Friday, July 13, 2012

Tri-Motor Adventures

The tail tag confirmed our plane was N8419
When pilot Cody Welch activated the starter for the nose engine of the 1929 Ford Tri-motor at the start of our flight this week at Air Zoo, it reminded me of the rasping sound of the starter used to get my first automobile going.  Coincidentally, that first car was a 1929 Model A Ford.

The two Ford products manufactured in the same year had some other similarities.  Both featured relatively simple systems that were quite easy to repair, both were somewhat boxy, solidly built, rugged machines, and both had received numerous updates by the time I got involved with them.  The differences were perhaps equally important.   

My old Model A chugged along, coughed often, and stalled occasionally due to neglected maintenance and the poor driving skills of the inexperienced owner.  After Welch started the left Tri-motor engine and then the right, and allowed plenty of warm up time, the three Pratt and Whitney engines operated smoothly. Throughout our half-hour flight from Kalamazoo-Battle Creek Airport the N 8419 engines performed like machinery guided by an expert and cared for by dedicated mechanics.

Welch easily fits in the expert category.  When he welcomed the 10 passengers after all were aboard, I asked, “How many times have you done this?” The answer was “5,000.”

Lee Klade learned walks in boarding bridges aren't needed to enter a tri-motor--just duck your head and step right in
After we landed, Welch and our co-pilot graciously stayed beside the plane talking with son Lee and me until just minutes before their next flight.  Welch knew a lot about tri-motors generally, and N8419 specifically.

Mechanics gave N8419 lots of TLC during recent years.  After 10 years of carrying passengers at Air Zoo, corrosion problems caused the plane to be grounded.  During a long-running reconstruction project the aircraft was literally taken apart and reassembled with many new or improved parts.  Work was performed in an Air Zoo hangar and at a facility in Alma, Michigan.

You can get an insider’s look at the tri-motor by visiting
There a mechanic who worked on the reconstruction project has posted photos of various stages in the process and added his comments. As a bonus, you can watch a video of the first flight of the “new” N8419 in 2009 and see how the cockpit and passenger area look today. A mechanic who calls the machine he is working on “the old sweetheart” obviously is dedicated to quality work.

In addition to a lot of updated components, N8419 has a new role. It is owned by Air Zoo, but is not a permanent resident. It is leased to the Experimental Aircraft Association, a large organization of aviation enthusiasts based in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.  Like other historic aircraft maintained by EAA, the tri-motor appears at air shows and also travels to selected sites to offer rides.  So far this year, N8419 has flown in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Michigan. It will be available for rides again at Air Zoo for several days in August.

At a pre-boarding briefing an Air Zoo volunteer told us we could expect our ride to be fairly noisy and just a little bit bumpy. With a broad grin, he said, “We don’t provide air conditioning, but you won’t need it, anyway.”

Our host then said, “Every seat has its own window and every one is an aisle seat, so you won’t have anything to argue about. Just take a seat.” This and his earlier statements proved to be correct. His last statement was a bit of an exaggeration: “You’ll fly low and get great views of the area. If the plane goes over your house and your neighbor is cooking out, you’ll be able to tell if he’s grilling hotdogs or hamburgers.”

The noise level increased as we accelerated down the runway. We gained altitude quickly after lift off, something tri-motors are good at. The ability to ascend and descend rapidly and sturdy landing gear were major assets when the planes began flying in the 1920s.  Long, paved runways were rare and they did not become common for many years.

Our flight did stay “low and slow.”  We traveled at altitudes of about 1,000 feet at speeds around 90 mph.  Pretty tame stuff compared to long-distance cruising at 30,000 feet in today’s speedy jetliners.  But I liked traveling at the slow pace and low altitude.  There was a definite feeling we were experiencing airline flying as it was in its infancy.

I didn’t see amateur cooks flipping hamburgers, but we were treated to great views. As we flew over downtown Kalamazoo every building could be easily identified.  That also was true when we peered down at the Western Michigan University campus. Streets, vehicles, boat docks, and other features of the community were seen clearly.

As advertised, parts of the ride were a little bumpy when the plane encountered changing air patterns.  I thought the small jolts were merely annoying.  I’ve flown in many big commercial liners where the going was much rougher.  In fact, as we progressed I got used to the occasional bumps and forgot all about them. I was only one seat from the cockpit and could see small adjustments being made to keep the plane flying smoothly.

Lee and I agreed that the noise level also was not much of a negative.  The three engines were loud enough to interfere with normal conversation.  Yet it was possible to exchange comments with fellow passengers simply by speaking up.  We thought the noise, as well as the little bumps, contributed to the experience.

One update might have helped hold the noise levels below those reported by old-time tri-motor passengers.  All the original corrugated aluminum that covered N 8419’s fuselage has been replaced by new panels of an improved type of aluminum alloy.  We didn’t hear any noises generated by the exterior covering.

Every passenger did have a window, and every window had a small plastic circle that could be opened easily to let air in.  The pilot and co-pilot opened cockpit windows, and air from them flowed back into the passenger area.  Backwash from the two wing-mounted engines increased the airflow through our window vents.  The combined effect was a pleasant temperature in the plane throughout the flight, and it was a late afternoon trip on a warm sunny day.  The tri-motor had a “green” air conditioning system!

I’ve flown in enough smaller aircraft to know that smooth takeoffs are routine, but landing is a whole different thing.  N8419 hit one of those little air bump glitches just as we were about to touch down.  The right wheel made contact a tad early.  I observed Cody Welch fix that with a deft flick of his wrist. He straightened us out perfectly.  I gave the landing a 9 on that proverbial 10 scale, and I’m pretty picky.

Lee and I summed up our flight aboard Tri-Motor N8419 on July 10, 2012 in one word: Enjoyable.

Tri-motors made thousands of successful flights for a long time.  They were the first all-metal airliners.  Ford Motor Company produced 199 tri-motors between 1925 and 1933. We were told only three are flying today, but another five are certified as airworthy and about a dozen more are in various stages of restoration.

Henry would be proud. A "flying Ford" logo goes along on every N8419 flight to show who built her in 1929.
Henry Ford foresaw a great future in air travel and the company’s tri-motors initially were produced for the commercial market. Later, many were built to military specifications and flown by air corps pilots in the U.S. and several other countries.

Ford ended production when more-advanced aircraft were being rapidly developed and produced by others.  New planes, such as the Douglas DC-2, pushed the tri-motors out of the major airline market, but the Ford aircraft found new employment at small airlines and other enterprises.  Ford Tri-motors ultimately were flown by more than 100 airlines world-wide. Many served commercial purposes into the 1960s.

Northwest Airlines bought N8419 from Ford Motors in 1929.  Northwest later sold it to Air Alaska.  After its duty as an Alaskan airliner, it was sold to Johnson Flying Service, a fast-growing aviation company located in Missoula, Montana.  Johnson acquired several tri-motors, plus other aircraft capable of operating in rugged northern Rocky Mountain terrain.  The U.S. Forest Service became a major customer through contracts.

The Forest Service used planes owned by Johnson and flown by Johnson pilots for many purposes. The first full-time fire researcher left an account of an early experiment conducted with a plane piloted by Bob Johnson, founder of the service company.  Tri-motors were used to spray pesticides over millions of acres in programs intended to reduce populations of destructive forest insects. Tri-motors carried supplies to remote National Forest administrative sites. At least one tri-motor was equipped with two large tanks mounted under the wing so it could drop fire retardant chemicals to help control blazes. 

Following several years of experimentation with air drops, two Forest Service employees in 1940 were the first to parachute into a remote area to fight a wildfire. Smokejumping was born, and Ford Tri-motors became the drop vehicles of choice. It was a happy marriage. During World War II, the number of smokejumpers increased to some 250, and many tri-motors well-suited to the task were busy delivering the firefighters wherever they were needed throughout the West.

Considering the volume of business and the circumstances in which they operated, both smokejumpers and tri-motors compiled good safety records.  But wildland firefighting is dangerous business, and there have been some tragedies.  My last post briefly described one—on August 4, 1959 when Tri-motor N8419 crashed and burned at a remote airstrip in northern Idaho.  I said Ron Stoleson, a golfing pal for some 10 years, was fortunate that day, and I would explain why later.  Now I’ll try to do that.

Stoleson does not like to talk about the accident. I don’t recall him discussing it during or after golf games or elsewhere unless someone asked a direct question.  In fact, I think I first heard about the Moose Creek crash from Ross Parry, another long-time member of our golf group.  Parry was a smokejumper for six years.  Like Stoleson, he became a jumper foreman.  Also like Stoleson, he made his first jump and many others from a tri-motor.

The Moose Creek site, now in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness within the Nez Perce National Forest, in 1959 included a Ranger Station and a primitive airstrip. The airstrip is still in use. The site is at the confluence of Moose Creek and the Selway River, 25 miles from the nearest road.  Flanked by steep canyon walls, it is one of the few fairly flat pieces of land in the area.  Canyon winds are unpredictable and can be strong.

On the day of the crash, the tri-motor’s mission was to deliver supplies for the ranger district and then to drop two smokejumpers on a nearby fire. Stoleson was the smokejumper foreman at Grangeville, where the flight originated.

The quirk of fate that kept Stoleson among us involved tri-motor seating and Forest Service protocol.  N8419 was configured to carry cargo and smokejumpers, not 10 passengers in individual seats as its descendant did this week at Air Zoo.  As a jumper foreman, during a mission such as the one N8419 went on to Moose Creek, Stoleson normally would have occupied the only real passenger seat with good visibility—in the cockpit next to the pilot where co-pilots sat when tri-motors served as airliners.

Forest Supervisors can pretty much choose any day they please to review activities at units within their jurisdiction. It just happened that Alva W. Blackerby, the Nez Perce Forest Supervisor, decided the day of the crash was a good time to ride along on a flight to check out operations at Moose Creek.  Blackerby became the top-ranking passenger, and thus occupied the cockpit seat. Stoleson rode in the back compartment with cargo and the two smokejumpers he intended to help later with their jumps.

In an interview, Stoleson described the events that day for an article published by the Lewiston Tribune in 2009. I found the piece recently during a web search and asked him if it was an accurate report.  He said it was, except for two small errors. Those errors are corrected in this account.

Stoleson told the reporter the tri-motor made its usual flyover at Moose Creek to check the wind sock, and then went back down the Selway River to turn around and return for its landing on the slightly uphill runway.

“So we came back in and just as we were setting down there was a strong gust of wind that pushed us ahead into the trees.  The pilot (Robert Culver) knew what was going to happen because he yelled back at us, ‘We’re going to hit.’

“We knew we were in trouble. Then we hit.”

At first Stoleson said he thought everything was OK.  But then a fire exploded back through the plane. A tree that had caught on fire fell on the aircraft. By chance, Stoleson was in position to tumble out of the plane’s open doorway, but not until he was burned on his face and arms. (Smokejumper planes usually flew without a door on the entrance.)

A fire dispatcher at the Fenn Ranger Station got an urgent message from Moose Creek when the crash occurred.  Because communications from Moose Creek to other areas were limited, the Fenn dispatcher radioed a request for help to the Supervisor’s Office.

Smokejumper Gary G. Williams of West Valley, N.Y., who had been sitting under the plane’s gas tank, was burned extensively. He was carried outside and laid on the ground. Some smokejumpers who had come to the rescue talked to Williams and the other jumper, John A. Rolf of Buchanan, N.Y. Both Williams and Rolf were 23 years old.

Williams asked one of the smokejumpers, who was a good singer, to sing him a song. Then Williams died.

Rolf and Blackerby were transported to a hospital where they died a short time later. Pilot Culver also was badly burned, but survived for several years.

Only Stoleson and parts of Tri-motor N8419 lived long to fly on other days.

I fully understand why a survivor would be reluctant to talk about the incident.  It’s hard to write about it.


Kay said...

My cousin is a pilot for Hawaiian Airlines. I'm going to send him a link to this post. I think it will be right up his alley.

Jim Stone said...

This held my attention. Thank you.

I've been to several fires lately as an Information Officer. One on the Apache reservation in NE AZ, one between Carson City NV and Topaz Lake CA (fire was in NV), and ones near Richfield, Oak City, Moroni and Alpine Utah. Taking a few days off but expect to be available for dispatch soon.

Tom Harlan said...

A really interesting account of FS aviation history.

Sightings said...

A lot of regular, average old guys that you meet every day have interesting stories to tell. But, wow, this one beats the cake. Thanks for sharing.

Hassan Ashraf said...

nice information about Tri-Motor Adventures thanks for haring.It's awesome
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schmidleysscribblins, said...

What a cute little plane. Love the side door. You could almost use it as an RV. Dianne

Dave Tippets said...

I have pictures of the wreckage of another Tri-Motor off to the north side of the Big Prairie landing strip in the Bob Marshall.

Bob Wray said...

I grew up a short distance from where the tri-motors were built and tested. Remember seeing them flying over our house.

joared said...

Enjoyed your info and experience in the Tri-Motor. My first small plane flight was in an open cockpit bi-plane. Later my soon-to-be-husband had his private pilot's license and we flew in some more modern Cessnas. I wish I knew some private pilots here with whom I could occasionally fly. The best I can do is visit one of the nearby small airport restaurants and watch touch and goes.

nolan said...


I read this post two times.

I like it so much, please try to keep posting.

Let me introduce other material that may be good for our community.

Source: Ford Motor interview questions

Best regards

Doug Moore said...

I really enjoyed the post. The Tri-motor Heritage Foundation is restoring another Ford Tri-Motor that used to be a Smokejumper plane for the Johnson Flying service. Serial # 5AT-40; N69905.
We are looking for some pictures. It was only in service for 16 days before it crashed in the Flathead forest. It will Fly Again.