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Flying with feeling on a Tri-Motor

April 25, 2013 - Paul Giannamore
What I remember a lot about the Ford Tri-Motor on that flight a few years ago (you did read Pablog on April 24 to understand this is a little series about the airplane coming to the Jefferson County Airpark in June, right?) is the sensation of getting airborne.

I love riding in those modern little regional jet airliners, the kind most people complain about being cramped and uncomfortable. I think they’re cool. They look like business jets, meaning I get to at least think I’m J.R. Ewing before being crammed into one of the zillion seats shoved inside the little fuselage. (Ewing Energy airplanes for sure have fewer seats in them.)

I love that feeling of being launched when the pilot turns onto the runway and slaps the throttles forward and the seat envelops you as you’re thrust forward. I end up grinning like a kid who never flew before, every time. Nowadays, that probably makes me an object of suspicion to my fellow passengers and the on-board air marshal, but spontaneous feeling is hard to control. I like the feeling of speed.

The Ford Tri-Motor doesn’t do any of that hard acceleration stuff. It kind of picks up its hooped skirts and starts moving down the runway. And after a little while -- it gets airborne because of those big, fat wings -- the sensation of flight arises under your posterior.

And suddenly, it’s 1931. And after enjoying the sensation, you start to notice the art-deco touches, the little lamps along the walls, the way the whole thing seems built to satisfy passengers with what surely were luxurious surroundings in the early 1930s.

It didn’t entirely satisfy everyone.

Low and slow, the Tri-Motor also was notoriously noisy. There are tales of children whose ears bled from the noise. Passengers didn't always get off the aircraft refreshed and ready for a day of business deals. But aviation was new. There was no TSA, the FAA wasn't the FAA yet, and the "gate" was a door heading right out onto the tarmac. (Wheeling-Ohio County Airport still has one of the absolute best small-town airport terminals for reliving that feeling of early air travel. Kudos, Mr. Tominack, and here's to many more years of keeping that control tower.)

Airplanes didn’t have all-weather capabilities including radar, control towers, a host of navigation aides and enough fuel to fly from New York to Los Angeles.

More like from Wintersville to just about St. Louis if the winds are right.

But along the way, nine passengers had window seats and a chance to enjoy the countryside, while moving a lot faster than all those Ford Model T’s and A’s on the two-lane highways of the day. (Most spec sheets show the Tri-Motor can cruise in the mid-90s. You weren't doing that in a Model T until it became a hot rod in the 1940s.)

Ford indeed proved that reliable intercity air transportation was possible. And the Tri-Motor was the pioneer that, um, paved the way. (Surely there is a better way to put that, but you know what I mean.)

There was a demonstration flight trying to get people from New York to Los Angeles in 48 hours back in 1927. According to the Fantasy of Flight museum’s website, the passengers took a train from New York to Columbus overnight, boarded a Tri-Motor to fly all day, then switched back to a train in Kansas. In New Mexico, they hopped aboard another Tri-Motor and finished with a landing in Los Angeles, hopefully in under 48 hours.

Various celebrities of the day got involved in the demonstration flights, including aviation hero Charles Lindbergh, who successfully crossed the Atlantic aboard his single-engine “Spirit of St. Louis” in 1927. Think of how celebrities are promoting electric cars nowadays, only the stars were bigger and people actually were interested.

If all of this still hasn’t got you convinced to at least come see the Tri-Motor from the Kalamazoo Air Zoo June 3-5 at the Jefferson County Airpark, I’ll keep at it, with a bit about the life of some Tri-Motors, which continues long after they were front-line airliners.

Tomorrow, then.


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