French Frigate Shoals--25th Anniversary

A Tribute to DC 3 N36
Dedicated to Harry J.Clark
Present owner, N36

Ursula Keuper-Bennett

As Turtle Trax continues to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of the sea turtle tagging programme at the French Frigate Shoals, we present this special tribute to a Douglas DC 3.
Bonus feature!
Hear the sound a DC 3 taxiing. (316K WAV) Unfortunately, it's not N36.


To learn the history of the US Coast Guard station at Tern Island, French Frigate Shoals, we sent email to "Coasties" who'd been assigned there. While visiting Jerry Lentz's French Frigate Shoals homepage, we saw references to and photos of an airplane known as "N36."

N36 made regular Friday flights to Tern Island, and worked this tour of duty for many years until her last journey in 1978. At Turtle Trax we are particularly interested in this plane because of her importance to the 25th Anniversary of the French Frigate Shoals sea turtle tagging programme.

George Balazs, the sea turtle researcher who initiated this successful tagging effort shared this information in email with us:

"I just went to my 1973 fieldnote book. I flew there for the first time on June 1, 1973. We set down on Tern Island at about 12:15 pm. I walked the Tern Island beach that night. No signs of turtle nesting observed."

What George doesn't say is he made the first flight in N36. It was clear this plane was special to him and further research indicated other French Frigate Shoals personnel recalled N36 with affection as well. Many saw her as their weekly connection to the outside world.

In a place as remote as the Shoals, her arrival was the Event of the Week!

Thus arises the inevitable question: what happened to N36?

In email dated Tuesday, April 7th, 1998, George Balazs answered:

Date: Tue, 7 Apr 1998 23:23:50 -1000 (HST)

Sits, wingless I believe, in a fenced area in the commercial area at Honolulu International.

So began a personal fascination, and eventually a vow to see N36.

I started by bringing a special puka shell lei from Canada. This lei was made up of shells we'd collected while in Hawaii, brought to Canada and kept there for years. The lei now made a return trip to the islands. I would present it to N36.

On Monday July 6th, I made a phone call to GENAVCO Corporation for permission to enter the compound where N36 presently rests.

Jim, the person who answered the phone, was puzzled that a Canadian visiting Maui would fly to Honolulu for a few hours just to visit an old airplane, but he assured me I was welcome to show up. And so on Tuesday, I flew to Honolulu, hired a taxi and arrived at the GENAVCO building. I could see N36 sitting nose up past the fence there.

After introducing myself to Jim, he pointed me to N36 and I made my way closer to the plane. Heart thumping and eyes filled with tears I walked straight up to her until I was directly underneath her great head. I looked up and there she was framed against the blue Hawaiian sky.

From this location I could not see her wingless state, just her propellers and proud nose.

I could not see her wingless state, just her propellers and proud nose.

I could almost believe she could fly. Then I heard loud sputtering and coughing coming from one of the other two DC 3's on the GENAVCO asphalt. The plane, in a red, white and blue paint scheme, had propellers spinning ambitiously and was spewing white smoke from her exhausts.

I went to have a closer look. She moved forward and as she did so, she blasted hot air, dust and sand bits in my face. It was terrific! She was taxiing down the runway but unfortunately I couldn't see where she was going. I returned my attention to N36, wishing it were her taking to the air.

But she sat silent, providing me with the shade I would be grateful for during the three hours I was with this plane. While she wore a coat of sun-faded flaking white, her N36 insignia was no longer visible anywhere, but this was indeed N36.

When I looked closely, I could make out the remnants of the circular FAA patch she displayed in her glory days near her pilot's window. By examining the right side of her tail section, I could make out the letters F A A. Only the last faded black A was still easily visible.

Only the last faded black A was still easily visible.

There were hints of her old paint job. Her tail had faded red showing through in patches. Underneath her right elevator, flaking paint clearly showed Arrest-Me- Red. Along her fuselage I could make out her former red striping, now covered by white primer but with hints still showing through.

I walked around the plane needing to inspect and experience everything. I remember thinking how big and small she was and marvelling how that made no sense at all.

I leaned against her left tail carefully adjusting my view so my eyes couldn't register that she had no wings. Against the drifting clouds and blue sky, I tried to imagine what it was like to fly in this airplane. All around was the constant roar of jets, most of them commercial but also some kick-ass military knifing through the air.

And this propeller plane seemed left behind.

Her tires were balding and semi-flat. While she provided me with shade on this hot day, she rested exposed to every kind of weather Hawaii had to offer. I wondered which was worse, the baking sun or the torrential rains Hawaii is sometimes subject to.

I looked at the pilot's window on the left side of N36 and my breath caught. This is where Tom Marquette photographed the Tern Island landing sequence on his tour of duty there in 1976. I studied that window a long time.

I looked at the pilot's window on the left side of N36 and my breath caught.

The door of N36 held special fascination. The handle and lock suggested this part of the plane was used regularly. I grabbed the handle but made no attempt to push up or down--just happy to grab the handle. It was warm and smooth and felt like it meant business.
I grabbed the handle but made no attempt to push up or down...

And then I understood why N36 could feel big and small to me at the same time. Big when you walk around her, big when you lean on her wings and spread your hands on her rough paint. Big as she soars in your imagination.

But hop inside that plane for a flight and have someone close that door on you and suddenly she must feel very small. I slowly inspected N36 three times all the way around in the few hours I was with her. Memorized every detail, her cables, gears, antennae, nuts, bolts and parts I haven't names for.

All her rivets... I wondered how many thousands go into a making of a DC 3.

Her red light at the top of her tail that I bet flashed on night flights.

And I wondered about her history. What did she do before she flew her French Frigate Shoals runs? How many Coasties and other personnel did she carry safely over the years? How many pilots had she outlasted?

A few months back, on May 29th George Balazs visited N36 on his own personal journey. I wondered what was going through his head and heart when he paid his respects that day. He had after all flown in her. This was the plane that took him to FFS on a June 1st flight back in 1973.

After seeing her again he wrote that she was "still dignified."

What he neglected to mention was that even wingless, even sitting with faded, chipping paint, this special DC 3 is also still beautiful.

...even wingless, even sitting with faded, chipping paint, this special DC 3 is also still beautiful.

I took the puka shell lei I'd brought from Canada, another shell lei that I thought was pretty, and an orchid lei I purchased the night before. I tied all three together with a white shoelace and attached my tribute to N36's left wheel section.

This is Turtle Trax's way to thank N36 for the role she played in the early days of Hawaiian sea turtle research. And I left her looking both big and small, and yes, "still dignified"--wingless, still sitting with faded, chipping paint but looking more beautiful than all the planes roaring overhead on that sun-baked Hawaiian day.

I stopped by GENAVCO's office to talk to the present owner of N36. His name is Harry and I was delighted to find out he flew duty to the French Frigate Shoals back in 1974. He showed me his photo album of those days and I felt warm seeing those familiar memories (this time his).

He said he would like to get N36 flying again--that his wife loves the plane and finds it beautiful. I told Harry his wife isn't the only person who feels that way about this grand DC 3. There's me and my husband, a whole pile of Coasties and this very special turtle guy at the Honolulu-based National Marine Fisheries Service.

Harry said he was looking to sell the plane. He said this kindly and reluctantly. I told him I hoped that whoever purchased N36 would understand just how special she is. Harry said he has her entire flight record--meticulous and impressive.

I believed him but simply couldn't have a look even if he'd offered. I know in those records I would find the entry for June 1st, 1973 when N36 landed at Tern and 25 years of uninterrupted tagging and research began. I decided to leave that piece of history to the imagination--at least for now.

Harry gave me his card--said it was a pleasure to meet someone who appreciated the old planes.

I gave him my thanks and requested he take care of N36.
I gave him my thanks and requested he take care of N36.

The Fate of N36

On May 28, we received word of the fate of N36. George Balazs, who often rode in N36 on her once-weekly flights to Tern Island, wrote to tell us that GENAVCO had finally sold what remained of the noble craft to Disney Productions for use in filming a movie about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (current title "Pearl Harbor", due for 2001 release). Sometime in mid-April, they blew her up during the filming.

Our first reaction was a pang of sorrow, as was George's, but in his note to us he also wrote:

"Better to go that way, to be on film forever for people to see (even though they won't know what they're seeing is N36; hey, we can tell them!), then to sit forever in sadness and disgrace (no wings no engines) at Harry's. Or, to go to a scrap yard, be ground up, and never be put on major movie film for history to have and to hold."

The only thing left of N36 now is the memories of the people who flew in her, and of course a few pictures such as those we feature here. She's gone now, but she had a long and distinguished career that would do any airplane proud. She can have no finer epitaph than the closing words of George's email:

"Aloha N36, we love you!"

Jerry Lentz's French Frigate Shoals pages contain a picture of N36 in her glory days.

Photo courtesy Lt. Jerry M. Lentz, US Coast Guard (Retired)

For a dramatic story featuring N36, see Joint Pacific Mission Of Mercy.

Jerry Lentz is developing pages documenting the aviation history of the French Frigate Shoals. Make sure to visit!

French Frigate Shoals--25th Anniversary

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Last modified 00/06/03
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