had been out of production since 1929 but during the Great Depression when money was scarce, the Navy had a number of them available and had to use them. The XN3N-1 made its first flight on 23 August 1935 at Mustin Field, the airfield adjacent to the NAF. It was found that the aircraft was tail heavy and sluggish during spin tests. The rear stabilizer was modified, the size of the rudder was increased and new engine mounts were installed to move the engine forward but the aircraft still had poor spin-recovery characteristics.


These “fixes” solved the major problems with the aircraft and the NAF received an order for 85 production N3N-1s in April 1936; 25 were to be equipped with wheels and 60 with floats. All 85 were ordered without an engine and the USN equipped them with the Wright R-790-8. The first prodcution aircraft was shipped to Naval Air Station (NAS), Anacostia, District of Columbia for service tests on 22 May 1936. Subsequent to this, two additional orders were placed, the first for 80 aircraft and the second for 25 bringing the total number of aircraft ordered to 190. Of the latter two orders for 105 aircraft, the first 25 were to be powered by the Wright R-790-8 while the last 80 were to be powered by the 235 hp (175 kW) Wright R-760-2 (Wright Model J-6 Whirlwind 7) seven-cylinder, single-row, air-cooled radial engine that was manufactured under license contract by the NAF. Cost overruns on the first order for 85 aircraft caused cancellation of ten aircraft on the third order and only a total of 180 N3N-1s were built. The last of the 180 aircraft was delivered on 29 April 1938. These aircraft had been delivered with a wide anti-drag cowling but this was removed in 1941-42.


Regardless of the number of “fixes” that had been applied to the N3N-1, the Navy recognized the fact that it still had a number of handling and control problems and in an attempt to solve these problems, a second experimental aircraft, the XN3N-2, was ordered  in October 1935. This aircraft was powered by the Wright R-760-8 engine. In order to reduce the tail heaviness, the aircraft was equipped with new engine mounts and a longer engine cowling and some of the equipment was also moved forward. The XN3N-2 made its first flight at Mustin Field on 11 August 1936 but it was found that this aircraft was “no real improvement” over the N3N-1 and it never went into production.


The Congress passed and the President signed the Naval Expansion Act on 17 May 1938. This act authorized an increase in total tonnage of underage naval vessels and also authorized an increase of naval aircraft to “not less than” 3,000. Recognizing that new trainers would be required to train the pilots to man these new aircraft, the NAF made a recommendation to BuAer to redesign the N3N-1 to eliminate the worst features of the aircraft. On 21 June 1939, BuAer ordered 50 N3N-3 trainers and also ordered that the fourth N3N-1, BuNo 0020, be returned to the NAF for modifications and conversion to the XN3N-3. The XN3N-3 was equipped with redesigned vertical tail surfaces and a new single-strut landing gear and was powered by an NAF-built 235 hp (175 kW) Wright R-760-2 radial engine. The aircraft was tested both as a landplane and seaplane in late 1939 and it was found that it had superior short-field takeoff and climbing capabilities and cockpit visibility had been greatly improved. There were a few bugs left with the brakes and rudder control and vibration problems however, the Navy was satisfied that the major deficiencies of the N3N had been cured and eventually ordered 816 N3N-3s. The last aircraft was delivered on 23 January 1942. The early N3N-3s had an engine cowling but these were removed in 1941-1942.


The N3N was very similar to its successor, the Boeing/Stearman N2S Kaydet, q.v., and the two are often mistaken for each other. There four major distinguishing features of the N3N versus the N2S are:


1     The N3N had a more rounded and taller vertical fin and rudder,

2     The N3N had one strut connecting the vertical fin to the horizontal stabilizer whereas the N2S had two flying wires,

3     The N3N had ailerons on the upper and lower wings and an aileron interconnect strut connecting them; the N2S only had ailerons on the lower wing, and

4     The N3N had 30 x 5 Bendix wheels compared to the much smaller wheels and wider tires on the N2Ss.





      XN3N-1: One prototype.

      N3N-1: 180 production aircraft.

      XN3N-2: One prototype.

      XN3N-3: One modified N3N-1.

      N3N-3: 816 production aircraft




U.S. Coast Guard

N3N-3: V193 to V196



      XN3N-1: 9991

      N3N-1: 0017 to 0101; 0644 to 0723; and 0952 to 0966

      XN3N-2: 0265

      XN3N-3: 0020

      N3N-3: 1759 to 1808; 1908 to 2007; 2573 to 3072; and 4352 to 4517.





      Power Plant (XN3N-1): 220 hp (164 kW) Wright R-790-8 (Wright Model J-5 Whirlwind 9) nine-cylinder, single-row, air-cooled radial engine; (N3N-1): The first 110 were powered by the Wright R-790-8; the last 70 were powered by an NAF-built 235 hp (175 kW) Wright R-760-2 (Wright Model J-6 Whirlwind 7) seven-cylinder, single-row, air-cooled radial engine; (N3N-2): 235 hp (175 kW) Wright R-760-8 radial engine; (XN3N-3): NAF-built 235 hp (175 kW) Wright R-760-2 radial engine; (N3N-3): NAF-built 235 hp (175 kW) Wright R-760-2 radial engine.

      Wing Span: 34.00 feet (10,36 meters)

      Length (N3N-1): 28.33 feet (8,63 meters); (N3N-3): 25.50 feet (7,77 meters)

      Height (N3N-1): 13.33 feet (4,06 meters); (N3N-3)`: 11.83 feet (3,61 meters)

      Wing Area: 305 square feet (28,34 square meters)

      Empty Weight (N3N-3): 2,090 pounds (948 kilograms)

      Maximum Weight (XN3N-1 with wheels): 2,636 pounds (1195 kilograms); (XN3N-1 with floats): 2,770 pounds (1256 kilograms); (N3N-3 with wheels): 2,802 pounds (1271 kilograms); (N3N-3 with floats): 2,940 pounds (1334 kilograms)

       Maximum Speed (N3N-1): 114 mph (99 knots or 183 km/h); (N3N-3): 126 mph (109 knots or 203 km/h)

      Service Ceiling (N3N-1): 11,500 feet (3505 meters); (N3N-3): 15,200 feet (4633 meters)


      Crew: 2 (instructor and student)

      Normal Range (N3N-3): 470 miles (756 kilometers)

      Armament: None




U.S. Coast Guard

In late 1940, the U.S. Coast Guard traded four Grumman JF-2 Ducks, q.v., to the USN for four N3N-3s. Three of the aircraft were delivered in December 1940 and the fourth in January 1941. The use of these aircraft by the Coast Guard is not clear but they were probably used as station hacks and as proficiency flight aircraft.


U.S. Marine Corps

The U.S. Marine Corps was first introduced to the N3Ns when they were assigned to Naval Reserve Air Bases (NRABs) and used for training by the Naval and Marine Reserve units as described below under the U.S. Navy.


During World War II, the Marines  received an unknown number of N3N-3s beginning in 1942 for use in their glider program. A glider detachment was formed at Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Parris Island, South Carolina in January 1942 and the N3Ns were used as tow aircraft for the Schweizer LNS-1, q.v., gliders. By the time glider training moved to MCAS Eagle Mountain Lake, Texas in November 1942, the N3Ns had been replaced by other aircraft.


U.S. Navy

The 180 N3N-1s were all delivered between 1936 and 1938. They were initially delivered to NAS Pensacola, Florida and used as primary trainers with fixed landing gear or equipped with floats to train seaplane pilots destined to fly scout/observation aircraft from battleships and cruisers. The N3N-1s were also assigned to NRABs in the U.S. for training of Naval and Marine Corps reserve squadrons and also for the 30-day Elimination Training Course. By 1941, N3N-1s were based at thirteen NRABs, i.e., Anacostia, District of Columbia; Glenview, Illinois; Grosse Ile, Michigan; Kansas City, Kansas; Long Beach, California; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Opa Locka, Florida; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; New York, New York; Oakland, California; St. Louis, Missouri; Seattle, Washington; and Squantum, Massachusetts.


The 816 N3N-3s were delivered between April 1940 and January 1942 and immediately replaced the N3N-1s as the primary seaplane and landplane trainers. As with the N3N-1s, the new aircraft were delivered to NAS Pensacola, Florida and also the new training center, NAS Corpus Christi, Texas, which was commissioned on 12 March 1941. N3N-3s were also assigned to sixteen NRABs, the thirteen listed above plus NRAB Atlanta, Georgia; Dallas, Texas; and New Orleans, Louisiana.


During World War II, the N3Ns were also used for primary training at  Naval Auxiliary Air Station (NAAS) Cabannis Field, Texas;  NAS Glenview, Illinois; NAS Grosse Ile, Michigan; NAS Jacksonville; Florida; NAS Los Alamitos and Livermore, California; NAS Miami, Florida; NAS New Orleans, Louisiana; NAS Pasco, Washington; NAAS Rodd Field, Texas; and NAS St. Louis, Missouri. Thousands of Naval, Marine and Coast Guard pilots received their primary training in the Yellow Peril until it was replaced by the Boeing/Stearman N2S Kaydet during the latter part of WW II.


The majority of the N3Ns were declared surplus by the middle of 1945 and were sold to various civilian firms. They found favor as crop dusters and sprayers because they were able to take abuse and still fly. Roughly 100 N3N-3 seaplanes were maintained by the Navy for active service and were used at Overhaul and Repair, NAS Norfolk, Virginia, and at the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland, to provide aviation familiarization for midshipmen. There were 35 N3N-3s at Naval Air Facility (NAF) Annapolis in the early 1950s. These aircraft, the last open cockpit biplanes used by the U.S. military, remained in service until being retired in 1961.


Copyright © 2002 John E. McKillop