An aeroplane that’s designed to carry heavy loads into the most marginal of runways and lakes, means the odds of a long life are low. But for one particular Noorduyn Norseman, lady luck was on her side…
Words Budd Davisson Photography Leonardo Correa Luna
24 November 2020
It is seldom that the name of an aeroplane so truly characterises what an aircraft stands for. In a single word, Norseman, the image is set of both a people and a machine which are known for their collective abilities and determination to explore, survive and prosper in the arctic wilds. The aircraft lives up to its name and heritage in every possible way. That being the case, it is sad that although 904 of the aircraft were built, it has fallen out of history’s memory and is so seldom seen at fly-ins. Which is why Tony Phillippi’s Mk.VI Noorduyn Norseman, N164UC was something of a sensation at AirVenture 2019. The vast majority of those trudging the flight line had no idea what it was, and even a smaller number had ever actually seen one.
Norseman historical expert and pilot, Rodney Kozar, says one reason the Norseman is so seldom seen is because only approximately 50 airframes still survive worldwide, eight flying in Canada, four in the US and one in Norway. A total of 37 projects and museum survivors are scattered around the world, most of them in Canada, the U.S. and Europe. That’s a survival rate of less than six per cent even though Robert Noorduyn’s bush-specific design first flew in 1935.
Utility doesn’t recognise age as long as the job is getting done. Utility does, however, clearly understand attrition – the job for which the Norseman was designed, carrying heavy loads into the most-marginal of runways and lakes, is fraught with daily risks. It’s a fact that continual exposure to high risk environments, whether it’s an aeroplane or a bulldozer, means the odds of long-term survival are not good. The odds chip away at the survivors until there are none.
Aggravating the survival odds of the Norseman, the mellow rumble of a healthy Pratt and Whitney radial in the far north has been increasingly replaced by the near-scream of turbines. Enter Glen Crandall, Ponoka, Alberta, N164UC’s restorer and, later, Tony Phillippi of Eden Prairie, Minnesota, the current owner.
Owning, operating and restoring big aeroplanes has long been Tony’s personal passion. He says, “I think my interest in bigger-than-normal civilian airplanes may come from the Northrop Delta that my dad owned and flew us around in in the 1950s. He was a construction contractor and eventually bought a DC-3, which he owned with his friend Max Conrad, the record-setting long distance pilot.
“I continued in dad’s construction footsteps eventually founding a company that specialises in really big, heavy lift cranes. We’ve done jobs around the world including Antarctica. At a lot of the overseas jobs, we’d have an airplane or two of our own in-country to help with the logistics. For instance, in 1976 we were doing work in Iran and the Shah had a Lockheed Jetstar, which we wound up buying. It was the only U.S.-registered aircraft permitted to fly in the country.
“We really loved the Jetstar,” he says. “It had lots of room and range and, of course, the reliability of four jet engines. Eventually, we were operating 11 of them and set up a support programme for JetStar owners around the world.
“At one point, I saw a picture of a Howard 500 in Trade-a-Plane and I was totally hooked. At the time I knew very little about them, but what I saw, I liked. What’s not to like about a pair of R-2800 P&Ws? I wound up buying four and two have been restored. One was Grand Champion at Oshkosh.”
Because Tony and his company need the utility that aircraft can give him on the job, his sensitivity to aeroplanes being used as tools couldn’t help but make him aware of the various bush aeroplanes that had served the North for generations.
“I knew of the Norseman, and knew they were becoming rare,” he says. “Then, when we had a crane operation going in Alberta, Canada, I heard about Glen Crandall in Ponoka. He had been a Norseman owner and restorer since he rescued one from the Yukon in 1993. His fully restored aircraft was for sale and had some notable modifications to it, which made it even more attractive to me. Besides being totally restored, the fuselage fabric had been replaced with aluminium and a larger-than-normal cargo door had been installed. The original door is pretty good sized but you could almost put a Volkswagen through this one. A snowmobile isn’t even a tight fit. It had a total of about 13,000 hours on it, of which about 2,000 was military.”
Among the other big aircraft Tony owned was a Grumman Albatross, which was often flown by Brian Van Wagnen, a retired airline pilot who is a vintage aeroplane nut and restorer. Tony didn’t have to push Brian very hard to get him to fly up to do a pre-buy inspection on the Norseman and, if it passed, fly it back to Michigan.
Brian says, “I had flown Norsemans back in the day but I had long since figured I’d never get the opportunity to fly another one. However, as soon as I caught sight of the airplane Tony was thinking of buying, it was pretty obvious that I was going to be flying it home.
“Norseman are so big and so often have gone through a period of abandonment that they take much more than a coat of paint to make them right. It’s a very expensive process on an airplane for which there is a very limited market. Plus, they’re slow, they burn a lot of gas and to restore one is a massive project. However, even as I walked up to CF-UUD, it was obvious that Glen had done a nearly perfect job. In fact, it was a real joy to crawl all over this airplane inspecting it. I wasn’t so much looking for things that were wrong as I was appreciating the masterful work that had been done. It was with some pleasure that I gave Tony a thumbs-up evaluation on the aircraft.
“The skis and floats were part of the package. In fact, the Norseman may be one of the only airplanes that, when it did its certification flying for the Canadian Government, it was all done on floats. It didn’t get wheels until later.
“The skis with Glen’s airplane were the last of 50 sets of retractable skis that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had manufactured for their Norsemans. The skis were on the airplane, when Tony bought it, and I left them on as I flew it back to my strip in Jackson, Michigan. Tony has said that he doesn’t want to put it on floats.”
It has to be pointed out that CF-UUD, now registered as N164UC (its USAAF designation, when it was built in 1943, was UC-64A, hence the ‘N’ number), was born under a lucky star. It has had far more brushes with near-death than most aircraft.
For instance, in 1956, when it returned from long-term employment in Mexico, where the larger-than-normal door magically appeared, a careless welder set it on fire. In seconds the fabric flared up destroying the wooden wings but left the fuselage and cockpit structure largely untouched. The remains were purchased by an engineer, Charles Ursell, who metallized the fuselage and then designed and installed a set of all-metal wings with 170 gallons of fuel in them. He even managed to get an STC for them. Surviving the fire and being found by someone who was willing to revive it was lucky strike number one for this Norseman.
Flash ahead 30 years to 1986 and the aircraft, now living in Canada, was sinking into the grass on the side of a nearly forgotten runway, a typical situation for working aeroplanes that are well past their prime. Glen Crandall, a farmer from Ponoka, Alberta, who had wanted a Norseman since a teenager, discovered CF-UUD which was in questionable condition. The good news, however, was that it was marginally airworthy, so it was ferried down to Wetaskiwin, BC where Solar Aviation took it down to the last nut and bolt and brought it up to near-new condition. Lucky strike number two.
For a time, the restored CF-UUD lived in a big wooden hangar on an ex-RCAF base. The month after Glen decided to move it to another hangar, his former hangar burned down. Lucky strike number three.
It stayed in the new hangar for a period of time before being moved to yet another, newer hangar. A month later, the hangar it had just vacated burned down. Lucky strike number four.
When Brian got the Norseman back to Michigan his challenge was to sort out the paperwork required to get the aircraft ready to be registered in the US, which, in his experience as an IA could be daunting.
“It’s quite common,” he says, “for older aircraft to have huge parts of their history not covered in the log books and mechanical modifications are missing important supporting paperwork. They may have a change made to the aircraft that requires an STC, but the owner doesn’t have that STC in their files. Or maybe it’s not in the log book. This was not the case with Tony’s new airplane. Everything that had been done to the airplane was there.”
And Brian’s job of making the aircraft legal in the US was simplified. In 1967, the aircraft was exported to Canada and registered as CF-UUD, and in 1976, UUD’s metal wings (the only ones in existence) were transferred to another aircraft, and replaced by original all-wood/fabric covered wings. All of this was covered in the log books along with everything Glenn Crandall had done.
When Tony speaks of his aeroplane’s long history, he says, “You wish the airplane could talk. With 13,000 hours, almost all of it in bush operations, you can bet it had some interesting adventures.”
One of the more interesting episodes in its life is that the metal wings were wet-sealed and could hold a hefty 170 gallons. So, later owners assumed that when the wing modification was made, the Norseman’s original 100-gallon belly tank had been removed and wasn’t re-installed when the metal wings were removed. This left only the two 50-gallon wing tanks to feed the 600hp P&W R-1340, which has a voracious appetite. So, later pilots had to carefully plan their flights. However, during a rebuild in the 1990s, it was found that the original belly tank was still installed and had 10 gallons of avgas in it!
Brian says the Norseman flies very much the same as it looks – heavy, stable and easy on the runway with loads of character.
He says, “First, you have to remember that at 4,650lb empty, even with 600hp, it’s not going to be a rocket ship. Plus, it has a steerable tailwheel, rather than one that locks, so, when taxying, you can easily make it go where you want. However, you always have to remember that it has a lot of inertia and the old drum brakes are adequate, but not great.
“On take-off, you have pretty decent visibility for a taildragger, and, of course, the sound track is terrific! Nothing beats a round motor! The acceleration at the weights we fly it, with just a couple people and gas, could be likened to a light 172. I let the tail fly itself off the ground with only a little help, then hold a slightly tail down attitude and let the airplane make the take-off, which generally happens around 65-70mph. You have some right foot in it during most of the run and, as soon as it starts to leave the runway, you get a lot more boot into it for P-factor. It has a big rudder but also has lots of P-factor.”
“You’re limited to 36 inches of manifold pressure and about 2,250rpm on take-off and climb, which gives about 700fpm at 80mph. The whole take-off process is extremely solid and throwing a couple of people in the back has little or no effect on the performance. For that reason, inasmuch as making a profit in a bush freight operation is a function of how much you can carry on each trip, you can bet the old girl was usually carrying a lot more than its official payload of 3,300lb. In those kinds of North Country operations, the rule is ‘If it fits, it flies’.
“As you can imagine,” Brian says, “at cruise it’s as if you’re humming along in an 18-wheeler on the interstate. Nothing seems to bother it. This’ll be at 28 inches and 1,800-1,850rpm, which is sucking close to 40 gallons per hour. For all that effort and drama, you might be seeing 110mph as long as the skis aren’t mounted. It’s really cool to be rumbling along in that big old cockpit imagining that you’ll be landing on a miniscule gravel runway in the middle of nowhere, where men are men and they’re all flying manly airplanes like this one.
“I fly the approach at 85mph or so and want 80 over the fence. I’ll start cranking flaps down on downwind, which is sort of unique because the flaps have a crank on the end of a cable that’s not unlike a tachometer or speedometer cable, so they are infinitely variable.
“I carry a little power, maybe 1,500rpm, into the flair and set it up for either a three-point or a wheeler. It does them both really well. It has a very gentle stall, which happens around 55mph, so as soon as it touches, it starts decelerating. I seldom use more than half of my 2,500ft home runway. When asked, I often tell people it’s like flying a 7,000lb Taylorcraft.”
What he doesn’t say is that a Pratt and Whitney R-1340 will never sound like a Continental A-65.
Although the Norseman is little known outside of Canada, in Red Lake, Ontario it is a celebrity. Self-described as an ‘end-of-the-road town’, Red Lake and the six small enclaves it encompasses date back to 1926, when bush planes began to connect such rural communities to the outside world. Post-war, the sound of a Norseman on floats transiting the town’s docking facilities was a signal that the outside world hadn’t forgotten Red Lake.
Although the Norseman has been mostly replaced by Beavers, Otters, and others of the new generation of bush planes, Red Lake still declares itself to be the ‘Norseman Capital of the World’ and has a festival in honour of Robert Noorduyn’s gift to the North Country. Where most communities have a statue of a gallant soldier in the town square, Red Lake has a Norseman, CF-DRD, on a modernistic pedestal overlooking the lake on which it often landed. Unfortunately, a major hail storm pummelled the town in 2017 severely damaging the fabric on CF-DRD allowing the elements to do their thing to the interior and structure. They’ve mounted a fund-raising campaign to save their town icon, and they’re close to hitting their target.
Click here if you’d like to know more and help them with a donation.
|Max speed (Vne)||155mph (249km/h, 135kn) landplane; 138mph (120kn; 222km/h) (skis); 134mph (116kn; 216km/h) (floats)|
|Cruise speed||130mph (210km/h, 110kn) KTAS @ 10,000ft (3,000m)|
|Landing speed||68mph (109km/h, 59kn)|
|Range||932 miles (1,500km, 810nm) @ 10,000ft (3,000m)|
|Service Ceiling||17,000ft (5,200m)|
|Rate of climb||591ft/min (3.00m/s) at 100mph (87kn; 161km/h)|
|Wing Loading||22.8lb/sq ft (111kg/m2)|
|Maximum||Flaps extended (Vfe): 108 miles|
|Wingspan||51ft 6in (15.70m)|
|Wing area||325 sq ft (30.2 m2)|
|Length||32ft 4in (9.86m)|
|Height||10ft 1in (3.07m)|
|Max take-off||7,400lb (3,357kg), 7,540lb (3,420kg) with floats|
|Fuel capacity||100 imp gal (120 US gal) in two wing roots + optional 37.4 imp gal (44.9 US gal) Front and 64 imp gal.(77 US gal) rear belly tanks|
|Engine||One × Pratt & Whitney R-1340-AN1, nine-cylinder air-cooled radial piston engine|
|Max power||600hp (450kW)|
|Propeller||Hamilton Standard, three-blade, constant speed. 9ft (2.8m) diameter|