Travel into the past

WINTERSVILLE – “Jefferson County, Tri-Motor 8419, we’re about 8 miles out.”

With that radio call from pilot Cody Welch, the Ford Tri-Motor on loan from the Kalamazoo Air Zoo to the Experimental Aircraft Association began its visit to the Jefferson County Air Park, where rides will be offered to visitors today through Wednesday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

As the 84-year-old soared over the airport, the rumble of its three radial engines, which hang out in the open air for cooling, grew. As it landed with the screech of balloon tires on asphalt, the classic airliner sound, the three motors settled into a sound like a marching band full of bass drums echoing off the front of the hangars.

Welch retired after a 25-year career flying jet airliners for Northwest Airlines, the last being the big Boeing 757. Bystanders remarked as volunteers from the airport and EAA Chapter 859, which is hosting the Tri-Motor visit, that the plane was much smaller than they expected. The aircraft, which Welsh emphasizes was the foundation of the airline industry in the United States, seats 10 passengers and two pilots. It’s painted as a U.S. Army C-4 military transport, though N-8419 was originally used by the Ford Motor Co. to ferry parts, then as an airliner for Northwest, servicing an area stretching from Chicago to Spokane and Seattle. It later moved on to serve for what became Alaska Airlines, as well as doing other service, including work as a smoke jumper for firefighting before falling into disrepair. It has been flying since a restoration in 1991.

It is one of just four of the 199 Tri-Motors built between 1925 and 1933 still flying. The EAA also has its own Tri-Motor on tour for the summer.

Part of that is continuous maintenance and inspection. Welch and the local volunteers removed crates of spare parts from the cabin. Welch said the plane is maintained in the field and checked constantly.

Earl Muenze of Chapter 859 said the chapter has been working toward having the plane come for a visit for a number of years.

“It is the plane that essentially started the airline business in this country,” he said. “It is with great pleasure that we have a place now that can house this aircraft in our new hangars. It means a lot for not only us in the aviation community but historically for the valley and the citizens of the area.”

He said there is no better way to look the area than from the seat of a Tri-Motor, where every passenger has a window seat and can pick out where they live and where they work as the plane progresses low and slow on one of its tour flights.

He said the chapter had some success at raising funds, but the cost of the visit will depend on the number of people who turn out for a ride.

“To take a ride in an antique that you will remember for the rest of your life, and for the kids to get to do something like this, I think it will be a great time,’ he said.

A typical Tri-Motor airline flight, Welch said, would have included a flight attendant, and a well-dressed group of passengers, the men in three-piece suits and the women in dresses and hats for all.

“It was the luxury. it was the first airliner, so you have this image. The people who rode first class on the train, that’s what we had here. It was a very exclusive thing to be able to do, to fly, instead of riding in a Ford Model A over rutted roads. The airplane made sense,” he said. “Henry Ford had a vision of making flying affordable for the masses, that everybody would be flying in an airplane and taking it for granted. Of course, that vision has proven to be pretty wise. He had a good crystal ball.”

Welch has been flying Tri-Motors for 21 years and mixed flying antique planes with his professional aviation career. Retirement from commercial aviation has allowed him more time to spend with the Tri-Motor. His fellow Tri-Motor pilot on the visit is an active United Airlines pilot.

“It’s a trip back in time. We always draw a crowd,” he said.

It’s such a piece of history that it can confuse young air traffic controllers.

“They’ll ask, ‘What’s a Tri-Motor,’ and we’ll have to explain. And then they’ll ask, ‘What’s your speed?’ And we tell them 80 or 90 knots (about 92 to 102 mph) and they’re just blown away,” he said. “But that’s what we have here, it’s an antique airplane. And it’s flying in an era when it wasn’t anticipated it would still be flying. But they’re going to outlast all these airliners. The last 787 that goes to the boneyard, the crew is going to come back in a Ford Tri-Motor.”

But if it’s winter, that crew might want to wait. There’s no heat in the cabin of the pioneering airliner, and when it’s cold outside, it’s cold inside, Welch explained.

The 787 cruises at about 560 mph (or about 486 knots).

Compared with today’s sleek jets, the Tri-Motor doesn’t look aerodynamic, with its round piston engines hanging out in the breeze, its corrugated skin looking as much like an old steel mill building as an airplane. Indeed, Welch said as a boy, he built every model airplane they had in the local five-and-dime.

“The only thing left was a Tri-Motor and I remember building the airplane and thinking, “Boy am I glad I was born too late to fly this.’ It wasn’t pretty. But now I lust after the opportunities to fly the airplane because it is so meaningful and it’s really a pleasure to fly it.”

Tickets for a tour flight are $75 for adults and $50 for children 17 and under. Limited availability copilot seating tickets may be purchased for $125.

(Giannamore may be followed on Twitter @PGiannamoreHS and may be reached at