To soar in the 1929 Ford Tri-Motor is to take a step back in time, when only the daring ventured into the sky. When men dressed in suits and women in silk stockings to travel. When a pilot maneuvered a plane by wits and skill not computers. When a passenger was protected from the elements by nothing more than a sheet of glass in a window. When aviation was more than novel: It was a luxurious adventure for the lucky few who could afford to fly.
Now you can experience the golden age of aviation — the deafening roar of engines, the rattle of the plane’s corrugated metal skin, the cool breeze blowing through the ventilation slits along the window panes — by booking a flight on the only Tri-Motor still flying.
The Tin Goose, the first airplane used for commercial passenger flight and one with deep roots in Miami and Cuba, is coming home. It will be visiting Kendall-Tamiami Executive Airport for four days next week, and the local chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association, which is hosting the vintage aircraft, is offering paid rides to raise funds for its upkeep. The flight, which is expected to last about 15 minutes in the air at about 2,000 feet, will likely take passengers as far as Miami Beach.
“This is part of history, of aviation history,” said Yale Mosk, president of the local EAA chapter. “It’s a way of remembering some of the glory days.”
And what days those were. Nicknamed The Tin Goose because it was the first airplane to be made of metal, the Tri-Motor was also the first one to be mass produced and the first to offer ticketed reservations to ordinary folk. It can carry up to 10 passengers at a time.
“This is the aircraft that spawned a billion dollar industry,” added Rick Sante, local EAA coordinator. “It was the first in many ways and it was considered very luxurious.”
Every passenger’s seat has a window, and all the seats feature the original leather. The plane travels at about 90 to 100 mph, a leisurely stroll in our era of jets and rockets but an unimaginably fast breakthrough in speed for 1929.
The Miami stop is part of a Florida tour that hopes to promote awareness of aviation. Rides aboard the first mass-produced airliner cost $70 in advance and $75 for walk ups. The local EAA chapter is also encouraging people, even those who don’t plan to fly, to stop by the southwest Miami-Dade airport to peek at the plane and experience what commercial air travel was like decades ago.
Sante is also looking for former passengers who flew on the plane when it was in its prime. He found one, a Miami man who had been an 11-year-old passenger in Cuba, but the man died before Sante could interview him.
“I’m sure there are other people out there who can tell us what it was like to fly this plane at the time,” Sante said. “It’s just a matter of getting the word out.”
There are only a handful of known Ford Tri-Motors in existence. Except for the one touring Florida, restored by EAA staff over a 12-year period, the rest are in museums, Sante said. The model coming to Miami still bears the Eastern Airlines logo on its fuselage.
When both men speak of the plane, they sound like children in a candy store — for good reason. Ford Motor Company built 199 Tri-Motors from 1926 through 1933. EAA’s model, the 4-AT-E, was No. 146 on Ford’s assembly line. With its first flight Aug. 21, 1929, it became part of Ford’s vision to revolutionize air travel. Just as he had changed ground transportation with his Model T — the famous Tin Lizzie automobile — Ford wanted to build another new mass market.
The 4-AT-E model was sold to Eastern Air Transport, which would later become Miami-based Eastern Airlines. A year later, the plane was leased to Cubana Airlines, when that company launched its first Havana-to-Santiago de Cuba flight. Eventually, the plane made its way to Miami in 1949. In the 1950s and ‘60s, the plane became something of a workhorse in the west, Sante said, serving a variety of purposes from crop dusting to barnstorming shows and smoke jumping, where parachuting firefighters jump from the cargo door to fight forest fires below.
The Tin Goose also starred in a 1965 comedy, The Family Jewels, featuring Jerry Lewis as a clueless pilot. But it wasn’t all glamour after that: In 1973, a severe thunderstorm in Wisconsin ripped the plane from its tie-downs and smashed it to the ground. The EAA purchased the battered vintage plane and began restoring it. The Tri-Motor was a perfect addition to the Oshkosh, Wis.,-based group of aviation enthusiasts who are bound, through more than 1,000 chapters around the country, by their passion for flying, building and restoring recreational aircraft. In addition to the Tri-Motor, the EAA owns dozens of other aviation relics, including a Boeing B-17 bomber and a Spirit of St. Louis replica.
Once restored to its former glory, the Tri-Motor debuted at a 1985 EAA convention in Oshkosh. Now based at the EAA’s Pioneer Airport in Wisconsin, it tours the country giving aviation junkies and history buffs the ride of a lifetime. In addition to Miami, The Tin Goose’s tour includes seven other Florida cities, including Jacksonville, Sarasota, Fort Myers, Naples, Vero Beach, Zephyrhills and New Smyrna Beach.
“Just hearing those piston engines crank up,” Sante said, “is a thrill you can’t get anywhere else.”