By Bill Thorpe
Car Nutz columnist
Henry Ford mobilized millions of Americans and created a new market with his Model T “Tin Lizzie” automobile from 1909-26. After World War I he recognized the potential for mass air transportation for everyday hard-working Americans.
Ford’s Tri-Motor aircraft, nicknamed the “Tin Goose,” was designed to build another new market: airline travel. To overcome concerns of engine reliability, Ford specified three engines and added features for passenger comfort, such as an enclosed cabin. The first three Tri-Motors built seated the pilot in an open cockpit, as many pilots doubted a plane could be flown without the direct “feel of the wind.”
From 1926-33 the Ford Motor Co. built 199 Tri-Motors. The EAA’s Model 4-AT-E was the 146th off the assembly line and first flew Aug. 21, 1929. Days later it was sold to Pitcairn Aviation.
In 1930 it was leased to Compania Nacional Cubana de Aviacion Curtiss and provided service between Havana and Santiago de Cuba.
The plane returned to the United States in 1949 for barnstorming use. In 1950 it was refitted with more powerful engines for use as a crop duster. In 1955 it was fitted with two 275-gallon tanks and bomb doors for use in aerial firefighting. Then in 1958 it was further modified for use by smoke jumpers.
The plane moved to Lawrence, Kan., in 1964, where its new owner flew tours. During this period it had a variety of roles, including serving as the primary setting for the Jerry Lewis comedy “The Family Jewels.”
In 1973 the aircraft was still being used for show rides, including an EAA chapter’s fly-in in Wisconsin, where a severe thunderstorm damaged the plane. The EAA subsequently purchased the wreckage.
After a 12-year restoration process, the old Tri-Motor took to the air once again, having its official re-debut at the 1985 Fly-In Convention in Oshkosh, Wis.
In 1991 it returned to its former role of delighting passengers on its annual tour across the United States.
History of Liberty Tri-Motor
Liberty Aviation Museum’s 1928 Ford Tri-Motor 5-AT-B, serial No. 8, flew its maiden flight Dec. 1, 1928.
It was sold in 1929 Transcontinental Air Transport and named “City of Wichita.” It inaugurated westbound transcontinental commercial air service on July 7, 1929, with its sister ship city of Columbus, Ohio.
In April 1931 the ownership was transferred to Transcontinental & Western Air. In July 1935 the plane was sold to G. Ruckstill and entered the fleet at Grand Canyon Airlines.
The plane flew in Honduras from 1937-42 and was purchased by an unknown operator in 1942.
1951 brought major overhaul and repairs, including removal of the plane’s corrugated skin, which was replaced with flat sheet metal.
The Tri-Motor was sold to another private owner in 1953 and was damaged in an accident in 1954, after which it was put in storage.
Eugene Frank of Idaho acquired the aircraft in 1955, moving it back to the United States and putting it in storage until 1964, when it was purchased by William F. Harrah of Harrah’s Hotel and Casinos. Harrah began a seven-year renovation. The Ford had its first post-restoration flight in 1971 and flew several times before being moved to static display as part of Harrah’s automobile collection.
In 1990 the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in McMinnville, Ore., acquired the aircraft. It remained in storage until 1996, when another restoration of the aircraft started, returning it to flying condition once again.
In 2014 the plane was acquired by Ed Patrick and the Liberty Aviation Museum in Port Clinton, Ohio. Volunteers ferried the aircraft across the country to its new home. After maintenance to ensure the aircraft was tour-ready, Liberty entered into a lease agreement with the EAA, working together to showcase the aircraft around the country.