A couple of weekends ago, I got to take a short flight aboard not just an old plane, but a piece of history. At the humongous EAA AirVenture Oshkosh airshow that I keep talking about, I got to ride along in a Ford Tri-Motor as it flew above the grounds and over a lake. It was an experience that was unlike anything else, and I’m pretty sure that I lost some hearing, too.
I closed out July by crossing an event off of my bucket list. EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2022 was a celebration of all things aviation, and I happily wore myself out walking mile after mile to see more planes. Before I even set foot into the incredible campground, one of my goals was to go up in one of the planes at the show. For years, AirVenture visitors could buy a ticket to a short, but unique flight aboard a Ford Tri-Motor. I decided that I wasn’t going to leave Wisconsin without experiencing it for myself. But why was I so set on riding in a plane just a few years from its 100-year birthday?
The Iconic Tri-Motor Began With A Man Named Stout
The Experimental Aircraft Association–the organization supporting aviation all over the world and host of AirVenture–works to preserve the history of the Ford Tri-Motor. The Tri-Motor is often regarded as the first American mass-production commercial airliner and one of the first all-metal planes. EAA goes even further, saying the Tri-Motor redefined world travel. Its corrugated metal construction remains a striking look even today.
According to an archived piece by the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, the Tri-Motor’s story didn’t start with Henry Ford, but with engineer William B. Stout. And technically, the story goes even further back than that. Stout’s aircraft designs followed the ideas of Professor Hugo Junkers, a German aviation pioneer credited with building the world’s first all-metal transport plane–the F 13–in 1919. Junkers’ all-metal F 13 was such a hit that 322 of them were built over thirteen years.
The Stout Metal Airplane Company was founded in 1922. When Stout wanted to sell his designs, he found a creative way to do it; from the Smithsonian:
Stout, a bold and imaginative salesman, sent a mimeographed form letter to leading manufacturers, blithely asking for $1,000 and adding: ‘For your one thousand dollars you will get one definite promise: You will never get your money back.
Stout managed to raise $20,000 ($350,663 in today’s money), including $2,000 total from Henry and Edsel Ford. The Fords had a long interest in aviation from the plane built for Edsel and friend Charles Van Auken to aircraft engine production in World War I. As EAA notes, Ford recognized the potential for air transportation in the post-WWI world. That initial investment eventually grew into the Ford Motor Company completely buying out Stout Metal Airplane in 1925 for $1 million ($17,533,195 today). EAA notes that when Ford bought Stout, the man himself said:
“The first thing that must be done with aerial navigation is make it fool-proof . . . What the Ford Motor Company means to do is prove whether commercial flying can be done safely and profitably.”
The Association notes that Ford had never flown in a plane and had no intention to. But he believed that he could solve problems in aviation with engineering. It took until 1927 for Ford to fly when Charles Lindbergh took him for a ride in the Spirit of St. Louis.
As Hagerty writes, Ford opened an air mail service in 1925 with the idea of testing aviation tech before putting passengers in planes. What Ford and Stout learned is that their existing aircraft, the Stout 2-AT, wasn’t adequate for the job.
Stout Improves On Its Design
They agreed that their next plane needed more speed and greater endurance. And they would do it with more engines. Stout started designing the new aircraft using the 2-AT as a template.
The resulting aircraft, known as the 3-AT today, used three Wright J-4 Whirlwind nine-cylinder radial engines making 200 horses each. Unfortunately, it proved to be a cumbersome airplane. The engine configuration meant that the aircraft couldn’t do power-off landings and it was underpowered. A factory fire in January 1926 destroyed the 3-AT and a few 2-ATs, requiring Ford to start over. This time, Ford reassigned Stout away from engineering duties.
Engineers wasted no time on designing a new aircraft, and soon the Ford 4-AT Tri-Motor was born. This new plane ditched the bulbous design of the 3-AT for something that looked like a sibling of the Fokker F.VII. It also still used a wing design similar to Junkers’. These very first Tri-Motors featured a triplet of the same engines found in the 3-AT with seating for eight.
Ford would end up building 199 Tri-Motors between 1926 and 1933. Along the way there would be variations of the aircraft from enlarged models with more power and more seats, an increased-weight version, and even a few floatplanes.
Transcontinental Air Transport–one of the predecessor companies to Trans World Airlines–formed in 1928 and flew the Tri-Motor as part of a coast-to-coast transportation operation.
But the planes weren’t really flying the whole distance. As EAA explained at the event, passengers would first board a train in New York, then ride it through the night. By day, they would board a Tri-Motor, then fly until nightfall. They would again board a train for the night, before hopping onboard a Tri-Motor again for the final leg to California.
The Tri-Motor Was Legendary During Its Time
Pan American Airways also flew the Tri-Motor, taking the planes to international destinations in Cuba, Central America, and South America. The Tri-Motor grew to be famous for its reliability and strength, in part because of the headlines involving the aircraft.
Former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt flew aboard a Tri-Motor during his 1932 presidential campaign. One Tri-Motor was especially popular for its reported firsts. Tri-Motor Serial No. 10 made the first commercial flight to Mexico City from the States. Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart reportedly flew that plane and it’s said to have even made the first commercial flight over the Canadian Rockies. Another Tri-Motor was reportedly the first to fly over the geographic South Pole. The list goes on.
“It kind of waddles when it’s out on the runway; looks like a big old goose. But, it’s made out of tin,” Dave Hirt of the Experimental Aircraft Association said.
The book, The Ford Story: A Pictorial History of the Ford Tri-Motor, describes that not everyone was happy with the Tri-Motor. When Ford tried to export the model to Europe, Junkers sued, alleging that Ford infringed upon his patent for wings with a corrugated skin.
Junkers won, but Ford wasn’t going down without a fight. Ford filed a countersuit, and lost a second time. The book notes that Junkers wasn’t going to pursue further action so long as Ford kept the plane out of Europe.
Today, EAA says that just 18 Tri-Motors are known to exist, of which only eight are airworthy. One of them is Tri-Motor serial No. 8, registration N9645. That’s the one that I got to ride in.
The Tri-Motor At The Air Show
This Tri-Motor is a 5-AT-B, an enlarged design from the original. It has the same 49-foot, 10-inch length, but wingspan increases from 74 feet to 77 feet, 10 inches. It also has more power than the earlier 4-ATs, coming with a trio of Pratt & Whitney R-985 radials making 450 HP each.
On the ground, this Tri-Motor made a distinctive noise. No matter where you were at AirVenture you could hear the Tri-Motor sing when it took off. Even the airshow announcers couldn’t ignore the triple radial Tri-Motor soundtrack.
Up close, the prop wash made for the best cooling that I had from the heat all weekend. And at idle speeds the engines weren’t that loud.
This aircraft made its first flight on December 1, 1928, then was sold to TAT. Like a ship, the plane was named for where it was based, and thus it got the name City of Wichita. It entered service in July of the next year. I’ll let EAA pick it up from there:
In April 1931, ownership of the aircraft was transferred to Transcontinental and Western Air (TWA). Here the aircraft helped in the development of TWA’s route system.
In July 1935, NC9645 was sold to G. Ruckstill and entered the fleet at Grand Canyon Airlines. From there the Tin Goose was sold to Boulder Dam Tours in February 1937, where it entered sightseeing air tour service.
The Ford was registered AN-AAS with Transportes Aereos del Continente Americano (simply known as TACA Airlines) in Honduras in December 1937, where it stayed until 1942 when purchased by an unknown operator in Compeche, Mexico, and was reregistered as XA-FUB. The registration changed again in 1950 to XA-NET while under the ownership of another individual in Compeche.
1951 brought major overhaul and repairs for No. 8, including removal of the aircraft’s corrugated skin, which was replaced with flat sheet metal. This change earned the aircraft nickname “the smooth-skin Ford.”
The Tri-Motor was sold to another private owner in July 1953 and was damaged in an accident in January 1954, after which it was put in storage.
Eugene Frank of Caldwell, Idaho, acquired the aircraft in 1955, moving it back to the U.S. and reregistering it as N58996. It remained in storage until July 1964, when it was purchased by Nevada’s William F. Harrah of Harrah’s Hotel and Casinos. Harrah returned the plane’s registration to NC9645 and began an extensive seven-year renovation, bringing the aircraft back to airworthy status and restoring the corrugated skin. The former smooth-skin Ford had its first post-restoration flight in 1971 and flew in Reno several times before being moved to static display as part of Harrah’s impressive automobile collection. After Harrah’s death, parts of his collection, including NC9645, were auctioned off in June 1986 to high bidder Gary Norton of Athol, Idaho.
In February 1990, the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon, acquired the aircraft. It remained in storage there until 1996 when another restoration of the aircraft started, returning it to flying condition once again.
In 2014, the aircraft was acquired by Ed Patrick and the Liberty Aviation Museum in Port Clinton, Ohio. Volunteers ferried the aircraft across the country to its new home. After further maintenance to ensure the aircraft was tour-ready, Liberty entered into a lease agreement with EAA, working together to showcase the historic aircraft around the country.
If you are wondering, EAA says that this aircraft was $42,000, or $719,367 in today’s money.
My Experience Flying In The Tri-Motor
Boarding the Tri-Motor was in itself a different experience. You step up on a stool then duck so you don’t slam your head into the gorgeous metal fuselage. Once you’re inside you have a little more headroom, and you’re surrounded by wood, curtains, and the kind of lighting that you’d find in an old home.
I was expecting the interior to be about as cramped as a Cessna 172. But I actually had a lot of room in there. The seating was set up for ten passengers and everyone gets a big window to look out of, decent legroom, and a pretty comfy chair.
Forget a CRJ900, can I take one of these on my next short hop?
Within a few minutes of everyone getting situated, the engines were fired up and we were taxiing towards the runway. Due to Sunday’s setup at Wittman Regional Airport, the Tri-Motor actually rolled right onto Runway 18 then off into the grass. I never quite figured out what was going on, but we instead took off from the taxiway.
With the engines throttled up, I began to wonder how people flew on these things without going deaf.
To call the noise inside of the cabin loud would be an understatement. I stood near widebody jets as they took off that weekend. Not even they pierced my ears like the Tri-Motor did. You could not hold a conversation with the person sitting next to you, and everything made a noise. Windows vibrated against their frames, the wood creaked, and there were random metallic sounds.
If you can get past the noise, you’ll notice something neat. The pilots control the aircraft using wooden wheels that look ripped out of a car. Those wheels drive cables and depending on where you are you can actually see those cables out of your window.
I specifically chose a seat with a full view of one of the engines. Check this gorgeous machine out:
The Tri-Motor flight was short–just 15 minutes–but it was a great one. This is an aircraft that, while loud, flies with grace. And heartwarming was the fact that the pilot had a smile on his face. He was flying that thing all day, and it sure looked like he was having a ball doing it. The pilot’s landing is also one of the best I’ve ever experienced. That plane’s wheels touched the ground so gently it took me a moment to realize that we’ve landed.
Hopping out, I was able to get this picture snapped of me. The Tri-Motor had such a quick turnaround that day that the pilot often only shut down the right-side engine. But the wash from the remaining engines were enough to blow my hair.
In the 1930s, more modern airliners appeared on the scene and larger airlines flocked to them. Yet, examples of the aircraft continued to fly for decades with small airlines, sightseeing companies, cargo lines, crop dusting companies, and the military. Funny enough, the Tri-Motor’s story didn’t end with Ford. The Tri-Motor’s design ended up back into the hands of Stout in 1954. It was developed into the Stout Bushmaster 2000. Just two were made, with one surviving example.
It took a good hour for my ears to recover from the sound. I’m not kidding, that plane was just about the loudest thing that wasn’t a fighter jet. And despite my possible hearing loss I had a grand time. I came out of the Tri-Motor with a new dream. One day I want to be in the pilot seat and fly something like this.