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From workhorse to flying museum piece

April 26, 2013 - Paul Giannamore
The heyday of the Ford Tri-Motor ran only from the late 1920s into the early 1930s, when it was replaced by and large by the more modern Douglas DC-3 as the main airliner of the growing major air carriers in the United States. But the Tri-Motor continued to be a workhorse. In Ohio, for instance, Tri-Motor flights were regularly scheduled from Port Clinton to Put-In-Bay, South Bass Island in Lake Erie. The Tri-Motor was a daily transportation device, as well as a tourist attraction. It served as a schoolbus for the island’s children. Island Airlines retired its regular Tri-Motor flights in the mid-1980s, and one is being restored with Island livery at the LIberty Aviation Museum in Port Clinton (3515 E. State Road, Port Clinton, if you’re inclined to go visit and see the project. Also visit You might also like the replica PT boat.) A Tri-Motor was one of the chief Grand Canyon Airlines tour planes for years. One is still in possession of Grand Canyon Airways, but it’s mostly a ground display now. Over the years, the planes became workhorses for freight, for smoke jumpers and firefighting efforts, and yes, as a drug smuggler. Something about those rugged Fords that makes criminals comfortable (noted 1930s robber Clyde Barrow allegedly thanked Henry Ford for his fantastic, powerful and reliable getaway car). According to various sources, there are 18 of the 199 Tri-Motors still in existence. About five are current restoration projects, five more are museum pieces and the other eight remain in flying condition. The Experimental Aircraft Association’s Tri-Motor was even a movie star, having been in a Jerry Lewis film (“The Family Jewels”). Tri-Motors also appeared in “The Untouchables,” and in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” The aircraft coming to Wintersville at the Jefferson County Airpark June 3-5 is from the Kalamazoo Air Zoo, which, from its website ( sounds a lot like a fun, interactive science center and museum dedicated to flight. The aircraft takes part in summer tours with the EAA’s Tri-Motor, allowing twice as many places to enjoy the flight into the past every summer. The Air Zoo’s Tri-Motor served as an air freighter and mail plane after her birth in 1929. She’s one of a later generation, slightly larger and slightly more powerful version of the Tin Goose. Eventually, it flew for Northwest Airways as a regular on the MInneapolis/St. Paul to Chicago route, the Air Zoo says. It flew out to Seattle eventually, was based in Fairbanks, Alaska, as part of what later became Alaska Airlines, then headed to Monroe, Mich., in 1945 for a full overhaul. It became a barnstormer, a scenic tour flyer at the Grand Canyon, a smokejumping firefighting plane, and it did a turn on the Arthur Godfrey TV show during the 30th anniversary of Northwest Airlines. Eventually, it was purchased by Kal-Aero of Kalamazoo, restored and put back to flying status in 1991. It was purchased and then donated to the Air Zoo, which flew it until it needed overhauled. It has been overhauled and is flying again. She’s N4819, for aircraft buffs, and has serial number 58. Donations are needed to help cover the $3,000 cost of the Tri-Motor’s stay at Jefferson County. If you’re an aviation buff, an airport lover, or just somebody who loves seeing really cool stuff happen in Jefferson County, donations may be made to The Experimental Aircraft Association via EAA Chapter 859, c/o David Tulenko, president, 544 N. 10th St., Weirton, WV 26062. Volunteers also are needed for the aircraft’s stay here. Contact the EAA chapter at the airport.


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