Ford Tri-Motor plane still going strong after 82 years

By: Frank Waugh Email
By: Frank Waugh Email

Do full body scanners, photo IDs, and liquids in a quart-size baggy sound familiar?

They are all part of today’s rather complex flying experience, but it was not always this way.

A recent visitor to the Elkhart Airport gave us a glimpse back in time.

Three rumbling, radial engines and a very famous name set one plane apart from others on the tarmac. It is not just any old plane; it is a Ford.

Don Duck with the Experimental Aircraft Association says, “Henry Ford, when he had the company design it, he was going to revolutionize commercial aviation, and he did a good job with it…The main thing, it was an enclosed cockpit for both the passenger and the pilot…Up until then, most of the pilots, if they did have an enclosed cockpit for the passengers, the pilots sat to the outside.”

In the early days of aviation, most airplanes were made of wood, metal, and cloth, but Ford wanted a safer and more reliable plane.

Gerry Flocker, the pilot of the Ford Tri-Motor, says, “So, he teamed with the Stout All Metal Aircraft Company to manufacture the airplane under the Ford name. There, by being a three motor airplane, was his answer to very, very redundant and safe airliner.”

Ford hoped his all-metal design would replace planes like the one that claimed the life of iconic Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne in 1931 when the wooden wing separated from the fuselage.

“It helped establish today's airline industry as the first all-metal airliner”

On August 21, 1929, the Cubs beat the New York Giants, the Sox beat the Yankees, gas was nineteen cents, Herbert Hoover was President, and the Ford plane took its first flight.

Gerry Flocker says, “This particular airplane was manufactured for eastern air transport, which is the way it is painted today.”

Soon after its maiden flight, it headed south.

“From eastern air transport to Havana, Cuba to help establish the industry in Cuba, then it went from there to the Dominican Republic, helped establish the airline industry in the Dominican Republic, and then came back to the United States in about 1949.”

After returning to the United States, the plane operated as a crop duster and smoke jumper transport before Mother Nature stepped in.

Don Duck says, “When he was at Burlington, Wisconsin, a little wind grabbed a hold of it and picked it up thirty feet in the air and dropped it down and destroyed it.”

That is when the Experimental Aviation Association purchased the plane, and today, it is being put back to work.

Gerry Flocker says, “Of the 199 Tri-Motors that were made, there are 7 today that can fly, but this is the only one that flies and earns a living.”

This plane is living life at 2,000 feet at the age of 82.

The Ford Tri-Motor is based out of Oshkosh, Wisconsin. It recently starred in the film Public Enemies with Johnny Depp.

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