Built to defend Norway’s fjords, the N-3PB ended up flying maritime missions out of Iceland after the Nazi invasion.
The Northrop Aircraft Company is best known today for its radical flying wing designs, including the B-35 and B-49 bombers of the late 1940s as well as the U.S. Air Force’s current cutting-edge B-2 stealth bomber. Many may also recall Northrop’s night fighter designs, the P-61 Black Widow and F-89 Scorpion. But the firm’s first production design is almost forgotten, even though the N-3PB floatplane upheld in every way John K. Northrop’s reputation for producing well-designed, high-quality aircraft. The few N-3PBs built served for more than two years during World War II. Now the last existing example, meticulously restored, has pride of place in a Norwegian museum.
Jack Northrop began his aviation career in 1916, working as chief engineer for Loughhead Aircraft (later restyled “Lockheed”). In 1923 he went to work designing airplanes for Donald Douglas. Over the next 16 years Northrop worked alternately for Lockheed, Avion, United Aircraft and Douglas. Among the first to utilize the new monocoque aircraft structures and aluminum stressed skin, Northrop designed some of the era’s outstanding aircraft, including the Lockheed Vega, the Northrop Gamma and the precursors of the Douglas SBD Dauntless. In 1939 Northrop was employed as a subsidiary designer for Douglas. Lacking the freedom to pursue a pet project he’d been working on since 1928—an all-wing airplane—he finally struck out on his own, establishing the Northrop Aircraft Company at Hawthorn, Calif.
The first product of the new company was to be far more conventional than a flying wing. With the world headed for war, many of the less powerful countries had begun clamoring for modern military aircraft, and the still-neutral United States was seen as a prime source. Among those nervous neutral nations was Norway.
In 1940 Norway was a large country with a relatively small population—just 3 million. Its long coastline, indented with large, deep fjords, was perilously vulnerable to invasion. Not surprisingly, Norwegians were convinced that the best type of aircraft for their operational requirements was a patrol seaplane.
Since 1932, the principal Norwegian military aircraft had been the Norwegian-designed and -built Marinens Flyvebaatfabrikk MF.11, a single-engine, three-place float biplane, but by 1940 it was patently obsolescent. Eager to replace its aging fleet of M.F.11s, on March 12, 1940, the Norwegian government contracted with Northrop to build 24 seagoing patrol bombers.
Despite the fact that his company had never produced a floatplane, Northrop designed and built the Norwegian prototype in less than eight months. It flew for the first time on November 1. Meanwhile, however, Germany invaded Norway on April 9, and fully occupied the country by the end of June.
Northrop’s N-3PB patrol bomber was a three-place, all-metal, low-wing monoplane powered by a single 1,200-hp Wright R-1830 Cyclone engine. Armament consisted of four wing-mounted .30-caliber machine guns, a flexible gun in the rear cockpit and an additional weapon positioned to fire through a trap door under the tail. Northrop took great care to reduce drag as much as possible, including mounting the bulky floats on streamlined single-pillar pylons that had no additional bracing struts or wires. Up to 2,000 pounds of bombs, depth charges or even a torpedo could be carried under the wing center section between the floats.
After the invasion, King Haakon VII and his government fled to Britain, establishing a government in exile. Other Norwegians who escaped went to Canada, where they trained as pilots, aircrew and ground personnel for the resurrected Royal Norwegian Air Force (RNAF). As Northrop completed the N-3PBs, it sent them to Canada to equip the newly formed No. 330 Squadron. Although established and operated under the direction of Britain’s Royal Air Force, the squadron was wholly manned by Norwegians.
In May 1941, No. 330 Squadron deployed to Iceland. Its 18 N-3PBs operated out of three different bases there, flying maritime patrol, antisubmarine and convoy escort missions from June 1941 through December 1943.
Given Iceland’s strategic mid-oceanic location, both Britain and Germany recognized that whoever controlled the island nation also controlled the North Atlantic shipping lanes. Although Iceland was nominally neutral, at the beginning of WWII it maintained close political ties with Denmark. Consequently, after the Germans invaded Denmark the British became concerned that the island might also fall to the enemy and become a new base for U-boats and bombers. To preempt such a move, British military forces occupied Iceland on May 10, 1940. It remained under Allied occupation for the remainder of the war, playing host to a variety of RAF and U.S. Navy antisubmarine warfare patrol units, including 330 Squadron.
The Iceland-based maritime patrol units got few opportunities to engage enemy aircraft, bomb surface targets or attack subs. Theirs was a war of long over-water flights in bad weather, and grueling maintenance performed under primitive conditions. But the presence of their planes, especially above a convoy, often served to keep U-boats and Focke-Wulf Fw-200C patrol bombers at bay.
In December 1943, 330 Squadron was withdrawn to Scotland, where its worn-out Northrops were replaced by Short Sunderlands. The unit flew maritime patrol missions until war’s end, and is still an active component of the RNAF, currently operating as an air-sea rescue squadron equipped with Westland Sea King helicopters.
On April 21, 1943, as Wsewolod Bulukin was ferrying N-3PB no. 320 (GS-U) from 330 Squadron’s satellite base at Budareiry to its main base at Reykjavik, the floatplane was caught in a heavy snow shower that forced it down into a glacial river. The aircraft sank, but Bulukin and radio operator Leif Rustad managed to swim ashore and eventually made their way back to base. The wreckage lay on the bottom of the river until it was discovered in 1979 and salvaged through the efforts of a team of Icelandic, Norwegian, British and American volunteers.
The aircraft was returned to its place of origin, Northrop’s Hawthorne factory. After a year of voluntary work by the Western Museum of Flight’s staff, the only remaining N-3PB was rolled out on November 10, 1980, restored to its 1943 appearance. The plane was presented to the Norwegian Armed Forces Museum at Gardermoen Airport, where it now occupies a place of honor. En route to Norway, the floatplane was displayed in Reykjavik, its former Icelandic home base.
In 2003 the wreckage of another Northrop N-3PB was discovered in the waters off Reykjavik. That aircraft may yet be recovered as well.
This article originally appeared in the January 2011 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.