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Hagerty
Hagerty Employee

Tri-Motor: When Ford put the world on wings

Every car enthusiast knows that the Tin Lizzie put the world on wheels. Ford sold over 15 million Model Ts between 1908 and 1927, a volume topped only by VW's Beetle. The 1932 Model 18 successor to the T is equally revered for delivering speed to showrooms. Ford's new flathead V-8 armed working stiffs with 65 horsepower, enough to middle-finger Chevies and Plymouths of the day.
https://www.hagerty.com/media/automotive-history/tri-motor-when-ford-put-the-world-on-wings/
55 REPLIES 55
DUB6
Specialist

   I once lived very close to the airport, and the 2-story house had a flat roof.  Sometimes when there were air shows, I dragged a folding chair up on the roof.  Occasionally, the patterns of planes would go right over me.  Once, as I looked south toward the airport, I heard a tremendous roar from behind.  I turned my head just as a TriMotor directly over me.  It looked to be no more than 50 feet above me and really seemed to be moving about 20 mph - but I'm sure that both of those estimates were wrong.  At-any-rate, during practices for the show and then for the show the next day, that plane flew over me in my chair about 5 or 6 times.  There is no roar like the roar of those three Wright radials right over your head.  What a rush.  This was probably about 40 years ago, and I can close my eyes and see it still!  😊

hyperv6
Racer

I have a habit of going on rides in vintage aircraft.

I have a Trimotor that is about 1.5 hours from me and it is on my list to fly this summer.

My dad tried to get me to go on the Island Airline to Put in Bay in Sandusky Ohio but I said no as a kid. I want to make up for that flight my dad and I never shared.

I will say please go take these rides while you can as they are getting more rare and much more expensive. You just need to experience these planes to really know what they were like.

The sound of a B25 running up the engines before take off is the best engine sound I ever heard in the co pilot seat.

Standing with my head out the top gunner radio room of a B17 is breath taking.

Doing a loop in a Stearman is better than any coaster on the planet.

The Trimotor to me will be almost like a luxury plane compare to most of that era but yet it will be like driving a Model A of the air.
DMcC
Detailer

Great histgory Don, thank you. A Ford Tri-Motors-Motor is under (re)construction, maybe creation of, at Port Clinton, OH.
See https://www.restoretheford.org
The intent is to have two Tri-Motors in use, one based there and another to tour, I believe under direction of the EAA.
My 7th grade teacher was a smoke jumper based in Missoula where a Tri-Motors-Motor was used. He related on one return jump flight the crew found bits of tree foliage in the undercarriage from a possible too-close look at a fire. The plane's three engines were hard to keep in sync leading to a "waa-waa" sound.
82spider
Pit Crew

My father sold ford tractors. He had a picture of Henry "the deuce" in his office. He often talked about the tri-motors and I've been fascinated by them ever since. Thanks for the great history, Don.
Patrician
Detailer

I saw a program on the history channel about a year ago. Ford actually stole his Trimotor from Fokker. The Fokker had cut a corner on wing strut strength and it was prone to failure. Ford improved on this. The two planes are identical in most respects.
DUB6
Specialist

I'm going to resist putting the half-dozen or so obvious responses to your post here, @Patrician - I'm trying REALLY hard to be a good boy today.  😋

GRP_Photo
Instructor

I read the same thing. If I remember correctly, the Fokker was in a hangar in New York being prepared for a trans-Atlantic flight attempt. Lindbergh was able to get off first.
Sledogpilot
Detailer

Ford had the design in process before Fokker. Read Farna’s comment below. I take History Channel with a grain of salt.
Driver17
Intermediate Driver

I had the great fortune to fly in one about four years ago.
I have experience in a lot of private and commercial aircraft. Many different helicopters have dragged my carcass in the air, from a Huey to Bell 47s and JetRangers to Aerospatiale State Police units and even an aerobatic Hughes 500 (the only time I've even had an increased heart rate in an aircraft!) I've flown in a B-17, too, which I found loud, but this was right there at that level. The positive was landing. It was as though I imagine setting down in a giant bowl of cotton candy would feel. If I hadn't been looking at the landing gear, I wouldn't have known we had touched down.
Punk
Advanced Driver

Great story. The year before Covid, my son, an avid junior pilot, and I went to OshKosh, WI for the annual air show. What an amazing event! They had a Tri-Motor there doing rides around the field a couple of times and returning. We wanted to go but they were sold out. I watched several takeoffs and landing and its true that thing looks like its going about 20 MPH from the ground! Great sound, though.
Jay
Intermediate Driver

There are a few typos in this article:

"The 1932 Model 18 successor to the T is equally revered" Well, no, the Model A, introduced in 1928 was the successor to the Model T. And the Model B (not 18) was the successor to the A in 1932. The Ford flathead V8 was introduced with the Model B.

"Stout christened the first 2-AT to roll of the line the Maiden Dearborn. Half a ton lighter than the typical car of the day" I think the author meant "typical airplane of the day".
Tinkerah
Engineer

I'm questioning the 200 foot long factory as well.
JimDandy83
Intermediate Driver

I recall taking a ride in a Tri-Motor at Oshkosh at an E.A.A. meet. This was in the '70s and the 10 minute ride cost $5. I was the last on and, as such, was seated in the stewardess' jump seat (a square metal hump at the rear), the only seat without a window. Little did I know that the first passenger got to sit in the co-pilot's seat and, if holding a pilot's licence, would be given the controls on the downwind leg of the circuit. If I had ceded by place in line to the person behind me, that could have been me and flying time in my pilot log book. As I understand history, the Ford Tri-Motor was the only passenger aircraft in commercial service never to have a fatality.
DUB6
Specialist

See what ya get for not being gentlemanly at times?  😁

JBBearcat
Advanced Driver

I've flown in a Ford, actually in the co-pilot's seat and got a few minutes of "stick" time.
In the same vein that Ford did not invent the assembly line, let's remember (as the article briefly notes) that Stout/Ford learned lessons from the all metal, corregated Junkers F-13 transport and in terms of design configuration, the Tri-Motors designed by Dutchman Anthony Fokker.
Some say that in the attempt to overcome the 3-AT fiasco, Hicks and his engineers spent an evening examining, and making templates, off of a Fokker that spent the night at the Ford field.
Structurally, the Ford was vastly superior to the metal tube and fabric fuselage and wood winged European aircraft.
The use of wood would become that types downfall, as the crash of a TWA Fokker in a Kansas thunderstorm in 1931 (which killed legendary football coach and Studebaker pitchman Knute Rockne) led to the types withdrawal from American passenger service.

The Tri-Motor is a classic on par with the T, A, Duece and the rest. A nearby museum recently acquired one, and a friend (who that thousands of hours flying antique aircraft), will be learning to fly it.
Hopefully, my experience with the Ford will continue.
DUB6
Specialist

Quite relevant additional details - thanks!  😊

greatscott73
Intermediate Driver

I actually flew on an Island Airlines tri-motor as a kid. When I show my kids the one at Henry Ford Museum and tell them that, they are convinced I am a dinosaur, lol. I guess at this point, I probably am.
JGeske
Instructor

I live in Wisconsin, and as such have the pleasure of attending the EAA Airventure in Oshkosh, WI almost every year (for those unfamiliar, it is the largest airshow of its type in the world, and during its 1 week each year the airport in Oshkosh is the highest traffic airport in the world. I recommend traveling here to see it at least once in your life.). On no less then 5 occasions I have booked flights at the airshow in a TriMotor. What an experience, one worth repeating. Also, the noise mentioned in the article is no joke, I didn't bring ear plugs one year and the 20 minute flight left me with ringing ears the remainder of that day.
JGeske
Instructor

Also, a key detail I omitted. The TriMotor at the EAA show is owned by the museum and operated regularly. So it is available for flights every single year, and available to view in the museum when not being flown at this show or others. It is one of (I believe) 8 airworthy ones left in the world, so truly a limited opportunity adventure. You can look it up online at the EAA website, it is C/N:69, tail # N8407, and is a 4-AT-E model from 1929. It tours the US on a pretty regular basis, so may be at a show near you in the future if one doesn't want to come to WI. 

Gary_Bechtold
Specialist

I knew very little of Ford's airplane history. Very cool. I wonder what would have happened if the Great Depression had not happened. Could we have had a next generation?
GRP_Photo
Instructor

Probably not. Boeing came out with the 247 in 1933. Two engines, retractable gear, very streamlined. Douglas came out with the DC-2 in '34, which was a little more primitive but cheaper. Douglas ate Boeing's lunch on price. Ford would've had to make a clean-slate design with some serious competition.
Now, if the depression had not happened, maybe there would've been more 247s and fewer DC-2s in the air.
turbobill
Intermediate Driver

I saw a Tri Motor giving rides at a south Florida airport in February.
bruold1
Intermediate Driver

Great article very informative, It's hard to believe Henry lost 5 million dollars producing the Tri motors, if that was the case what took him so long to stop?
Charlie
Intermediate Driver

Excellent history story about one of my favorite subjects, the "Tin Goose". Henry was a very controversial guy, but he did more for the U.S. than almost any other inventor and businessman.
This is still true to this day, 2022.
brians356
Advanced Driver

Before WW II my dad flew aboard a Tri-Motor into a forest fire staging area along the Salmon River in rugged central Idaho. Inside the narrow, deep river canyon the pilot had to employ a spiraling descent through broken columns of smoke. Pucker factor: high.
DUB6
Specialist

Anytime flying in that area - fire and smoke or not - can be pucker inducing!  Your dad must have had some really great stories of his time in the back country in those days.

shepherds2
Pit Crew

Thanks for a fabulously written article AND stunning pictures. Well done!
cobra305
Pit Crew

Very interesting reading enjoyed reading the total article.
JohnGalt
Intermediate Driver

I was fortunate enough to take a ride in a Tri-Motor a few years ago at the Asheville, NC airport. What a great experience. Loved it.
GRP_Photo
Instructor

I flew into Oshkosh in my Maule one year and was vectored to land behind the EAA's Ford. It landed and started slowing down, and I was still about 5' above the runway starting to have nightmares about destroying the tail on a pretty unique piece of history. After a few seconds (which seemed like hours), I hauled back on the yoke and stalled my Maule out. As one pilot in "Fate is the Hunter" put it to Ernest Gann, "That was no landing, that was an arrival." Anyway, I kept all three of my wheels and the Ford kept its tail feathers. My friend in the right seat never rode with me again after getting back home.
DUB6
Specialist

My wife had an aunt who specialized in coming in late, dressed to the nines, to anything (even carrying out the trash, I think).  Her famous line was, "Any entrance you can make where people will notice and remember you is a success".  You, sir, and your Maule, with this "arrival" was an obvious success!  😃

Brandx
Pit Crew

I grew up in Dearborn and saw Bill Stout driving his Scarab around town. I also have a 16mm film showing my grandmother getting on a Tri Motor and going for a sightseeing flight from Ford Airport and returning. All the passengers were dressed to the nines for the ride. For your information, Gilmore Car Museum near Kalamazoo has a Stout Scarab. I a volunteer there and was present when the Scarab was delivered and got to really go over that interesting vehicle.
Inline8OD
Technician

Good article. Don Sherman always gets it right. The title a mite hyperbolic, but not too much, considering the nascent airline industry at the time. I walked the narrow aisle of one of the Tri-Motors, small single wicker seats either side; hilarious, as with the cramped cockpit of a Duesenberg, etc., people so much slimmer then. Porkers so rare they made a star out of Fatty Arbuckle.

The Tri-Motor's spartan cockpit you had to see; oil and temp gauges outside, hanging in nacelles from the wings. Had to be fun in a blizzard.
442xcar
Intermediate Driver

All accomplished without government involvement.
GRP_Photo
Instructor

Not really. None of it would've happened if the government hadn't subsidized aviation through the mail contracts.
josephdemeyer
Pit Crew

The German Junkers Ju52 (first flight in 1930) was totally inspired by if not a copy of.. Fords Tri motor...Not only infamous as a military transport plane, dropping paratroopers and towing gliders..even serving as a bomber and tank destroyer on the Russian front..and desperately rescuing encircled German soldiers out of Stalingrad...it also carried Adolf Hitler on his campaign trail : he admired Henry Ford and vice versa... to a considerable extent. So you could say the Tri-motor ushered in not only modern air transportation..also modern war airfare and modern politics.
Excellent article !
GRP_Photo
Instructor

Auntie Ju. Definitely not a copy and not really very similar. There are significant differences between the two aircraft, many of which are fairly obvious from outside the plane. The Junkers' wing-mounted engines are canted to the outside; that is, the one on the left wing is angled several degrees to the left and that on the right wing is canted to the right. This allows the right engine to compensate a bit if the left engine fails, and vs-vs. The Ford is a high-wing aircraft; the Junkers is a low-wing aircraft. The Ford has engines under the wing in pods; the Junkers has them in wing-mounted nacelles. The control surfaces on the Junkers are actually separated from the wing, rather than the usual construction of having them form the trailing edge of the wing. The corrugated aluminum exterior (adopted by Ford) had been pioneered by Junkers during WWI.
Keep in mind that Junkers built their first aircraft in 1914, long before old Henry decided to get off the ground.
farna
Instructor

I thought the Ford Tri-Motor was a copy of a Fokker also, but the Fokker Tri-Motor came a few years AFTER the Ford. From an aircraft site (https://www.airliners.net/forum/viewtopic.php?t=321911😞

"The only thing in common between the two other than both being high winged trimotors is that they were designed around the same time. The first Ford Trimotor model that went into production, the 4-AT, was introduced in 1926; the Fokker F.7, was introduced in 1925 as a single engine a/c, but didn't become a trimotor until it was modified into one in 1928. The first true trimotor built by Fokker was the F.10, which was introduced in 1927.

There are notable differences between the two types. First off, the tail. The Ford Trimotors had a more squared and angular tail, while the F.7 had a more rounded tail. Then there's the materials the a/c are built out of. The Ford Trimotor was a metal a/c (Which gave it the nickname of the "Tin Goose") while the F.7 still used fabric and wood. "
DUB6
Specialist

Now here's someone who actually does some research and reports facts!  I'm not only impressed, but a tad jealous (mostly because I don't even do that!)...  🤣

GRP_Photo
Instructor

Actually, his research seems a bit off. The Fokker came out in 1925.
GRP_Photo
Instructor

The F.VII was converted to a tri-motor in 1925. The resulting aircraft was designated the Fokker F.VIIa/3m. It won the Ford Reliability Tour in late 1925.
Tomboy
Pit Crew

There was an attempted revival of the Ford Trimotor in the 1950s. The aircraft - also built from corrugated aluminum was called the Bushmaster 2000, powered by three Pratt & Whitney R-985 engines (450 hp each). On the subject of corrugated aircraft, Germany had a Ju-52 Junkers trimotor first built in the 1930s.

Other notable trimotors were from the Stinson Aircraft Company, building a Model SM6000, which was a high wing fabric covers aircraft, and a Model Stinson A, which was a low wing fabric covered aircraft, both powered by three Lycoming R-680 engines. FYI - the 'R' for the engine means it is a radial engine. The number after the R (680) indicates the total cubic inches of the engine.
If we are talking trimotor aircraft - so was a Boeing 727 and a DC-10.

Regarding a Ford Trimotor - from 1982 through 1985 I was hired by the R.H. Wagner Foundation to be the primary rebuilder of EAA's Ford Trimotor. That aircraft, in 1973 was lifted off of the ground in a severe windstorm, and then thrown nose first into the ground. EAA acquired the aircraft for the museum. At that time, they were not sure if it would be used to sell rides. The EAA trimotor was used in the filming of the movie 'Public Enemies' with Johnny Depp as John Dillinger. You can identify the EAA trimotor by the straight bottom on the entrance door. It was modified to straight when the aircraft was used (in its past life) as a smoke jumper aircraft. Ford trimotors had an oval door.
DUB6
Specialist

Cool side-story!  👍

Flashman
Technician

I've never heard them called the "Tough Thirties" before. (I have heard Dirty Thirties).
turbojoe62
Intermediate Driver

Very interesting read!! Thanks!!!
KingofThings
Pit Crew

At one time there were 2, I think, at McCarran Field in Vegas. I rode one and loved every second of it, from the blue cloud start-up to the shaking and rattling from everywhere. Oddly, I wasn't the least bit concerned and couldn't wait to GO>>>>>
Quite some time later, if I remember correctly they both had a similar fuel issue and had to land elsewhere though no one was injured as far as I recall. That was it for them both as they were permanently grounded. 😞 I assume they were disassembled and trucked out of wherever. I also wonder where they are now. Anyone know?
I still have the good-sized pinback button and unused bumper sticker "I FLEW IN A FORD".
lexus333
New Driver

About 20 years ago I was out for a ride on my motorcycle in a rural area past the western suburbs of Chicago when I spotted an old airplane above a small airport, Morris Municipal, R. James Washburn Field, among the farmlands. I pulled into the airport and spotted a sign that stated they were offering rides in a vintage Ford Tri-Motor, no appointment necessary! I can't remember if it was $50 or $75 but I parked my motorcycle and got in line! Just like the article states, the seats were wicker; one seat on either side of the aisle and a solo seat at the rear of the plane across from the door near the tail. The passengers were mostly couples so I took the last solo seat across from the door. There must have been 5 rows of 2 plus the solo seat which would explain the 11 seats referenced in the article. We zigzagged out to the runway, The pilot cannot see out the from cockpit straight ahead because it looks up at the sky: it's a tail-dragger. I was amazed how quickly we were airborne. We circled around the cornfields for about 25 minutes and returned to the airport. I remember the landing because there were strong crosswinds and it was obvious we were flying pitched to the left and not straight ahead as we approached the runway. We touched down, bounced once, and headed straight down the runway. It was a blast! This was before we had cellphones with cameras but fortunately I usually had an Olympus 35mm pocket camera with me when I was out on the motorcycle. I had it that day and took some pictures. After the flight the passengers were all presented with a cardboard 8x11 poster with a picture of the Tri-Motor and a signature that authenticated we had flown in one. Still have it!
Sledogpilot
Detailer

This is a really well done article. Learned a lot and got much more of a feel for Ford’s role in aviation development. I got to ride in the Experimental Aircraft Assn Trimotor in the copilot seat and even fly a bit. Worth the extra fee.
TomSturgis
New Driver

My grandfather was an early employee of Transcontinental Air Transport and was in the coast to coast promotional film. Back left in the cabin shots and introducing the gentleman to “Miss Earhardt” at the end. https://youtu.be/UjZBT_1hrxY