Flying the Friendly Skies Aboard a 1929 Ford Tri-Motor Plane


I’ve been parasailing in the Bahamas, helicoptering in Hawaii and Boston, hot air ballooning out of New Bedford, MA, Derry, NH, and Milford NH, I’ve ridden in an open cockpit bi-plane on Plum Island, MA and I married a pilot and air traffic controller who has taken on my mission of getting me aboard a blimp (unsuccessful so far). I like every kind of flying except commercial and for a minute I thought this might mean I should get my pilot license, and several years back headed to nearby Lawrence Airport to inquire about the process and cost. I’ve taken “control” (professional right at my side) of both a seaplane in upstate New York, and a hot air balloon in NH, and eventually figured I’d just as soon leave the piloting to someone else, let him do all the concentrating on the mechanics of flying, so I could focus on the magic. I especially like flying with the wind in my hair which is not a good look for me so my photos are usually of others on the trip.

1929 Ford Trimotor flying over our condo

1929 Ford Tri-Motor flying over our condo

So when I heard a strange plane fly over our house and a neighbor expressing concern that the plane sounded wrong and was not going to make it to the airport, I mentioned the sound and the plane’s boxy shape to my husband. He knew we were dealing with a Tri-Motor antique – the very first plane mass-produced for commercial flight.

Manufacturer's label Ford Airplane

Manufacturer’s label Ford Airplane

We almost let it go at that, but on our way to get our car washed by the Lynnfield High School Cheer Squad (oh the stuff I do for my nieces), we passed the sign offering rides and a chance to see up close the 1929 Tri-Motor Ford. I casually asked, “want to check it out?”

Advertising that works on us!

I honestly thought of this as something I was doing for my husband, that he would be thrilled because he loves history and aviation. So with a u-turn in the Chinese restaurant parking lot, we detoured. We took our pics during a cold stop (we were advised to steer clear of propellers and engines that are brutally hot (contradicting the phrase))

Crowding in on the Tri-Motor Ford airplane 1929

Crowding in on the Tri-Motor Ford airplane 1929. Pilot is carrying a ladder, a non standard tool in modern aviation.

The volunteers and organizers,  the EAA http://www.eaa.org and  Air Zoo http://www.airzoo.org/ , even the Civil Air Patrol kept a kind and sympathetic eye on the crowd of oglers. With our eyes trained on the camera lens some of us moved obliviously closer to danger. Admittedly I’d wandered out so far on the runway to get a full plane shot they called me back to prevent me from getting run over by a taxi-ing plane.  That would be an embarrassing demise. They were excited to see us excited, and understood completely the desire to take it all in. They feel the same way. One volunteer said to me as we headed out to the carwash, “You can leave, but you’ll be back” because he recognized the look in my eye.

Tri-Motor plane note cables and open cockpit window

Tri-Motor airplane; note cables stabilizing the wing?? and open cockpit window

Without a thought of staying (we had errands to run) we scanned the sign, and noted that the price for a ride was not really on our budget at $75 per person, but neither was it prohibitive as it had seemed when we sent my father (Walter Colby USAAF) up in the restored  B-17 bomber (the Witchcraft) that he had actually trained on in World War II. The Collings Foundation http://www.collingsfoundation.org owns the Witchcraft as part of  an enormous fleet of restored aircraft including 11 planes from World War II. They do a wonderful job preserving the heritage of aviation and give WW2 vets a free ride. But several years ago at $300 per ride (it’s now $425)  aboard the Witchcraft, it is far less accessible for the average person to experience the flight. We could only afford to send up one of the four siblings to accompany my father on that trip and despite my love of the air, we felt that it was an event best shared by a dad and his son.

Walter Colby WW2 and revisiting his training plane the B-17 Bomber Witchcraft

I asked Jon if he was interested in a ride. His interest was nominal, but in the spirit of Mel Torme* I asked when we would ever have this opportunity again. And a couple of hours after  our car was soaped up and dulled by the telltale charity carwash film, we drove past the airport again. I’d begun strategizing. We should take the last flight of the day because when there are no time constraints with getting back for the next ride we might get a longer ride as pilots take that opportunity to check out more of the surrounding area. At this point I started to doubt my own altruism. I asked Jon what he was thinking (wondering if he had a better plan), and he posed the question that I refused to verbalize.

“What if we die?”

Tri-Motor was built with a third motor for safety. we'd be alright, right?

‘ Tri-Motor was built with a third motor for safety. We’d be alright, right? Though that corrugated aluminium siding isn’t very reassuring.

We’d both heard  the day before about the air show crash in Ohio, and in 1993 I befriended a wing walking father/daughter team at a charity event on the eve  before a Concord NH air show. I told them that of all the planes in the show (the event was in the hanger with the stunt planes) their plane was the one I would choose to ride. They both perished with their plane the next day in front of thousands of spectators.  So Jon and I know death is a real possibility with planes, especially old ones. But I rationalized to Jon that we were far more likely to die on the car ride home, which in hindsight is not a very soothing thought at all since we drive that route all the time.

We needed a crisis strategy. We better tell daughter Leisa what we are doing (She asked what we wanted for our headstones (nice kid)), and I called my sister who was busy with a client and couldn’t chat and gave me that fake sounding, “Oh, isn’t that interesting, do you mind if I get back to you later” which meant a) she wasn’t listening and b) she didn’t get the importance of the call – There might not be a “later”. That was as much due diligence as we had time for before we pulled into the parking lot.

IMG_0493

I don’t know what any of this stuff does and I don’t have to; I’m just along for the ride

It was such a whirlwind when we arrived; they talked us into leaving that second! Strategy was, as they say, gone with the wind. I was disappointed that we were last in line to board which would land us in the back of the 9-seater plane because I wanted to be up front so Jon could watch the instrumentation. And then as if listening in on my thoughts they moved the line and we were first on instead of last and sat right behind the visible pilots (no safety doors or any doors separating us).

And after a short taxi on the runway, we lifted off.

Lawrence Airport Tower and Engine of Tri-Motor

Lawrence Airport Tower and Engine of Tri-Motor

Someone told me this plane’s slogan is “Low and Slow” and I’ve actually been in a car traveling faster than this plane that cruises at  90 mph. (FWIW I wasn’t driving the car, a professional race car driver was.  He took us in the pace car and we rode “at speed” at the newly opened International Speedway in NH as a promotion to encourage advertising at the track.)

Lawrence Factories and circular air vent

Lawrence Factories and circular air vent

My favorite part of the flight was that each seat had a window and each window had a vent directly to the outside, so we got a fresh air breeze throughout the flight that let us sense we are flying even while it obstructs views from the window. It was noisy and smooth though not the kind of smooth that has you wondering if you’re moving at all. This had a little vibration, but nothing scary.

Pilots are a knee's distance away

Pilots are a knee’s distance away

I always have trouble getting oriented from a sky view, but we were low and slow enough that I could make out the fields of Barkers Farm to check on the progress of the best corn in the world, the twists and turns of the Merrimack River and Rte 495, Harold Parker State Forest, and the Bradford Bridge into downtown Haverhill. My perpetual smile stretched the confines of my face.  It was exhilarating both for the surprise interruption into an errand-running kind of day and for the 20-minute flight itself.  I squirmed and leaned to look out Jon’s window as we passed over our own townhouse where just the day before I’d heard this same plane and tried to figure out what was up.

But this time I knew what was up… I was.

Taxi-ing out for take off

Taxi-ing out for take off

Hey Jon, this is something you can discuss with your pilot friend, Livingston Taylor. http://wp.me/p13Md6-N9

If you want to know how Mel Torme inspired my life read this post:  http://wp.me/p13Md6-qp

Specs for the tri-Motor can be found here:  http://www.airventuremuseum.org/collection/aircraft/4Ford%20Tri-Motor%20Specifications.asp#TopOfPage

©2013 by Alison Colby-Campbell

2 responses to “Flying the Friendly Skies Aboard a 1929 Ford Tri-Motor Plane

  1. I called my sister back 24-hours later and she said “what were you doing, again?”. I said “We flew on a 1929 airplane”. She asked “So what’s so fun about that?” Not everyone shares the flight bug. And I said “I called yesterday in case we crashed; we wanted someone to know what happened.” “Good thing it didn’t crash, I’d have had no idea where you were, I didn’t pay attention to the call.”
    Better rethink my ICE* number.
    *ICE numbers are highlighted in your cell phone address book, ICE stands for “In Case of Emergency”

  2. The Tri-Motor carries nine passengers at a time and every seat on the plane has a window. It is possible to reserve an entire flight of nine.

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