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The garage plane 

Can a WWII relic fly again?

Your average garage is filled with yard equipment, tangled boxes of old Christmas lights, and the occasional car. Chris Giese’s garage is stuffed with the disassembled remnants of a World War II-era biplane.

And someday he’s going to fly it—at least that’s the idea.

- DA PLANE, DA PLANE! :  It may not look like much now, but Chris Giese plans to get this World War II biplane out of his garage and in the air. -  - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • DA PLANE, DA PLANE! : It may not look like much now, but Chris Giese plans to get this World War II biplane out of his garage and in the air.

What he has now could only get airborne if it were launched from a catapult. The fuselage is one of the few things still recognizable as a plane. It’s been stripped naked while Giese inventories the parts he has and the parts he needs. The parts making up the landing gear have been unbolted from the frame and sit tucked in the corner of the garage.

A dry musk hangs in the air from Giese’s bead blaster and there’s a fine layer of dust on the floor that gets kicked up with each step. It took Giese about a month to blast all the old paint from the frame. Using a composite of mostly crushed walnut shells, he slowly stripped years’ worth of build-up, a project he had thought would only take a day or two. Protective plastic sheets hang over an assortment of garage junk that has been pushed against the wall and onto shelves to make way for the monster project.

The wings have been removed and are leaned against his workbench. Next to them he keeps a large cardboard box filled with a snarled bunch of old wires, cables, and other unidentifiable aviation gadgets.

Considering that the plane has been completely gutted, everything is well organized. Giese said he has a good idea of what parts have been lost over the years and he knows where to track most of them down.

Giese is a 31-year-old project executive for a construction firm, Gilbane Building Company, and an avid pilot. Although Giese started flying before he could drive a car—his parents had to drive him to and from his first solo flight—when it comes to building a plane, he’s really flying by the seat of his pants. He’s never rebuilt a plane before, but he’s learning as he goes.

So far he’s been able to track down missing vintage parts via an online sub-culture of plane enthusiasts who patrol cyberspace to sell and buy parts. He’s got an engine waiting in Phoenix, but laments over the stock fire extinguisher that he doubts will ever turn up.

To get the plane sky worthy under Federal Aviation Administration standards Giese needs to enlist a certified A&P mechanic (airframe and power plant), but he said he wants to keep the plane and its construction as close to home as possible.

Giese has always wanted to build a plane, he said. He found his Navy N3N-3 by “dumb luck” in a hanger in San Diego in June. More to the point, the wings were in a hanger, the fuselage was in a patch of dirt next to the hanger.

“Unfortunately, this thing had been torn up pretty good,” he said.

The Navy began manufacturing N3Ns before the U.S. entered World War II. They were the last biplanes put into military service. They’re big and, more importantly, stable, which made them great for training young pilots.

Giese’s plane is about as Frankenstein as it gets. N3Ns were constructed from old surplus blimp parts. The Navy retired the plane in the early 1960s, but Giese’s plane was later retrofitted as a crop duster.

It was this late stint that has made rebuilding the plane to its original specs the most difficult, he said. The crop-duster retrofit was also the reason Giese is without the previously mentioned fire extinguisher, so he’ll have to settle for a more modern one.

The N3N-3 wasn’t Giese’s first choice, he said. His original plan was to buy a more practical hobby plane such as a single-engine Cessna, but the World War II relic struck a chord.

“Essentially I’ve got an old airplane that will be brand new,” he said.

So Giese bought the plane, loaded it onto a flatbed truck, and drove it from San Diego to his home in San Luis Obispo.

Giese is soft-spoken, but it’s easy to notice the excitement poking through his otherwise reserved demeanor when he explains the ins and outs of his project. His wife of three years, Laura, seems slightly less excited.

“I think I was a little bit disappointed we weren’t even getting a plane that flew,” she said.

“This isn’t really her gig,” Giese ex-plained. “But she’s been supportive. She understands that this is my passion.”

It will be another two or three years before Giese thinks his plane will fly again. When it does, Giese will be flying a plane nearly identical to the type that once prepared young pilots to ship off to the largest war.

“There’s a lot of history to them,” he said. “At this point it’s just my toy.” ]

Staff writer Colin Rigley can be reached at [email protected]


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