Wineka column: Vintage plane offers look at what early air travel was like
Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 31, 2012
CONCORD — With its nose pointing toward the sky, the “Tin Goose” looked more like a silver marlin.
You board her through a door on the right side. All the seats — nine of them — rise up from this portal.
As I made my way toward a seat behind the cockpit, I felt like a mountain goat, the upward angle was that pronounced.
I buckled into a leather seat near one of the three engines pilot Larry Harmacinski was switching on — one on each side under the wing and the engine on the nose.
Colin Soucy, who also can pilot the Tin Goose, soon joined Harmacinski in the cockpit and we were taxiing down the runway at Concord Regional Airport.
This was going to be good.
The Tin Goose is a restored 1929 Ford Tri-Motor — yes, Henry Ford was into aviation, too. Ford made 199 of these all-metal, multi-engine planes, the first commercial airliners built in America.
The first one came off one of Ford’s assembly lines in Dearborn, Mich., in 1926, and this particular Tin Goose was the 146th made. Its initial flight occurred Aug. 21, 1929, and it briefly became the flagship for Eastern Transport Co., which became Eastern Airlines.
Harmacinski said the “Goose” part of the Ford Tri-Motor’s nickname came from the way it looked, waddling down the runway.
“I really love it, because you have to fly it,” he told me, emphasizing the word “have.” He called it “quirky” in its handling, but in a good way.
You have to imagine what a step forward this was for air travel, providing an enclosed cabin for passengers. Until then, planes were mainly being used to carry mail or as part of barnstorming events, offering rides to the curious and adventurous.
The Tin Goose also traveled at the unheard of speed of 90 mph.
“In 1927,” Soucy said, “that was moving.”
Still, it took three days to make the coast-to-coast trip from New York to Los Angeles in the late 1920s. Harmacinski said only the “well-heeled” made that journey, considering it cost $350 — $4,500 in today’s dollars.
It also involved train travel, Soucy said. The Ford Tri-Motor airliner would fly out of New York and take the day to reach an airport where it could land.
Passengers would then take a night train to the next airport, where a Ford Tri-Motor would fly all day to another airfield. A second night train would lead to a new airport the next morning.
On the third day, the Tin Goose would fly into Los Angeles.
Every major commercial airline started with a Ford Tri-Motor, which cost $54,000 coming out of the factory.
But the plane’s days were numbered, forced out of production in 1933 by the Depression and the emergence of the DC-3, which revolutionized air travel again with its speed and range.
The Tin Goose in Concord on Thursday (it will be here through Monday) has an interesting history. After its days for Eastern Transport were over in 1930, it served as an airliner for Cubana (Cuba) Airlines, inaugurating air service between Havana and Santiago. Later it became an “Air Force One” type of plane for the defense department in the Dominican Republic, Harmacinski said.
The plane returned to the United States in 1949 for barnstorming, before being used in Idaho and Montana for crop dusting and as an important weapon in fighting forest fires from the air and as transportation for smoke jumpers.
Its ability to take off and land on short stretches of ground helped immensely in these jobs.
From 1963-74, this Tin Goose was privately owned and barnstorming again. In 1965, the plane appeared in a Jerry Lewis comedy movie called “The Family Jewels.”
“This airplane’s in it quite a bit,” Harmacinski said.
The Tin Goose was severely damaged in a 1973 windstorm, while it was tied down at a Burlington, Wisc., airport. The Experimental Aircraft Association purchased the wreckage — it had been tossed onto its back — and spent the next 12 years restoring it. The project cost $1 million.
Since 1991, the EAA has been flying it on periodic tours around the country, giving people a chance to see and ride the Tin Goose at each stop.
Today, only eight Ford Tri-Motors are left, Soucy said. The other seven are part of museums and collections, he added, and only a couple are still air-worthy, being flown infrequently.
The Tin Goose needed little runway Thursday before lifting off and heading south, paralleling Interstate 85.
The cabin is painted an avocado green and has wood molding. Harmacinski said it was designed to feel as though you were riding in a Pullman coach car, because people were more familiar with train travel back in the late 1920s.
A narrow aisle runs between a passenger seat on each side.
Harmacinski kept us in the air for 15 minutes, flying at 1,000 feet over Charlotte Motor Speedway and making a wide loop over Cabarrus County schools, businesses, patchworks of green and rooftops of suburbia.
The noise from the three engines was deafening, making attempts at conversation almost useless.
In the cockpit, Harmacinski had his side window open, as though he were out for summer drive in an old Buick.
The landing went smoothly. I could hear the two scuffing noises made on the runway — one from the front wheels and one from the wheel on the tail section.
It seemed quite nimble for a 10,100-pound plane with a 74-foot wingspan.
To put it simply: The goose is a mother.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@ salisburypost.com.
Want to fly in the Tin Goose?
What: A 1929 Ford Tri-Motor plane, one of the first commercial airliners in America.
Where: Concord Regional Airport
When: Public flights available today through Monday, from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. each day.
Cost: $80 per person. Pre-booking is available at www.flytheford.org, or by calling 877-952-5395. A special flight rate is available for veterans at $60 a person (on-site reservations only).
Sponsor: Experimental Aircraft Association, based in Oshkosh, Wisc.