The Geese Return Home. And So Does the Tin Goose.
Published 08/27/2009 - 9:40 p.m. CDT
This Ford Tri-Motor was featured in the movie Public Enemies.

A fully-restored 1929 Ford Tri-Motor will visit the Ottawa, Kan., Municipal Airport Sept. 1-2 and the Lees Summit, Mo., Municipal Airport Sept. 3-7 and offer rides as part of a six-state regional barnstorming tour.

In the case of Ottawa, the Tri-Motor’s visit is sentimental journey for airport manager Chuck LeMaster. He owned it. He has photos of it and other Tri-Motors he has owned tacked to the walls of the small terminal building.

“It’s nice to see the old bird come back,” LeMaster said. “… I sure enjoyed the time I had with the Tri-Motor.

The Ford is owned by the Experimental Aircraft Association and is based in Wisconsin. It’s appearance in Ottawa is sponsored by the Ad Astra Aviators, an EAA chapter based near Ottawa.

He also owned another Tri-Motor as well as the first Bushmaster Tri-Motor, updated replica of the Ford.

Although the Tin Goose that’s coming to the area is three years older than LeMaster, it’s still just as rugged and reliable as it was when it was built, he said.

“It’s a wonderfully performing aircraft,” said LeMaster of the Ford Tri-Motor. “It has a short take-off and it has a short landing and it can carry a tremendous load.”

Those qualities are still prized, especially in areas with primitive landings strips such as in South America, he said. Bushmaster bought the jigs and equipment from Ford and started making new Tri-Motors but went bankrupt, Lemaster said.

Henry Ford put America on wheels with his Model Ts and he decided to put America on wings and he decided to build airplanes during the 1920s at a time when Americans were becoming air-crazy, he said.

“He was in the transportation business and he could see that aviation was coming to the forefront,” LeMaster said.

The Ford Tri-Motor looks suspiciously looks like the German-built Fokker Tri-Motor. There’s a good reason, LeMaster said.

“Henry Ford basically stole it,” he said.

A Fokker landed at Ford’s airport in Detroit one day, he said. Ford generously offered the overnight use of a spacious hangar.

During the night, a team of Ford engineers swarmed over the Fokker, taking measurements and drawings.

Ford liked the idea of having three motors – indeed, Ford Tri-Motors can stay flying with only one engine.

The Fokker Tri-Motor was made mostly of wood and fabric and had an evil reputation of mechanic failures. A Fokker Tri-Motor killed legendary Norte Dame football coach Knute Rockne during a storm in the Kansas Flint Hills near Matfield Green.

Ironically, Ford’s engineers improved on the design and it had an unparalleled safety record for an early airplane, LeMaster said.

“It was the first all-metal airliner,” he said. “There no wood in it except in the interior.

“… There was never an instance where a Ford crashed because of a structural failure.”

According to some pilots who flew them, the Fords could be looped and flown upside down -- when airline executives weren’t looking.

Ford built different sizes of the Tin Goose. The plane visiting Ottawa and Lees Summit isn’t the largest version but it’s still a big airplane, LeMaster said.

The plane picked up its nickname because of the corrugated metal-skin on its fuselage and wings.

“All the farmers thought it was built out of barn tin,” he said. “But it’s all made out of aluminum. It’s light and it’s strong.”

Ford engineers built a special machine that put the corrugations in the aluminum, giving it added strength without increasing the weight, he said.

Since the EAA bought and rebuilt the Ford after a Montana storm wrecked it, the plane has been used for barnstorming and other purposes, said Chuck Finley, president of the Ad Astra Aviators.

It was repainted and used in the recently-released Johnny Depp and Christian Bale movie “Public Enemy,” he said.

“Johnny Depp didn’t actually fly in the Tri-Motor,” Finley said.

“The insurance company wouldn’t allow him to fly in it for the movie,” Finley explained. “But he did taxi around in it.

“They even show which one is Johnny Depp’s seat.

“You can even fly in it.”

The public will be able to fly in the Tri-Motor while it’s at Ottawa and Lees Summit. Flights will be noon to dusk Sept. 1 and 9 a.m. to dusk on Sept. 2 at Ottawa; and noon to dusk Sept. 3 and 9 a.m. to. 5 p.m. Sept. 4-7 at Lees Summit.

Flights are noon to 5 p.m. Sept. 3-Sept. 7. Tickets for the 15-minute flights are $60 for the public; $50 for EAA members.
To pre-book flights, a secure flight-reservation system and complete information are available through EAA’s Tri-Motor tour web site at www.flytheford.org. Visitors can also pre-book a flight by calling 1-800-843-3612.

“This airplane allows people to experience true living history of aviation, as well as learn more about EAA and our mission to help people fully participate in the world of flight,” said Adam Smith, director of the EAA AirVenture Museum in Oshkosh, Wis., where the airplane is based.

“As we bring the airplane to this region of the country, thousands of people will get a rare glimpse of a unique flying machine that changed the way people travel in America.”

The Ford name gave the airplane instant respectability and the company was planning to expand its aerial product line, LeMaster said.

But Ford abruptly stopped production after building nearly 200 of the Tri-Motors.

One of Henry Ford’s best friends was a test pilot for Ford and was killed while testing one of the new Ford designs and Ford was shaken by his death.

Then Ford came to watch as another test pilot prepared to fly the newest Ford design – which LeMaster called advanced for its time.

The plane was at the end of the runway ready to take off when the pilot dropped dropped something at his feet, he said. The pilot reached down, grabbed it and when he straightened up, he was horrified that he was airborne, with the airplane hanging nose-high in the air, he said.

Although the pilot desperately tried to bring the nose down and build airspeed, the plane dropped tail-first to the ground and the tail telescoped into the body of the plane.

“Henry Ford watched all of this,” LeMaster said. “He said, ‘That’s it. No more.’

“I guess he figured he would sell more cars than airplanes.”