AMBIENTE TAKES FLIGHT IN 1929 FORD TRI-MOTOR AIRPLANE
by Bill Ross
It’s the roaring ’20’s. Bathtub gin. Car ownership for the general population. And airplanes are becoming commercially viable. If you
need any proof of how quickly advances in air transportation occurred, you only have to take one flight in the Ford Tri-Motor airplane. Built
in 1929, only 26 years after the first flight by the Wright Brothers, this plane represents another world of comfort, speed, range, and safety.
Your introduction to the world’s first mass-produced airliner, the Ford “Tin Goose”, is through the entrance to the cabin. Unlike a modern
airplane, this one rests on its tail and points skyward at a fairly steep angle. You duck low and enter through a small door along the rear
side of the plane. Every seat is a window seat, as there is only one seat on each side of a single aisle. You climb upwards towards your
seat and have a clear view of the cockpit in front of you. The plane has 11 seats, including one for the pilot and one for copilot or extra
passenger. The seats are comfortable, but not adjustable in any fashion. It should be remembered, however, that the plane had a range
of only a little over 500 miles and cruised at about 100 miles per hour.
This plane was developed at the beginning of commercial aviation. Tickets were very expensive, mainly the rich flew, and flying was still a
formal event requiring suitable attire. The cabin is beautifully appointed with leather covered seats, wood trim, and period correct interior
lights. There were no onboard bathroom facility in this age of flying, and while there could be a stewardess on board (at the cost of
removing one paying passenger) service was limited by the lack of any kitchen facilities onboard.
Each of the three radial engines are started in turn, and the plane develops a comforting sympathetic vibration in the cabin. With the tail of
the plane nearly on the ground, and the nose pointing upwards, your view forward is mainly of the sky. The view through the windows is of
the runway along side of you. The power is advanced, and the plane accelerates more slowly than we are used to today, but also takes
off in a much shorter distance.
We climb up to a few thousand feet, and the view through the side
windows is engrossing. We have departed Miami Executive Airport
(formally Tamiami Airport) and are flying east over Kendall towards the bay.
The communities below look neat and orderly, and the Falls Shopping center
is clearly visible. Depending on your seat, you may have a clear view of one
of the wing mounted engine, one on each wing (the third engine is actually
attached to the nose of the aircraft) and the non-retractable landing gear.
It is somewhat loud in the cabin, but not objectionably so. The vibration from the engines is still evident and comfortable. We fly very low,
a few thousand feet or so above the ground, rather than the 30 plus thousand feet common today. The cabin is not pressurized and while
the plane can fly as high as 18,000 feet, without pressurization or oxygen, it is only comfortable below 12,000 feet.
We sightsee for about 20 minutes and
turn back before flying over the Bay. A
smooth landing back at the airport is
the end of the trip.
As this was the first flight of the
airplane’s visit to Miami, about half of
us sharing the experience are pilots,
with an equal mix of current and retired,
some private (like myself), others,
commercial. People waiting for the
next flight on the plane represented
a more typical mix of airplane
The “Tin Goose” was Henry Ford’s
experiment in attempting to apply the
production advance he had introduced
with the advent of the Model T car to the
production of airplanes. It was one of
the first all metal airplanes. They were
constructed of corrugated aluminum to
add strength to the structure, with the
downside that the corrugation added
to the aerodynamic drag of the plane.
The design was modeled on the
Fokker tri-motor, and Junker aircraft
of the time, but its all metal
construction made it unique. Most plane in this era still used fabric coverings for parts of the fuselage and wings. The three motor power
plant was designed to provide redundancy, and from a marketing point of view, to make travelers feel more confident flying in the plane.
From a pilot’s standpoint, the plane had rudimentary instruments, some of which were mounted directly on the engines. During the 1920’
s and early 30’s, there was almost no electronic or radio navigation as we know it today. Pilots relied on a compass, time, and distance
to calculate where they were. The delivery of US Mail by plane encouraged the development of the first real navigation devices, in the form
of light beacons on the ground at first, and then the beginnings of radio navigation. This restored plane, of course, had been retrofitted
with a current navigation system.
The plane looks unusual to modern flyers as it does not rest in a level position when on the ground. This is because rather than have a
nose gear, it’s third landing wheel is at the tail of the plane. In the early days of flying, not many hard-surfaced runways existed. A plane
had to be able to land on grass, gravel, or even a somewhat leveled dirt field. A plane with its third wheel at the rear was better able to
handle these conditions. Almost all the stress and landing was taken by the large main landing gear and balloon like tires. The wheel at
the tail touched the ground after the plane had slowed and did not have to endure the same level of stress. It was therefore possible to
make it much smaller and lighter than a nose wheel designed to take the same level of stress.
The EAA, Experimental Aircraft
Association, based in Oshkosh,
Wisconsin, restored and maintains
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