Subscribe today to Plane & Pilot magazine for industry news, reviews and much more delivered straight to you!
It’d been a very long time since I paid for an airplane ride. Standing in line by the BUY YOUR TICKETS HERE sign, I took a self-conscious look over my shoulder. I’d flown a bunch of planes, many of which folks graciously paid me to fly, and I had mixed feelings about ponying up a goodly sum of cash for a trip around the pattern as a passenger. It was the Sun ‘n Fun fly-in years ago in Lakeland, Florida, Amy had joined me for her first fly-in camping experience after our wedding. She and I had sat in the campground, watching the corrugated Ford float over our tent, and my poker face is terrible. She gave me permission to buy a ticket before I finished asking – she’d known that question was coming long before I began to form the words.
Waiting to buy my ticket, I was startled to recognize the man in line behind me. Jim Kimball, of Jim Kimball Enterprises, manufacturers of the Pitts Model 12 and restorers of numerous award-winning antique and classic aircraft, stood with cash in his hand.
In such company, paying money for an airplane ride didn’t seem so terribly uncool.
Mister Jim was buying a ride for one of his employees, who’d grown up on an island in the Great Lakes. While her contemporaries on the mainland were riding to school in wheeled yellow boxes of corrugated metal, she rode to school in a corrugated metal vehicle with wings and three engines. The school bus from her childhood was the Ford Trimotor. He wanted to buy her a ride down memory lane on the EAA’s Trimotor. I got to join her.
There are plenty of arguments to make as to which design ushered in air travel as a viable means of transport across America. Many argue the DC-3 did the trick, others claim that air travel wasn’t really established before pressurized cabins, or even jet airliners graced the sky. There are many landmark designs that ushered in significant advances in air travel, so it becomes a rather subjective matter of choosing which advances appeal to the individual’s argument.
As an antique aircraft fan, though, I’m steadfastly in the Ford Trimotor camp. Before Ford’s “Tin Goose,” most airlines were actually airmail contractors who only begrudgingly took paying passengers. Their machines, such as the DeHavilland DH-4, were flying machines from World War 1 reworked to carry mailbags, and the occasional passengers rode with the sacks of mail. The Ford Trimotor, though, was designed from the outset for hauling people. Its reliability and “modern” amenities enabled a combination of air travel by day and rail by night, ushering in transcontinental air travel.
Designed by Bill Stout, the Stout Metalplane took wing in 1926, and soon Henry Ford took note and got involved. The Trimotor made a huge developmental leap over its predecessors. Curtiss fielded the Condor at about the same time, a large cabin biplane that had one foot in the past, while the Ford machine had a foot planted into the future. It was such a dynamic time in aviation, with new airframe and engine technology rapidly evolving, so that almost any design that took wing would be quickly outdated. The Fords saw service with Transcontinental Air Transport (Later TWA), American, Pan-American, Western, and a slew of other operators, but the design was soon eclipsed by the arrival of the DC-2.
Retiring from the frontlines, the flock of tin geese flew south, where they soldiered on, serving the mines and backcountry communities of South America. Some came back north eventually, where they served with Island Airlines as a bus system of sorts, connecting the island communities of the Great Lakes. Others flew sightseeing flights over the Grand Canyon. They were slow and outdated, but these routes weren’t long. Between islands, their plodding pace left boats far behind; sightseeing passengers in Arizona needed a little time to soak in the amazing vistas. They excelled for these roles well into advanced age.
And then, they were done. Changing rules and evaporating stockpiles of parts made the Fords impossible to operate on a daily schedule, and by the time I had a chance to try one on, there was pretty much only the EAA’s bird hopping rides, and one in the desert where collectors of type ratings can go earn their Trimotor type rating, an investment that helps keep that tin goose in the air. Oh, there are others, sure, but those were the two most accessible ones. And at the time, a short ride was a heck of a lot more affordable than a full-on type rating. I paid the money, got a ticket, and came back later that morning for my ride.
As the props spun to life, I closed my eyes and stepped back in time. If I took off my glasses, the warbirds and antique/classics parked nearby were visible while the homebuilts and spam cans blurred in the distance. The aroma of half burnt fuel and the mist of oil blew through the cabin, sights and smells conspiring to take us back in time.
I’m certain there are louder cabins out there, but I was thankful for the modern foam earplugs I had, rather than the puffs of cotton passengers of yesteryear stuffed in their ears to dampen the drone of three radial engines and their propellers attached to a resonating metal cage. The regional jet I flew at the time could have flown circles around us. The Airbus I now work with could have carried the tri-motor aloft if it could fit through the door. A fleet of logging equipment might burn less fuel and oil than a Ford Trimotor. But it was a glorious ride into the past.
The noise peaked and the wheels slowed to a stop as the runway slipped behind us. In the seat ahead of me, a young schoolgirl giggled and smiled, having apparently swapped seats with the middle-aged lady who’d been sitting there just moments before takeoff. She was dreaming of the day she’d grow up to work with a company that restores aircraft. She pointed down to the fields and orchards below, strangely familiar with the land where she would live decades later, once this lovely tin goose of a school bus stopped taking her to class, and life would force her to become a grown-up. We traced lazy circles over central Florida, enjoying a smooth ride before the sun was high enough to roughen our ride with the convective activity us southern aviators know all too well.
Our twenty-minute ride into the past stretched longer than expected. There was some operational reason, I heard, like an airplane stranded on the runway. Perhaps it was the Creator smiling on us, or maybe the guys up front looked over their shoulders and couldn’t bear to make the music stop so soon for those of us enjoying our surprisingly affordable ticket into the past. Either way, eventually our bird whistled and pop-popped its way down through the pattern. After we landed, my eyes came back inside to find the schoolgirl gone. The lady I’d boarded with was in the girl’s seat, and all of us aboard were a little sad the ride was over.
As we walked away, it was apparently how differently we’d absorbed the impact of the ride. Some of visted the past they’d lived while others had gotten a peek into a period we’d only known from history books. Both groups, it seemed, walked away with a lightness of step and a spark in our eyes not present when we’d first boarded. Most of what folks call magic is actually slight of hand, illusion and deception. But I can think of no better description of riding around in such a bird as the Ford Trimotor than pure magic. It was the closest to a time machine one can get without a highly modified DeLorean, or a British police call box.
Jeremy King is an airline pilot from Atlanta, Georgia. He and his wife, Amy, are restoring a 1945 Piper J-3 Cub.