Trip back in time

WINTERSVILLE – The sound of three radial airplane engines did its own announcing to begin attracting people to see the 84-year-old Ford Tri-Motor at the Jefferson County Air Park.

Visitors waiting for Monday’s first flight of the flying artifact brought to the airport by the Experimental Aircraft Association said they heard it fly over on its way to the airport Sunday night. Memories of the ferry service to Kelleys Island were on the minds of some.

Tom Novacek of Wintersville said he was interested in the plane because it was the first commercial airliner in regular service.

“Surprisingly they lasted this long,” he said. “The last time I saw one of these fly was quite some years ago, at Kelleys Island off Sandusky, where they were running ferry service there.”

Tom McGirty said the Tri-Motor flight was a “bucket list” item for him, again because of the Kelley’s Island Tri-Motor ferry.

McGirty said he used to fly his own plane out of Wintersville in the 1960s and 1970s and once saw the Tri-Motor below his plane on a flight to Put-In-Bay.

“I looked down and there was a nice sailboat race going on and my wife wanted to get some pictures. But skimming across the water was the Ford Tri-Motor out of Port Clinton. I was getting ready to get into the pattern to land, but the pilot said, ‘Let me land first.’ It was the smaller Tri-Motor model from this one and it only has nine seats in it, and he must have had about 12 people in it,” McGirty recalled with a smile. “I let him land and I landed and we walked down and it was sitting there and the pilot said thanks.”

The pilot let his children look around inside the plane and McGirty said he told his family he would take them on the Tri-Motor over to Put-In-Bay and tour.

McGirty was a bit disappointed because he wanted to fly in the co-pilot’s seat. EAA information on the Tri-Motor tours say co-pilot seats are available as an on-site decision during the plane’s tour stops. The plane at Jefferson County is a 5-AT model, a heavier and more powerful Tri-Motor that requires a certified co-pilot in the right seat, so tickets for that experience are not available.

But there are seats available for flights from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. today and Wednesday.

Co-piloting with Capt. Cody Welch on Monday was Bill Thacker, a United Airlines pilot. Welch is a retired Northwest pilot.

To fly the Tri-Motor is an experience in time travel. Passengers sit upright in small single seats aligned on either side of a narrow aisle that goes uphill as one boards because of the plane resting on its tail wheel, nose up in the air.

The cabin is not tall, either, with the fat central wing spar cutting across the ceiling.

Once seated, however, there is more leg room than in many modern airliners.

Don’t look for overhead map lights and an air conditioning vent. There’s no climate control other than Mother Nature.

For fresh air, push out and rotate a little vent cut right into the big Plexiglas picture windows, one window and one vent per seat.

The pilots sit on a raised platform high in the nose, behind the center engine. In an era where pilots are mysterious figures behind locked doors on commercial airline flights, Welch and Thacker are easy to watch as they work, right up there at the end of the passenger aisle.

As the engines start, one by one, the plane shakes a little, gets a bit noisy but not uncomfortably so, and gets airborne about halfway down the airport’s 4,600-foot runway.

The tour flight stays low and slow and comfortable, the fat wing keeping the plane smooth and stable even in moderately choppy air, Welch explained. It’s easy to understand why many Tri-Motors became tourist charter planes, including at the Grand Canyon, after they were retired from front-line airline service with the advent of the Douglas DC-3 in the mid-1930s.

After the flight (see Pablog on today for more about the tour), a lone Model A, like the plane a 1929 product of Henry Ford’s empire, snuggled up under the wing. Owner Terry Zavacki, decked out in a period-correct pinstriped suit and tie, and Jayne Zavacki, in a dress that also would have been fine in the early 1930s, stood by their car for photos.

Zavacki said he plans to come out Wednesday for a ride in the plane, but wanted to take advantage of getting pictures of his 1929 Ford with the 1929 airliner.