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Flying a piece of history

 

“Put your feet flat on the floor.”

I followed the command and thrust a thumbs up out to communicate I heard the pilot Harry Chaffee.

The g-forces pushed me back into my seat, my arms holding my camera dropped down like they had heavy weights attached to them.

And then I was upside down, looking up at the ocean with the sky below my feet.

“Put your feet flat on the floor.”

I followed the command and thrust a thumbs up out to communicate I heard the pilot Harry Chaffee.

The g-forces pushed me back into my seat, my arms holding my camera dropped down like they had heavy weights attached to them.

And then I was upside down, looking up at the ocean with the sky below my feet.

Beeline Airlines offers flights in its 1940 N3N biplane at the Gold Beach Airport from July through September, seven days a week. The flights are not only scenic and exciting, but are a moving history lesson about a time when planes had two wings and cockpits were open.  

I’ve flown in a variety of helicopters, military transports, civilian jet liners and even a V-22 Osprey that tilts its rotors to take off like a helicopter but then flies like a plane. But I had never flown in a biplane, the ancestor of the modern monoplane, the sort of plane one would picture flying over the trenches of France during World War I, not windy skies near Gold Beach. 

Beeline Airlines, co-owned by pilots Chaffee and Gary Hendrickson, offers two flight options — scenic and aerobatic. While both include a scenic flight up the Rogue River and over the ocean near Gold Beach, the aerobatic option includes some special maneuvers, such as the loop the loop, the barrel roll and the hammerhead turn. 

The N3N is an operational piece of history, something I realized once I was in the cockpit and saw an instrument panel devoid of LED readouts and computers.

“It’s significantly different flying a World War II era plane than flying a modern light airplane,” Hendrickson said. 

The N3N was built by the government-owned Naval Aircraft Factory at the Philadelphia Naval Yard from 1935 until 1942. Used as a trainer, with its tandem seats and open cockpit, for many Naval and Marine Corps aviators it was the first plane they took control of the stick and piloted a plane.

The factory built around 1,000 of the bright yellow airplanes, and it was the last open-cockpit biplane still used by the Navy when it was finally retired from service in 1961. Around 100 are still operational and flying. 

After the war, the plane found extensive use in agriculture, popular for crop dusting. It was also one of the first planes used in water-bombing forest fires. 

“The plane is robust and is capable of carrying 3,000 pounds,” Chaffee said, which is far heavier than the plane is. 

This particular N3N spent its post-war life fighting boll weevils in the Mississippi Delta, its owner Dudley Wade having purchased it for $775 in a surplus sale after the war. It spent the next 30 years spraying cotton, and according to Hendrickson was well maintained until he purchased it in 1980.

“We did a full cosmetic restoration and made it look as close as we could to how it looked during the war,” Hendrickson said. 

The number 24 on its side is their best guess on the number it had. Hendrickson said it’s most likely the plane trained pilots in Pensacola, Fla., but does not know exactly where it spent the war. 

In addition to the scenic and aerobatic flights, Beeline also offers lessons to licensed pilots who want to learn how to fly the historic airplane.  

“Sometimes people buy these World War II airplanes, like the P-51, and don’t know how to fly them,” Hendrickson said. “We help them build up to flying them by starting them off on the N3N, just like how pilots were trained during World War II.”

Hendrickson says the city and port of Gold Beach have been really receptive to Beeline Airlines operating there during the summer, and flying there allows him to fish in the morning and fly in the afternoon.

The rest of the year when they aren’t in Gold Beach, Chaffee and Hendrickson operate an agricultural aircraft business in Willows, Calif., and restore airplanes during the winter. 

Both are highly experienced pilots who have been making their living from flying for decades, so they aren’t just weekend hobbyists. 

The flight itself is amazing. Flying in an open cockpit, feeling the rumble of the engine, having the wind in my air, it’s like the difference between riding a motorcycle or sitting in a car with the windows up, only far more fun — cars and motorcycles don’t drive upside down. 

“It’s a thrilling plane to fly, a fun plane,” said John Ward, a Gold Beach pilot training to fly the N3N. “You have the wind in your face and you get to feel the excitement and thrill of the birds.”

For more information or to take a flight, call Beeline Airlines at 530-518-2633, or visit them at the Gold Beach Municipal Airport from now through September. 

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