High Times at Low Altitudes

Flying in the Ford 4–AT Tri-Motor recalls an era when air travel was elegant, memorable, and even adventurous
- by Lane Wallace

We're already two hours late, and we haven't even left the ground yet. The terminal is crowded, the lines at the ticket counter and security are long, and the gate agents have long since lost their smiles and senses of humor. As I stand in yet another line, waiting to be crammed like human cattle into a modern jetliner with a huddled mass of other nameless, faceless, weary fellow passengers, I reflect that airline travel is not as much fun as it used to be.

Perhaps the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, but I look at the photos I'm carrying in my briefcase—photos of smiling escorts helping ladies out of a comfortable coach car and into the luxuriously appointed cabin of an elegant Ford Tri-Motor airplane—and I'm jealous. Those were the days, I think wistfully, when airline travel was a memorable and agreeable adventure and experience; when passengers were pampered and planes were still elegant.

I'm over-romanticizing it, of course. The passengers embarking for the West Coast on the first transcontinental air/rail route were pampered because a ticket west cost almost as much in 1929 as a round-trip economy fare airline ticket would today. The Ford Tri-Motor they rode in was, indeed, elegant. But there was no heat in the cabin, and the noise and vibration from the plane's three engines was a ceaseless assault to both the ears and the body. The planes flew low, so turbulence was common, making some flights extremely uncomfortable and dumping some of the lovely hot consommé soups the escorts served right in the passengers' laps. And while the Tri-Motors that flew the route were revolutionary for their day, they were slow and possessed few instruments or systems for handling any weather. The headline-making achievement of Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT) airline's 1929 transcontinental service, which initially put passengers on trains during the night and flew them by Tri-Motor during the daylight hours, was that it reduced the travel time between New York and Los Angeles to a mere 48 hours.

And yet, there was something romantic and adventurous about flying in Ford's lumbering, three-engined, corrugated-metal airliner. Comfort is, after all, a relative thing. And in 1927, the Tri-Motor represented a novel and radically improved method of travel. The few passengers who traveled on U.S. commercial air lines before the Tri-Motor was built had to endure the discomfort of open cockpit flying or wedge themselves in between sacks of mail in small, enclosed fuselage compartments. The Tri-Motors also carried the mail, but they were among the first American-manufactured planes built primarily to support passenger service. The Fords had a large and roomy cabin, three engines powerful enough to keep the airplane flying even if one or two engines failed, and were made entirely of metal—a revolutionary idea in the 1920s.

The Tri-Motor was designed, appropriately enough, by the Stout Metal Airplane Company (which became the Stout Metal Airplane Division of the Ford Motor Company when Henry Ford bought the company in 1925). The company was actually named for its founder and president, William Stout, but its name also aptly described its founder's philosophy of aircraft design. Ford and Stout were both concerned about safety, and the all-metal Tri-Motor was designed to change people's ideas about aviation and air travel. It was, in many respects, the first popular "responsible" airplane, built not for maneuverability, dogfighting, or barnstorming, but for carrying passengers comfortably, sedately, and safely. Ford also funded widespread advertising campaigns about the safety, convenience and benefits of air travel, which probably did as much to advance commercial aviation as the development of the Tri-Motor itself. Henry Ford was instrumental in developing numerous safety-enhancing innovations for aviation, as well, including the radio-range navigation system that guided pilots and airliners across the United States from 1929 until after World War II.

Few people would consider the Tri-Motor a sleek or sexy airplane. Its squat, splayed gear and waddling taxi gait earned it the nickname "The Tin Goose," and looking at it head-on, it seems more like a mechanical Gigantor robot than a beautifully crafted flying machine. But as I walk into the old wooden, round-top hangar in Oshkosh, Wisconsin where the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) keeps its beautifully restored 1929 Ford 4–AT–E Tri-Motor, I'm also struck by the looming majesty of this first Grand Lady of the skies. Its boxy, 50-foot-long fuselage swoops downward toward the tail, finally pausing to level out impossibly close to the ground at the back. Its thick, broad, cantilevered wing, which stretches 74 feet from wingtip to wingtip, dominates and dwarfs everything else in the hangar. I once parked my Cessna 120 airplane under the wing of a Tri-Motor I encountered on an airport ramp in Florida, and the Cessna looked like a ridiculously tiny playtoy beneath the massive span of the Ford's corrugated metal airfoil.

"I am instantly transported back 75 years in time to a more refined era,
where well-mannered people still dressed for dinner."

Using a small tug, we coax the EAA's gentle giant into the summer Wisconsin sunlight. The plane can be pushed out of the hangar by hand, but with a gross weight of more than 10,000 pounds, it's not an easy task. George Daubner, the plane's chief pilot, climbs up through a hatch in the cockpit roof to check the fuel levels in the two wing tanks. As George hoists himself up onto the wing's center section and dips a long, calibrated, wooden stick into each tank, he's more than 12 feet off the ground. Satisfied, he climbs back down and walks around the airplane, kicking the large tires, moving the small, rectangular rudder back and forth, and checking the steel control cables that pilots insisted be strung outside the fuselage for easier inspection.

The preflight complete, I follow George through the Tri-Motor's rear passenger door—an oval opening low enough to the ground that it would allow even a woman in a dress and heels to enter the plane gracefully—and I am instantly transported back 75 years in time to a more refined era, where well-mannered people still dressed for dinner. The long, rectangular windows are edged in hand-painted paneling, and elegant reading lights sit above 11 quaint wicker seats that look as if they were taken straight from the well-appointed porch of a Victorian summer house.

Flights of Luxury: The interior of a Ford Tri-Motor.

I work my way forward, ducking as I pass beneath the boxy wing spar structure that cuts through the center of the cabin and provides access to the wing storage areas. I squeeze carefully between the two sides of the open bulkhead that separates the cockpit from the passenger compartment. The cockpit floor is also a hefty step up from the cabin level, which makes getting in and out of the pilots' seats a bit of a contortionist's maneuver. But even the Tri-Motor's cramped cockpit represented a huge leap forward in comfort for pilots used to flying open-cockpit airplanes. The pilots who worked for Ford's first Tri-Motor customer actually objected to a cockpit that protected them from the elements—arguing that it would leave them less able to judge changes in the weather or the airplane's attitude and direction—so the first Tri-Motor was built with an open cockpit. But after a single test flight with the plane on a bitter, windy November day, the pilots agreed to let Ford add a glass greenhouse roof to the cockpit area.

As I settle into the right seat and slide the side cockpit window open, it's hard to believe that airliners progressed from this to 747 jetliners in less than 40 years. There are only 13 instruments and gauges on the panel in front of me, and the engine gauges there only apply to the center engine. The rpm, oil temp, and oil pressure gauges for the two outboard engines are located on the engine nacelles themselves. To read them requires two pilots and good eyesight. As opposed to the luxurious cabin behind us, the cockpit is a study in bare, utilitarian design. The wooden yokes were taken from Model T Ford cars, and there is neither lining nor insulation on the interior walls. My right knee leans directly against metal cross-bracing riveted to the exterior, corrugated aluminum skin.

"As the engines catch, a distinctive scent of oil and smoke drifts
through the cockpit window. It's the smell of old airplanes..."

George fires up the Ford's three radial engines. We have the advantage of a modern electrical starter, but many of the original Ford engines had inertial starters that to be hand-cranked by a mechanic on the ground, much like a Model T car. The engines catch with a stuttering rumble and puff of smoke before settling into two distinctive tones—a lower, vibrating hum and a higher, offbeat, "Rup-pa-pa-Rup-pa-pa-Rup-pa-pa" rhythm that becomes louder and more syncopated as we bring the throttles forward.

As the engines catch, a distinctive scent of oil and smoke drifts through the cockpit window. It's the smell of old airplanes—a lovely drug that, combined with the odd sensation of being surrounded by the staccato crackle of radial engines, leaves me completely lightheaded with nostalgia. If I close my eyes and allow my mind to be dictated only by scent and sound, I could easily imagine myself back at the Grand Central Air Terminal in Glendale, California on a sunny morning in 1929, waiting to take off for the San Joaquin Valley to the north with the fledgling Maddux Airlines.

If I were truly back in 1929, however, I suspect that the sound of the Ford's three engines would soon become a bit less appealing. We taxi out to the grass runway at the EAA's Pioneer Airport, and George holds the brakes while he does a run-up of the engines before take off. The original Tri-Motor pilots had to use an awkward "Johnson Bar" braking system that operated the brakes by pulling a lever back, left, or right in the cockpit. The system wasn't too challenging to operate while sitting still, but it could be a handful for a pilot trying to juggle ailerons, throttle, rudder, and brake all at the same time while landing. Fortunately for us, the EAA's Tri-Motor has been upgraded with simple, modern toe brakes on the rudder pedals.

As we run the engines up to full power, the noise and vibration are overwhelming—even with the modern-day headsets we clamp onto our ears. The seats rattle, the airplane shakes like a horse fighting the bit, and the engine noise echoing through the metallic fuselage is deafening. We release the brakes, and the engines turn their fury into forward motion. We gather speed past the old round-topped, wooden hangars that line the airstrip, the ruckus of the engines finally settling into a steady rhythm that reverberates through the fuselage as the gear legs extend and we leave the ground. For such a massive airplane, the Tri-Motor lifts off surprisingly quickly. It's one of the reasons Tri-Motors continued to be used for flying supplies and passengers in and out of remote strips in Central and South America after the major airlines progressed to Boeing and Douglas airliners in the mid-1930s.

Traveling by air was an adventure for early airline passengers.

I bank the plane around to the south—a maneuver that consists of ramming my right foot to the floor, using two hands to turn the heavy control wheel toward the right, and waiting three to four seconds for the airplane to catch up. Whatever else the Tri-Motor may be, it is not a plane that maneuvers precisely or well. This truth becomes even more evident on my first attempt at landing, when my miscalculation of the lag time between control input and response sends us weaving drunkenly right and left of the runway at hangar-top altitude. It's an exciting low pass, but it's not a move that would win me points as a Maddux Airlines pilot.

Once I level out at 500 feet, however, the Tri-Motor becomes a much more manageable machine. The flipside to that lack of maneuverability is that the plane is amazingly stable. I slide my side window back and rest my elbow on the open sill, feeling the warm summer breeze flowing along my arm. The world drifts slowly past us—a moving kaleidoscope of landscape framed by the Ford's massive corrugated wing and the well-braced engine and gear leg combination beneath it. We're low enough to see individual clumps of trees surrounding each farmhouse, dairy cows straggling across pastureland, and farmers weaving tractor trails through crop fields of yellow and green.

And as I watch Middle America unfolding beneath me, it occurs to me that this is the true gift the Tri-Motor offered, the reason why airline travel seemed so much more memorable and agreeable in its day. Oddly enough, it's a gift we lost so many years ago that we don't even mourn its passing anymore. Today, all that matters is speed and convenience. In a modern jetliner, the journey is just an annoying space of time in between destinations, and the earth is a distant backdrop somewhere six or seven miles beneath our wings. In the day of the Tri-Motor, however, the journey was much more vivid. As the Maddux Airlines Tri-Motors lumbered majestically across California's heartland, pilots and passengers alike would actually see the world as it passed them by, in all its detail, color and glory. Flying from New York to Los Angeles on TAT's Lindbergh Line, passengers could watch the countryside unfold beneath them, tracing the settlement of the country itself from one church steeple, river and rail line to the next. No wonder passengers wrote postcards during flights in the old Tri-Motors. They actually had something to write about.

Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT) boasted that it
would take its passengers "Coast to Coast in 48 Hours."

Much has improved in airline travel since the Ford Tri-Motor first made the concept possible and practical. Today's transcontinental passengers don't have to wear cotton in their ears or endure 36 hours in an unheated cabin whose very floor vibrates in rhythm with three noisy, clattering engines. We can leave New York at 4 P.M. and sit down to dinner in Los Angeles by 7 that very same evening. Today's airline pilots do most of their flying far above the weather and have the benefit of reliable turbine engines and instrument navigation systems, computerized flight controls, autopilots, and hot meals served in climate-controlled cockpits. We have vastly improved safety systems, in-flight fax and email service, personal entertainment centers and—even in the most crowded coach class seats—a level of comfort Tri-Motor passengers couldn't even dream of attaining.

"The Tri-Motors did more than just transport passengers from place to place.
 They gave passengers a magic carpet ride across the landscape..."

But there was a kind of magic to the old Tri-Motors that no modern airliner can match or replicate. For the Tri-Motors did more than just transport passengers from place to place. They gave passengers a magic carpet ride across the landscape, high enough to have some perspective, but still close enough so they could really see the sights. The Fords may have been slow and somewhat uncomfortable, but they allowed everyday travelers to see the world from a perspective that only pilots and a few brave and lucky barnstormer passengers had ever seen before.

In a world where air travel is so commonplace that people fly to Paris for the weekend, it's hard for us to imagine a life without that experience and perspective. But in 1927, the sky was an unknown world, explored only by a few hardy pioneers. The Ford Tri-Motor changed that. And in exchange for that gift, perhaps its passengers considered a few bumps, a chilly cabin, and a bit of noise and vibration a small price to pay.