black and white photo of the Ford Tri-Motor airplaneApril 2000

by Kate Bernard

I spent a lot of time at the EAA AirVenture Museum’s Pioneer Airport from 1999 to 2002 as a volunteer and intern. We sold rides in a 1929 Ford 4-AT Tri-Motor airplane. I served as a ground crew member for this plane and had the opportunity to ride in it and copilot it. I wrote this story about what a museum visitor could expect to experience on a typical Tri-Motor Ride.

Come to Pioneer Airport on a sunny weekend, and chances are you’ll see the Ford Tri-Motor outside. It’s big, loud, and unconventional. It has three propellers, and a wheel on the tail. That will be enough to get you thinking. What’s more, you’ll wonder how that massive thing manages to take off and fly so slowly. It looks like something that belongs inside the museum. It is indeed a rare museum piece, one of the very few Tri-Motors left in the world. But even at over 70 years old, this bird is still flying, taking passengers on trips back in time.

The Tri-Motor commands your attention. It’s the biggest and loudest thing that moves at Pioneer Airport. It looks big when it’s parked next to the runway, but it looks even bigger when you see someone fueling it. It dwarfs whoever is standing on top of the wing with the fuel hose. The sight of the airplane is one thing, but the sound of it is another. When a pilot fires up its engines, curious onlookers gather near the rope by the grass. Minutes later, at full power, the plane gets louder and louder as it speeds down the runway. It passes in front of the hangars, and the deafening noise stops conversations. For a few seconds, you can hardly think. It makes you feel as if your head is vibrating. The noise subsides, but your eyes remain on the huge plane as it climbs away. About fifteen minutes later, it returns to land. You watch as it floats down.

Seeing the passengers get out makes you wonder what it’s like to fly in the Tri-Motor. If you’ve got the urge to take a ride, you can buy a ticket from the friendly volunteers at the Pioneer Airport office. The number on the bottom of your ticket is your flight number, and you wait for it to be called. Then you gather on the bleachers next to the runway. Your pilot greets the group and talks about the Tri-Motor’s history.

A Pioneer Airport volunteer welcomes you into the cabin, where you choose one of the plainly cushioned brown seats. The pilot and the lucky copilot climb into the cockpit, which is a big step higher than the cabin floor. After everyone is buckled in, the volunteer wishes you a good flight and shuts the door. You’re full of anticipation as the pilot starts the engines one by one, communicating with a volunteer outside. The pilot feeds the plane some throttle and it begins to roll across the grass to the end of the runway. The old trusty radial engines are so loud that you can’t hear yourself talk. You can feel your seat vibrate with the hum of the propellers.

The pilot stops the plane at the end of the runway and holds the brakes. After a routine safety check, the Tri-Motor is ready for takeoff.
The takeoff is the most exciting part of the flight. You’ll be surprised at how loud the engines roar when the pilot gives them full throttle. Immediately you are pushed back in your seat as the plane zooms forward. In seconds, the big plane lifts off after using only about 600 feet of runway.

Shortly after takeoff, the pilot moves the throttles back. The engines quiet down a bit. Your eyes are fixed on the ground below, where you can see Wittman Regional Airport, the city of Oshkosh, and Lake Winnebago. Every seat is a window seat, and the windows are huge!

A thousand feet above the ground, the pilot stops climbing. The Tri-Motor flies in a big circle. Somewhere during the flight, you’re bound to look down and see that you are barely moving faster than the cars on Highway 41. That’s because the Tri-Motor cruises at about 80 miles per hour. (If this were the 1930’s, you wouldn’t complain.) Your slow speed and low altitude give you a good sightseeing opportunity.

The gentle giant rides the air so smoothly that you barely feel anything. It is like flying in a freight train. As the pilot banks to fly back to the airport, you’re amazed at how maneuverable the bulky plane can be.

Much too soon, your 15-minute ride is drawing to a close. The pilot descends and lines up with the Pioneer Airport runway. The plane touches down with a soft “whump” in the grass. Slowly, the tail lowers, and you tilt back more and more until the tailwheel touches the ground. You forgot how much you were leaning back when the plane was on the ground earlier! Back at the parking spot, the engines are silenced. You unbuckle and exit the plane. Here’s your chance to take photos of it.

Your flight in the Tri-Motor was unique and unforgettable. Now you know what it was like to fly in the “golden days of aviation,” when airliners held nine or ten passengers, cruised at 80 miles per hour, and dragged their tails behind them. The Ford Tri-Motor offers a rare glimpse at what air travel was like before jumbo jets and inflight movies.