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F3F Biplane Barrels Back

Grumman F3Fs would have been iconic fighters if only because of the vivid colors that graced every one— bands, chevrons, cowlings and panels of red, blue, green, white and yellow. Most definitely yellow. The colors were the U.S. Navy’s 1930s code to denote squadron, carrier affiliation, pilot rank, even an airplane’s appointed flying position in its section.

But the F3F had more than just a full palette going for it. It was the Navy’s ultimate biplane fighter, the end of one era and the beginning of another, since the F4F Wildcat was the F3F’s direct descendant. The F4F was hardly a monoplane F3F, however, as is frequently claimed. All the two airplanes have in common is the clunky, hand-cranked retractable landing gear and some of the fuselage. Grumman built only 164 F3Fs, and they almost certainly would have been ineffective combat planes—poor cockpit visibility; minimal two-gun, rifle-caliber armament; and lousy gun platforms because of longitudinal instability. But their aggressive, bumblebee look and the fact that they were the very last biplane fighters in the U.S. inventory have made them classics. (They weren’t the last Navy biplanes, though: The Curtiss SBC Helldiver followed them by two years.)

The first restored “F3F” to fly during the warbird era was owned by Doug Champlin, and operated during the early 1970s. It was in fact a Grumman G-32A, one of two civilian two-seat versions that Grumman built for company use. (A third civil single-seater was built as the Gulfhawk II, for Gulf Oil airshow pilot Al Williams.) The Champlin G-32A was wrecked after an in-flight fire and then reconstructed by Texas restorer Herb Tischler. At the same time, Tischler built from the ground up three F3F-2s incorporating parts and data plates from several burnt-out hulks salvaged in Hawaii. The plan was to sell the new F3F-2s to finance the restoration of the two-seater, and the three -2s indeed were sold and eventually dispersed to a variety of owners.

One of them is today with Kermit Weeks in Florida. Another is owned by James Slattery and is usually on display at the Chino, Calif., warbird roost Planes of Fame. And the third F3F-2 is now in the hands of Chris Prevost, proprietor and chief pilot of the Vintage Aircraft Company (, a restoration shop and biplane-rides site in Sonoma, Calif.

Prevost has just returned to the air the airplane you see here, which made its first post-restoration flight last September. It was previously displayed at the Lone Star Flight Museum. In September 2008, Hurricane Ike put many of the museum’s aircraft, including the F3F-2, under water, so Prevost’s work consisted largely of correcting corrosion damage and converting the aircraft from display-only to flight status.

Looks like Prevost did his work well. And who knows? Perhaps a good saltwater bath reminded the old Grumman of its original carrier-borne mission.

-Stephan Wilkinson

Defiant Restoration

The U.S. had its Brewster Buffalo, and the Brits were stuck with the Boulton Paul Defiant—two off-brand, single-engine World War II aircraft that have long been mythologized as failures. Yet the Finns managed to use lightened Buffalos successfully against stiff Soviet opposition, and the Defiant’s sorry record against Me-109 fighters was the result of a mission never intended for it. The Defiant also had a worthy second career as a night fighter during the 1940 London Blitz. Largely forgotten is that one squadron of Defiants was among the world’s first effective electronic countermeasures units, carrying radar-jamming and spoofing equipment in support of RAF cross-Channel raids in 1942-43.

Only one intact, albeit not flyable, Defiant remains. Since 1971, it had been a shabby part of the Royal Air Force Museum’s collection in Hendon, northwest of London. A complete three-year renovation of the Defiant by the all-volunteer Medway Aircraft Preservation Society has returned it to exhibit-worthy condition through the repair of some landing-gear and battle damage; much detail work; a complete rebuild of its formerly in operative four-gun power turret, a potent unit that was un fortunately the airplane’s only armament; and accurate re painting in the exact black of its original night-fighting opera tor, the Polish No. 307 “City of Lwow” Squadron.

The Defiant was initially intended to attack Luftwaffe bombers over England, which would have been beyond the range of fighter escorts operating from German bases. Had this been the case (nobody planned on French airstrips being available to Messerschmitts just across the Channel), Defiants would probably have done well, their pilots able to maneuver their gunners into position for broadsides from four .303-caliber Brownings, despite the considerable weight and limited traverse of the turret.

Defiants had some initial successes over Dunkirk during the BEF’s famous evacuation, but the Luftwaffe figured out literally overnight that they could attack them utterly unopposed from directly astern and below, and the Defiant’s career as a so-called “turret fighter” was over.

-Stephan Wilkinson

Boeing Celebrates Aviation Pioneers

On November 12 the Seattle Museum of Flight premiered the new high-definition production of the PBS documentary Pioneers in Aviation: The Race to the Moon with an event featuring writer/director William Win – ship and Boeing scion William Boeing Jr. The three-hour, three-part series has been re-created in HD, re-edited with new archival footage and will be broadcast on PBS stations from 2013 to 2016. The event assembled Boeing corporate leaders, descendants of the “first families” featured in the film and aviation enthusiasts for a celebration of Boeing Jr.’s 90th birthday and a discussion of the genesis of American aviation in the early 20th century.

Winship garnered an Emmy nomination in 2002 for the original production. He and Boeing corporate historian Mike Lombardi scoured the Boeing, Douglas and North American Aviation archives for original film footage. Their efforts uncovered some gems, such as never-before-seen footage of the Doolittle Raiders preparing to take off from the deck of USS Hornet, as well as early film of the notoriously media-reticent William Boeing at the “Red Barn,” Boeing’s first airplane factory. Winship strove to present the early leaders of aviation—particularly Boeing, Donald Douglas and James “Dutch” Kindelberger—in a human light.

“The stories in the film are not about airplanes but people, young men coming of age at a time of great potential and creating an industry through their imagination, creativity and state-of-the-art technical knowhow,” Winship said at the event. “Their creative instincts fueled their competitive drive, enabling Boeing to inaugurate the first mod – ern airliner with the Model 247 and Douglas to trump the market with the DC-3, in a rivalry that would play out over decades. Kindelberger spurred development of some of the greatest American warplanes, such as the P-51 Mustang and B-25 Mitchell.”

Orville and Wilbur Wright’s great-grandniece Amanda Wright Lane echoed the film’s take on her forbears. “The Wright brothers came from an ordinary Midwest background, but there was a real genius at work there,” she re marked. “They were raised in a family that encouraged learning and reading… and they were entrepreneurs from an early age.”

The film opens with Orville Wright demonstrating the Wright Flyer at the 1908 Fort Myer trials. As President William H. Taft watches, Wright launches the Flyer and banks over the crowd in a tightly controlled turn. The scene sets the tone for a comprehensive look at American ascendancy in aviation, culminating in the Apollo moon landing. For more on the documentary and showtimes, visit

-Stephen Mauro

Sub Spots a Hellcat

The last thing crews on the submarine for was a WWII airplane, but that’s what they found in June 2012 while studying artificial reefs off Miami Beach. After researchers sent images of the plane—resting upside down Antipodes were looking 240 feet below the surface, and populated by a crew of lionfish—to the Naval History and Heritage Command, officials identified it as a Grumman F6F. Stockton Rush, president of OceanGate, which built and operates the sub, said in a Miami Herald article that he hoped to bring along Navy experts the next time Antipodes visits the wreck, to try to figure out where the fighter came from. A total of 79 Hellcats were lost in WWII while flying off of Florida’s east coast.


Originally published in the March 2013 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.