Flying copilot in a piece of history

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1929 Ford 4-AT plane
Sam Moore took a ride in this 1929 EAA-owned Ford 4-AT Tri-Motor at Beaver County Airport. (Photo courtesy of Sam Moore.)

How would you feel about climbing into a vehicle that was built in 1929 (that’s 4 years older than I am folks, and I’m old) and not only traveling at more than 90 miles per hour, but close to 2,500 feet in the air to boot?

Well, I did just that a few weeks ago at the Beaver County Airport.

In this day of supersonic air travel, it’s hard to believe that Orville and Wilbur Wright’s Kitty Hawk flight was just a little more than 100 years ago.

And commercial airline travel, that carries more than 3 billion people and $6 or $7 trillion worth of cargo yearly, had its shaky beginnings 10 years later in 1914, when Tony Jannus flew a man from St. Petersburg, Florida, across the bay to Tampa for only $400.

In 1918, the U.S. Post Office established air mail service and Army pilots carried the mail.

In 1925 Congress, hoping to stimulate commercial air service, took air mail from the Army and gave it to private contract carriers. One of these contracts, for service between Detroit, Chicago and Cleveland, was awarded to Henry Ford.

Ford airlines

Around 1923, Mr. Ford had invested $2,000 in the Stout Metal Airplane Co. of Detroit, which was experimenting with making planes out of Duralumin instead of the customary wooden frames covered with fabric.

Ford built the Detroit Municipal Airport — one of the first in the nation — and a building at the airport for the Stout firm, and by 1925, had bought the Stout Company, which became a Ford division.

Stout built an eight-passenger, all metal plane with a 150 HP V-12 Liberty engine, the 2-AT Pullman, that performed well.

Called the “Maiden Detroit,” the 2-AT and others like it were flown by the Ford Air Transport Service carrying freight between Ford factories in Chicago and Detroit and were used on Ford’s mail route when it began in February 1926.

Stout himself had also established an air service that used the 2-AT machines to carry passengers and freight. Chicago-based National Air Transport, later to become United Airlines, bought out Stout Air Service in 1928.

New designs

Ford and Stout recognized that larger planes were needed and Stout set about redesigning the 2-AT.

About this time Wright Aeronautical was building the J4, 200 HP, nine-cylinder radial engine, and Anthony Fokker, a Dutch aircraft manufacturer, had built a high-winged, steel-framed monoplane with plywood skin on the wings and fabric on the fuselage that was powered by three Wright J4 engines.

Fokker flew his plane to Detroit in 1925 to compete in a reliability tour sponsored by Ford, and Stout’s men spent a night measuring it.

Fokker won the tour that year but later claimed that Ford had stolen the idea for the Ford Tri-Motor from him, an accusation that Stout denied.

In Stout’s own words, “We revised our Liberty-engine plane by widening the wing ten feet in the center section, rounding off the fuselage up front, and putting one engine in front and a side engine in the leading edge of each wing.”

Tin Goose

Every outside surface was covered with corrugated aluminum, leading to the planes nickname, “The Tin Goose.”

Inside the passenger cabin, a single row of six leather and cane seats ran along each side of the fuselage and open luggage racks ran the length of the interior above each row of seats. The seats could be easily removed if freight was to be carried.

Successful airliner

Called the 3-AT, the new plane was underpowered. Henry Ford lost faith in Stout and he was “promoted” to a publicity position. Ford engineers then came out with the 4-AT with more powerful Wright 300 HP engines that worked well.

Soon 400 HP Pratt & Whitney engines were adopted that allowed even more payload and the Ford Tri-Motor became the first commercially successful airliner in America.

Flying history

The 4-AT that I flew on made its first flight on Aug. 21, 1929. It then belonged to Eastern Air Transport, a small company that had a contract to carry mail between New York and Florida — connecting many cities along the east coast and later becoming Eastern Airlines.

It flew for Cubana Airlines in 1930 and then for many years operated in the Dominican Republic. Returning to the States in 1949, the plane did some barnstorming and crop-dusting before being modified for aerial firefighting.

In 1973, while giving rides at airshows, a bad storm ripped the Ford loose from its ground moorings and wrecked it. The Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) acquired the wreck and spent 12 years restoring it to first class flying condition and it now flies all over the country, giving rides.

Public rides

On Memorial Day weekend, EAA brought the 1929 Ford Tri-Motor airplane to the Beaver County Airport just a few miles east of here across the Pennsylvania state line where rides on the craft were offered to the public.

The event was sponsored by The Air Heritage Museum whose combined aircraft restoration shop and air museum is located in its own hanger at the airport. Thanks to Donna Kelly of Air Heritage, I was invited to fly on the Ford on Thursday and I jumped at the chance.

Copilot

I was on the second flight that day and was lucky enough to be assigned to the copilot’s seat where I was able to watch the pilot, Bill Thacker, put the craft through its paces.

Both Bill’s and my side windows were open and the breeze, and the roar of the engines right outside came in.

We flew at less than 2,500 feet at about 90 MPH, and it was easy to see the ground below and to pick out landmarks.

We were in the air less than half an hour and circled south to the Ohio River, over VanPort and Beaver, then back over Fallston and Patterson Heights to Chippewa and the airport, where Bill sat her down with scarcely a bump.

Really a fun ride and a unique experience.

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Sam Moore grew up on a family farm in Western Pennsylvania during the late 1930s and the 1940s. Although he left the farm in 1953, it never left him. He now lives near Salem, where he tinkers with a few old tractors, collects old farm literature, and writes about old machinery, farming practices and personal experiences for Farm and Dairy, as well as Farm Collector and Rural Heritage magazines. He has published one book about farm machinery, titled Implements for Farming with Horses and Mules.

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