First commercial plane giving rides in Perry

wcrenshaw@macon.comMay 8, 2014 

  • The Experimental Aircraft Association is giving rides Thursday and Friday in Perry on its 1929 Ford Tri-Motor, which the group says was America's first commercial passenger plane. by Wayne Crenshaw

PERRY -- A significant but unheralded piece of aviation history is flying around Houston County this week.

The Experimental Aircraft Association is offering rides on a 1929 Ford Tri-Motor, which the group says is the first true commercial airliner in America.

“We are going to take a step back in time, and that’s what I find so interesting about being able to share this airplane,” pilot Bill Thacker told the nine passengers he had on his first flight Thursday. “This is exactly what you would have felt and experienced had you gotten on one of these airplanes in 1929.”

Public flights will continue Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the Perry-Houston County Airport from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets are $75 for adults and $50 for children.

Thacker said the ticket prices pay the expenses of touring the plane. The group does it as an outreach to keep historic planes flying and educate the public.

“Hopefully we can infect some kid with the desire to fly,” he said.

The plane gets its name from its three engines, one on the nose and one on each wing. It was built by the Ford Motor Co.

Thacker said Henry Ford saw the potential for commercial aviation while traveling in Europe. At that time, Thacker said, in the U.S. the only paid flights were a few people hitching rides on mail carriers.

“It’s the first airplane that was specifically built to be a passenger airliner,” he said.

At idle, it rumbles a little like a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

The view must have been breathtaking for those who were flying for the first time in the 1930s. The plane has wide, square windows, not the dinner-plate size windows of today’s commercial aircraft. And all of the seats are window seats.

Only 199 Tri-Motors were built, and about eight are still flying. The plane in Perry is the only one that flies regularly.

The Tri-Motor primarily shuttled people from coast to coast with a combination of plane and train rides. The trip took about three days, which doesn’t sound very convenient today, but Thacker said at the time it was much quicker than going by only train or car. Going by car, in fact, was practically out of the question due to the lack of highways.

Air Force Lt. Col. Gerald Gallegos and his 13-year-old son, Jake, were among the passengers on the first trip Thursday. Gallegos is an aircraft maintenance officer at Robins Air Force Base, but he is also working to get his pilot’s license.

“I’m trying to get the flying bug to bite my son,” he said.

Thacker let Jake fly in the co-pilot’s seat, where he got a close up look at one of the plane’s unique features. The yoke, which is U-shaped in just about every other plane, is actually the same steering wheel that was used in Ford cars at the time. The pilots turn it to bank just like a car is steered.

Jett Smith of Gray was also among the passengers.

“It was a trip back in time, like the man said,” Smith said. “It was certainly a lot different from modern airlines. It was quite an experience.”

Ford got out of the aircraft business after the stock market crashed. However, Thacker said Henry Ford’s role in establishing commercial aviation in America is under appreciated.

For those who may be wary about riding in an 85-year-old plane, it’s not truly that old. In 1973, before the association bought it, the plane was tossed over in a windstorm and broke in three places.

Since restoring it, the group has kept records of all the parts that were replaced, but Thacker doesn’t know what might have been replaced before that. Any parts to be replaced today must be individually manufactured.

So that means he doesn’t know that anything on the plane is actually original, even structural parts.

“Over time, probably everything has been replaced at some time or another,” he said.

To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.

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