N44972 is owned by Greg Alder and and currently has “project” status – Greg says that he is working on the aircraft regularly.
The aircraft has an interesting history that links into the development of aerial firefighting out of Willow, CA.
Shortly after WWII the aircraft was purchased by Tex Rankin, the famous 1930s airshow performer and barnstormer. Some years later she became part of one of the earliest aerial firebombing initiatives.
The aerial firebombing operation was initiated by Joe Ely, the fire control officer at Mendicino National Forest in Willows, California. In 1955 he went to Floyd Nolta and asked him to modify an aircraft for firebombing. Floyd designed a rapid dump valve for the sprayer’s tank. The test aircraft was a Stearman, and the results were promising. In 1956 records indicate that (6) additional aircraft were added to the program, including multiple N3Ns. Harold Hendrickson was one of the pilots in that 1956 season, he is the father of Gary Hendrickson. Gary is a leading figure in California N3N restoration.
We presume that -972 was probably added to the fleet in 1957 and became Fire “14”. The N3N service was short lived, as larger, more capable aircraft were added and displaced the original biplanes. The 4 engine Douglas DC-7 (among others) were put into service. By around 1959-1960 the biplanes were no longer used for firefighting.
Here are links to (3) resources about the Willows firebombing effort.
– Fire in the Forest: A History of Forest Fire Control on the National Forests (Robert Cermak): Willows Air Tanker 1955
– A tribute to Floyd Nolta and the Willows Squadron: http://earlyaviators.com/enolta7.htm
– A 2005 celebration of the 50th anniversary of the squadron: http://www.chicoer.com/local_news/ci_2941694
Here is a picture of -972 shortly after she had left firefighting behind but still carried the Fire “14” on the tail. A spray rig is visible in this photo which tells us that she is no longer a firefighter.
In her later years of ag use in Idaho she was know as the Green Beast and is pictured below with a -1340 out front:
In 2006 she was sold from Gene Frank’s estate in Caldwell, Idaho. At that time they fired her up and cycled the prop – claiming that she would be “ferryable”, but she never left Idaho. Greg gave her a home and is actively restoring the aircraft.