A three-engine aircraft that rolled off the assembly line at Ford Motor Company’s Stout Metal Airplane Division in Dearborn, Michigan, 90 years ago began carrying passengers within days of its first test flight.
Next week, that same Ford 4-AT-E Tri-Motor will be giving Charleston area passengers a taste of what upscale commercial air travel was like in the Roaring ’20s when it arrives at Yeager Airport for a series of excursion flights. The flights will depart Yeager’s general aviation terminal, Capital Jet Center, from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Thursday, and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday through Sunday.
Seeking to serve a newly emerged market for airline travel, automaker Henry Ford began manufacturing the Ford Tri-Motor in 1926. By the time production ended in 1933, 199 of the aircraft had been built and were in use. The Ford 4-AT-E that will be flying from Yeager was the 146th Tri-Motor produced.
While Ford Tri-Motor passengers rode in an enclosed cabin, the earliest version of the plane featured an open cockpit as a concession to pilots who believed the feel of the wind was needed to safely fly the aircraft, according to the Experimental Aviation Association, which owns aircraft. Ford specified that three engines would be used to power the aircraft, mainly to ease passenger concerns over engine reliability.
Within a week of its Aug. 21, 1929, test flight, the Tri-Motor that will be operating at Yeager was sold to Pitcairn Aviation, which was bought two months later by Eastern Air Transport, later to become Eastern Airlines.
In 1930, the aircraft was leased to Cubana de Aviacion, Cuba’s national airline, and used to inaugurate air service between the Cuban city of Santiago and the nation’s capital city, Havana. In the 1940s, the plane was flown by the government of the Dominican Republic, before returning to the United States, where it was used in a Miami-based barnstorming show before refitted with more powerful engines and repurposed as a crop-duster in Arizona.
In 1955, the aircraft was rigged with two 275-gallon tanks and bomb doors, and began a new career in forest fire suppression, dropping fire retardant, and later, smokejumpers, in Idaho.
Following a brief return to crop-spraying and barnstorming, the aircraft was used to offer rides at air shows. It also appeared in the Jerry Lewis movie “The Family Jewels” in 1965, where it was the centerpiece of a Lewis’ character’s one-aircraft airline, “Eddie’s Airways,” and in 2009’s “Public Enemies,” in which it transported John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) to trial.
Before appearing in “Public Enemies,” the airplane underwent 12 years of painstaking restoration after high winds accompanying a thunderstorm ripped it from its tie-downs, lifted it 20 feet in the air, and smashed it to the ground.
The Ford Tri-Motor, nicknamed the “Tin Goose” in a nod to Henry Ford’s Model T “Tin Lizzie,” became the backbone of the budding airline industry in the 1930s.
Every seat is a window seat on the Ford Tri-Motor, so Charleston area passengers are urged to bring cameras.
Cost will be $72 for adults and $52 for those 17 and younger for tickets bought in advance. Walk-up adult fares will be $77. All proceeds benefit the Experimental Aviation Association’s education, restoration and history programs.
Tickets may be ordered online at www.flytheford.org, or by calling 1-800-843-3612.