It’s a steep climb up the narrow aisle from the door in the tail to the two First Class seats behind the cockpit. Well, actually, with only nine passenger seats, they are all First Class. Rio and I went all the way to the front because none of the other passengers did, and we naturally wanted to see the cockpit of the Ford 4-AT-E Tri-Motor—the granddaddy of all commercial airliners in the sky today.
Being entranced with the tales of early aviation, I’ve always had a soft spot for the triple-engine high-wing airliner, with its one engine on the nose and two hanging down in pods below the wings. With its boxy but graceful lines, and corrugated aluminum skin, it looks both barn-roof old-fashioned and art deco modern at the same time.
The Tri-Motors existed in a pivotal moment in time, when airlines moved from flying a rag-tag collection of wood and cloth biplanes to something we can all recognize as “modern.” And the venerable Tin Goose moved airplanes forward in scale in a way that’s hard to comprehend today. It was a monster plane for its time. I mean think about: This is an 8,000-pound metal-clad airplane with a wingspan of 74 feet. In 1929, just twenty-six years after the Wright Brother’s first flight, no less! Airlines, who had never flown anything of this size before, had to build new hangars just to accommodate the planes.
I had always wondered what it felt like to be a pioneering airline passenger, paying a princely sum to sit in a wicker chair in a noisy, cold plane; flying low and slow by our standards, but high and fast by standards of the time.
The very airplane I was now buckeling myself into came to New Mexico about six months ago, but I didn’t get wind of it until too late, and missed a chance to get a ride. As soon as I got the email announcing that it would be at AirVenture, I bought Rio and I a pair of tickets. In fact, I bought Tri-Motor tickets before I made hotel reservations.
I guess that says a lot about my priorities in life.
Anyway, the tickets cost $70 each (with an advanced purchase discount of five bucks) for a twelve-minute flight. How does that compare in cost to what a ticket would have cost when the Tri-Motors ruled the skies?
Well, according to the 5th Edition of Air Transportation: A Management Perspective by Alexander T. Wells and John G. Wensveen, back in 1929 the average airline ticket cost 12¢ per mile flown, rounded to the nearest nickel. Our Tri-Motor experience was 12 minutes in the air, so if we assume the full cruise speed of the Tri-Motor at 90 mph—granted this discounts climb and descent speeds, but this is an intellectual exercise riddled with possible errors anyway—Rio and I travelled 18 miles over Whitman Regional Airport, south to the sea plane base, out over Lake Winnebago, and back again. In 1929 an 18-mile flight, should such a silly thing have existed, would have set you back $2.15, rounded to the nearest nickel. Using an inflation calculator, that historic $2.15 in today’s money would be $30.00, so EAA charged me more than double the cost of a truly historical experience.
Was it worth it?
Yes. It was worth every penny rounded to the nearest nickel.
The chair wasn’t wicker, but everything else about the plane felt appropriately old school. The passengers all buckled it, we taxied across the grass and out onto the active runway. The pilot advanced the throttles and all three engines roared to life. Solid, powerful waves of sound filled the cabin. It was noisy, but not overwhelming. Rio, who is sensitive to sound, wore earplugs:
I chose to fly ’20s style. It was not deafening, but you would have been hard-pressed to carry on a conversation with your seatmate on a long flight.
We began to roll. The increase in speed was steady, methodical. The tail slowly lifted. There was a brisk crosswind, but the captain kept the big bird lined up straight down the runway. Then the old giant finally lumbered into the air. It was more like slow motion levitation than the rocket-launch nose-high takeoffs we are used to in modern airliners. There was no moment where you could tell that we’d broken the hold the ground had on us. The runway just slowly dropped away. Then below me I beheld a sea of airplanes. Among them, a fleet of Ercoupes:
The Tri-motor felt solid and steady in the air. But somehow struck me as more a creature of the ground that could fly, than as creature of the air that could also live on the ground—as many planes seem to be, Tessie included. Everything about the Tri-Motor screamed “airliner” to me: Steady, reliable, stable. Safe. But plodding as well. But as you’ll see in a minute, my notion of what an airliner is was about to be shaken to its core.
We had a great 12 minutes. In fact, it felt more like half an hour. We landed smoothly, and as the airspeed bleed off, and the tail settled to the earth, our seats seemed to recline. As soon as the props stopped spinning, the ground crew hustled us off to get the next nine paying First Class passengers aboard. But one did offer to snap a quick pic of Rio and me.
As we wandered south through the thousands of airplanes on display, the airshow announcer, an overly enthusiastic character by nature and profession, was practically gushing as he announced that the new Airbus A-350-X-WB airliner was about to make a fly-over. I couldn’t match his enthusiasm. So what? How boring. The latest flying cattle car. Another Greyhound bus with wings. Big deal.
Then the big plane whispered down the runway past me. WFT? If his engines failed, how come he hasn’t crashed? As the behemoth sailed past, it pulled up and gracefully cartwheeled to one side, flashing Barn-swallow-like wings, and proceeded to put on a one-plane airshow that blew my mind.
I stood transfixed and transformed, my mouth gaping open. This huge 220-foot long, 54-thousand-pound monster was a true creature of the sky.
It flew like a jet fighter!
The evolution of the airliner is complete. First the bus that could fly, now the flying creature that can carry passengers.
But that’s not all that’s changed. Speed, capacity, and price have all reached new heights in the atmosphere as well.
The Tri-Motor flew at 90 miles per hour, much like our Ercoupe. The Airbus? Normal cruise is 561 miles per hour. And that’s not throttles to the firewall either. The Ford cost $42,000 out the factory door in the late 1920s. In today’s dollars that would be a little bit over half a million bucks. The Airbus? Get out five checkbooks. This one will set you back about 305 million dollars. Of course, instead of nine passengers, it seats 325.
We’ve come a long way since Mr. Ford’s Tri-motor, and yet, in the shadow of the great AirBus you can see the soul of the Tri-Motor, both built for the same purpose. But for the sheer joy of being in the air, even though the Airbus likes to fly more, I think I’d choose flying in the Tri-motor. I’m not sure why.
Maybe I just like my airliners lumbering.