Flying in a museum artifact: Nearly 100-year-old Ford plane soars over Chesapeake
June 18, 2023
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  • Chesapeake Regional Airport recently hosted an opportunity for local aviation enthusiasts to experience flight aboard a vintage 5-AT-B Ford Trimotor airplane. The Trimotor dubbed the “City of Port Clinton” is owned by the Liberty Aviation Museum in Ohio and leased by the Experimental Aviation Association.

    Members of Chapter 339 of the EAA, a group of local aviation devotees, aircraft builders, and pilots, served as volunteers for the special event called “Fly the Ford.”

    “Our local chapter is volunteering to help with the manpower to make the event happen, but it is actually a coordinated effort with the airport authority, the EAA, and a couple of the other businesses at the airport,” said Chris Ryan, president of local Chapter 339 of the EAA.

    Of the 199 Ford Trimotor aircraft that were built by Ford Motor Company and the Stout Metal Airplane Company from 1926 until 1933, less than two dozen still exist. Only about six are currently air-worthy.

    “Our mission is to raise funds to keep the plane flying as well as to let people see the history of the airplane,” said Glenn Johnson, vice president of the local EAA chapter. “This plane was built in 1928 and started passenger service in 1929. It was considered, back then, a luxury airliner.”

    The Ford Trimotor had a wingspan of 78 feet and three Pratt & Whitney radial engines. Each engine produces 450 hp. This aircraft had a cruising speed of 90 miles per hour and a range of slightly less than 600 miles. The cost per unit (USD 1933) was $50,000.

    “I’m very impressed with the plane. It is almost 100 years old,” Johnson said. “This was a work of art. For the time, it was a very advanced airplane.”

    Designed for the civil aviation market, the Ford Trimotor played a huge role in persuading the American public that travel by air was safe. The aircraft was noisy but reliable in transporting passengers. The Trimotor proved to be among the most influential aircraft in American airline history.

    “The corrugated skin was used to strengthen the wing and the fuselage without having to add more structure to the aircraft,” said EAA volunteer Ken Knutson. “It’s less weight to add a little bit more skin because of the corrugation than using steel to build up the structure. It’s much lighter to add aluminum than it is to add steel.”

    When the Great Depression struck, Ford Motor Company and Stout Metal Airplane Company stopped producing aircraft (in 1933) and Ford Motor Company concentrated its focus on manufacturing automobiles.

    Ashley Messenger volunteers as a pilot for the Experimental Aircraft Association. The Ford Trimotor he flies is owned by the Liberty Aviation Museum in Port Clinton, Ohio. It is leased and toured by the Experimental Aircraft Association.

    “It’s a pretty amazing leap in technology. You look at this aircraft and you see some throwbacks to the earlier 1910s, the Wright era, with the exposed [control] cables,” said Messenger. “And you see the aluminum construction. That was state-of-the-art at that point.”

    Henry Ford backed the Ford Trimotor airliner with all the integrity of the Ford Motor Company. If Ford Motor Company was going to engage in “this flying thing,” then Henry Ford was determined to do it right.

    “Ford built the Trimotor as a passenger airliner and intended it to actually make money hauling passengers. It came close,” said Messenger. “In 1928, it would have cost you $50,000 to buy this aircraft. Today, that would be a bargain.

    “You had to be serious about it. The airliner was first sold to Transcontinental Air Transport which was the forerunner of TWA. Their vision was coast to coast service.”

    Messenger flies a variety of vintage aircraft, including two Ford Trimotors, a B-25 bomber, and two antique biplanes for the EAA.

    “All these old machines have a personality. Everything on the airplane is mechanical. Each [vintage] aircraft has quirks that you learn to live with,” he said. “Pilots talk about airplanes. There are airplanes that are easy to fly. There are airplanes that are hard to fly. The ones that are hard to fly just don’t give up their secrets gradually. You have to earn their respect. Once you do, you’re friends for life.”

    The Ford Trimotor is not fuel efficient at all. It holds 345 gallons of fuel and burns it at a rate of 60 gallons an hour. Depending on conditions, the plane can travel an average of 80 to 90 miles in an hour.

    “Nobody comes off this airplane with a frown. It’s a wonderful experience even for people who have not been in an airplane before,” said Messenger. “I’ve taken many people for their first airplane ride in the Ford Trimotor. They beam from ear to ear when they get out at the airport.”

    Chesapeake resident Chip Mardis is a local aviation enthusiast whose father was a commercial airline pilot with Pennsylvania Central, Capital, and United Air Lines. Mardis brought his father’s airline hats, pilot’s log, and Army Air Corps photo aboard the Ford Trimotor for a Friday afternoon flight.

    “I’m a huge aviation nut. It’s my first love. I really wanted to have an opportunity to fly in a plane my dad always wanted to fly but never had a chance to,” said Mardis. “The EAA is just an incredible organization. They do things first class. It’s an incredible investment in time and dollars for all these volunteer groups.”