By Joe Darby
Okay, folks. This week will be a change of pace. No politics. No controversies. No history. Well, there will be some history, but only in reference to one of the most important aircraft of all time.
A couple of weeks ago the last thing on my mind was taking a flight on a Ford Tri-Motor. In fact it was not on my mind at all, even in last place. Then I saw a small ad in The Shreveport Times, which I subscribe to (still have to get my daily newspaper, you know). It was a notice that an original 1929 Tri-Motor would be available for flights in Shreveport. Now that sounded like something cool to do.
Then, I looked at the website of the sponsoring organization, the EAA, and it was also coming to Alexandria. Even better! I much prefer driving to Alec than to Shreveport, although the latter is only about 20 miles farther from my house.
I checked the long-range weather forecast for last weekend and the prediction was clear, not windy and in the low 70s. Everything was falling into place. So I got in touch with my friend and veterinarian Dr. Joey Bynog, also of Natchitoches, and asked if he’d be interested. Doc Joey is a man of wide interests and his 11-year-old son Caleb, a bright lad if I ever saw one, loves history and they were both eager to share the adventure with me.
So around mid-day Saturday we piled into Doc’s truck and headed south. We expected the plane would be flying out of the main terminal, but we were informed that it was at the private Million Air terminal, a few blocks away and still on the old England Air Force Base complex. The historic airliner could carry only nine or ten passengers at a time, so we had to wait almost two hours for our turn.
But, boy, was it worth it. It’s just not something that one gets to accomplish every day, or even every month or every year, for that matter. So it was special. We got in through the low-ceilinged entry port and walked up to our seats. Like all planes of that era, the Tri-Motor is a tail dragger and you literally walk uphill toward the front of the plane after entering. The interior tended to the plush side, with leather seats and wood paneling above the windows. All seats are window seats because there are only two seats in each row, separated by the center aisle.
The pilot cranked up the three classic air-cooled radial engines, which were noisy, to say the least. But this was experienicng aviation as it was more than 90 years ago. After a very short roll, we were airborne and were commencing a 15-minute ride over Alexandria. She climbed slowly but surely and soon we were at what I estimate as an altitude of about 1,500 feet. The plane cruises at about 100 mph and has a range of some 500 miles.
As much as I loved the flight, I’m not sure I would have wanted to be aboard for four or five hours. She tends to wander a little, yawing back and forth and nodding for slight dips from time to time. So the pilot has to make almost constant corrections to keep the aircraft really steady. That has to be a tough job, too, because he has no hydraulics to help him. The controls are connected to external cables, which you can see in plain view on the side of the aircraft. It’s muscles all the way here.
But aviation historians pretty much agree that this airplane is of the utmost importance. It was the largest airliner of its day, and the first made of all metal, and was instrumental in helping change airlines from more or less fly by night outfits with small planes to an organized industry, with schedules, passenger terminals, maintenance and storage facilities at all major airports, and also introduced such amenities as flight attendants and toilet facilities.
It’s hey day was not that long, because with the pace of aviation progress back then, newer, sleeker planes like the Douglas DC-3 soon came along and made the Tri-Motor obsolescent for first-line air carriers. It’s day wasn’t over, however, and it continued to serve in South American nations then later as crop dusters, firefighters and cargo carriers.
But I’ll never forget my 15 minutes of airborne delight with a great old plane that first rolled out of its factory 93 years ago. Hopefully she’ll still be flying for additional decades.