FRANKLIN — Blue skies and puffy white clouds formed the backdrop for a flight aboard a 1929 Ford Tri-Motor, the first true commercial airliner. Carrying nine passengers, the pilot and a guest co-pilot, the venerable aircraft took a few loops above the city of Franklin Sept. 26 through Sept. 29 during a regional tour.
Flying in a 90-year-old airplane might give the average person a reason to reflect on his own mortality. But under the care of the Experimental Aircraft Association and with veteran pilot Bill Sweet at the controls, passengers had little to worry about during the plane’s first flight from Franklin Regional Airport.
The aviation aficionados aboard Sweet’s plane all fit comfortably. Along with three members of the local media, fellow passengers came from Buffalo, New Castle and the surrounding region. While waiting for the Ford Tri-Motor to land, passengers and personnel from various aviation organizations chatted among themselves while roaming the hangar area.
Sweet, whose calm demeanor belies his background as a retired airline pilot, was philosophical about an hour’s delay in taking off on the first passenger flight. Buffeted by turbulence and a headwind, he had to set down in Port Clinton, Ohio, to refuel before continuing to Franklin.
“I was a little concerned about a squall line as I was coming in,” he said. “It is going to be a bumpy ride. Tomorrow will be better.”
Bumpy it was, but the nine passengers and one honorary co-pilot were too enthralled to notice.
Sweet’s cockpit featured 1920s instrumentation, with some crucial nods to modern aviation. Noise-canceling headphones lowered the astounding level of auditory chaos in the cockpit, while an iPhone attached to the visor kept the pilot oriented. A GPS antenna replaced the original model.
When kidded about the iPhone’s presence, Sweet said that, while it was not original equipment, he has not updated its software in 50 years.
Air travel in the 1920s was still a novelty, and the Tri-Motor’s ability to transport 12 people at one time was considered a marvel. To modern air travelers, it was something akin to taking an airborne school bus.
There were two single rows of seats, one on either side of the central aisle. This had its upside. Everyone had a window seat and an aisle seat, but no access to in-flight movies, refreshments or comfort facilities.
The downside was that larger modern-day passengers would have trouble getting comfortable. Each faux leather-covered seat was about the size of an average typist’s office chair. While seat-belt extenders were available, the restraints themselves had fasteners reminiscent of 1960s automobile safety devices.
The airplane they were riding was the 76th of its kind that rolled off Ford’s assembly line. Dubbed the 4-AT-E model and assigned the tail number NC8407, it was the first aircraft purchased by Eastern Air Transport, later becoming Eastern Airlines. The original airline’s name is still stenciled on the fuselage and plays its part in setting the stage for a 1920s-era flying experience.
Leased in 1930 to a Caribbean airline, the plane established air service between Havana and Santiago de Cuba. Later, it served the government of the Dominican Republic before having a second life as a barnstormer in 1949. In 1950, its three engines were replaced with huskier power plants, turning it into a crop duster.
Another career change saw the 4-AT-E fitted with a bomb bay before seeing action as a borate bomber used in fighting Idaho forest fires. After further stints as a barnstormer, the plane became something of a Hollywood star, appearing in Jerry Lewis’ movie, “The Family Jewels.”
In 1973, the venerable crate was still making the rounds as a barnstormer when a severe thunderstorm ripped it loose from its tie-downs and put it upside down on the pavement. The EAA bought its carcass and began a 12-year restoration process.
In 1985, the plane came back to life at the EAA convention and fly-in at Oshkosh, Wis., home of the world famous week-long annual airshow. In 1991, it resumed its life as a people pleaser, making an annual tour under the EAA’s logo and care.
For those who want to plan a flight aboard a vintage Ford Tri-Motor “Tin Goose,” a ticket for an hour’s flight is $72 if purchased in advance, $77 if bought at the gate. Children under 10 must be accompanied by an adult, and those 2 years of age and under are welcome to ride if they sit in an adult’s lap.
For more information on flying aboard the Ford Tri-Motor and other Experimental Aircraft Association plans or to find out about more about the organization, go to https://eaa.org/eaa.