Thursday, July 05, 2012

Up, Up and Away

Tri-motor N8419 today carries the markings of a military plane, but its last regular service was as a U.S. Forest Service smokejumper aircraft.
Next week son Lee and I are going to take a brief flight over the Kalamazoo area aboard an airliner designated N8419. 

So what?  In the recent past, N8419 has carried many passengers on short hops originating at Air Zoo, the aircraft museum that owns the reconstructed 1929 Ford Tri-Motor. 

Our adventure will be special for me because of a personal connection.  One of my golfing buddies for many years, Ron Stoleson, is the sole survivor of a tragic day in 1959 when the original N8419 crashed and burned at a wilderness airstrip in the Nez Perce National Forest in northern Idaho.  The crash killed two smokejumpers and the Forest Supervisor. They died soon after rescuers pulled them from the aircraft. The pilot was badly burned, but lived for several years before he died.

My friend Stoleson escaped through the open door of the rear compartment.  Lady luck was with him that day.  A future post will explain just how lucky he was.

The original N8419 over 30 years flew a number of different missions before becoming one of several aircraft owned by the Johnson Flying Service of Missoula, Montana.  During fire seasons, Johnson contracted with the U.S. Forest Service to fly the plane for smokejumpers.  In that role, it carried cargo to remote forest locations as well as dropping parachutists on fires.

N8419 was thought to be reduced to scrap after the 1959 crash.  A Kalamazoo company bought the remains and those of two other Tri-Motors to be used for parts in restoring another Tri-Motor, which flew from Port Clinton, Ohio. However, when that restoration was completed the firm decided enough remained of N8419 to justify bringing it back to life.

The restored Tri-Motor made its first flight at Air Zoo on July 24, 1991. Over the next 10 years it carried tens of thousands of passengers on short trips over the Kalamazoo area.  However, in 2001 the plane was grounded when corrosion problems were identified in its wing spars. 

My son and I saw N8419 in the Air Zoo shop about 5 years ago.  We got a briefing on extensive work being completed, in addition to wing spar replacement, to make the aircraft ultra-safe again as an airliner. An old Johnson Flying Service sign and the original plane's number were displayed on the shop wall.

After the two restoration projects, the plane has a modernized fuel system, three upgraded Pratt & Whitney engines, a new electrical system, and updated brakes, among other improvements.

The most recent restorers decided to jazz up the plane’s appearance with identification from a slightly different model Tri-Motor flown by the U.S. Army’s 60th Service Squadron as a medical transport. Those Tri-Motors started flying in 1930.

Despite the changes, we will be taking a ride in the direct descendant of N8419, a designation the Air Zoo Tri-Motor can carry with pride reflecting its many years of service as one of the first all-metal airliners in the world. We’re looking forward to a happy landing.

12 comments:

Sightings said...

You're golfing friend is, literally, the luckiest person alive. Anyway, looks like a really cool plane, and sounds like a fantastic ride. Have a great time.

Kay said...

Have a wonderful time. Your friend was certainly very lucky. What a scary, sad time that was.

Mal Furniss said...

Interesting that bit about the Tin Goose. One was used on the tussock moth control project hereabouts in 1947. It was owned by Johnson Flying Service, Missoula. Also, one was used on the spruce budworm control project in southern Idaho in 1955. I was the project entomologist. One million ac sprayed with DDT at 1 lb/ac. When the project ended, I wrote in my weekly report that being on a SBW control project was like hitting yourself on the head with a hammer ... it feels so good when you stop.

But the item that caught my eye was the guy working on the air conditioner. And the kid with the Bee Bee gun. See what he grew up to be.

Dick Klade said...

"Tin Goose" was a commonly used nickname for a Ford Tri-Motor.

I still don't know what I want to be when I grow up!

Tom Harlan said...

Dick, I remember when I was in Missoula that the local airport had a Ford Tri-Motor on display at the entrance. I really enjoy your blogs, and even ordered a "used-very good condition" copy of your book. I am currently reading (among other things), a book in the Loon lake series that takes place in Wis. The writer mentioned the summer trade that was big years ago up there, but states that since Disneyland and such, the tourist trade up there isn't that great. Talking about guns and gun control, some state congressman introduced a bill last winter in the AZ house to make it legal to carry guns on campuses in Arizona. You can already take sidearms into bars and saloons down there. We spend 5 months every winter in Yuma. Last year they made the old military model Colt 45 the state gun. Just like being back in the old west.
> >

Ron Stoleson said...

More info on 8419. Prior to its crash, I spotted 34 jumpers on 16 fires on the Nezperce from July 1 to August 2.

Dick Klade said...

Ron Stoleson was a smokejumper foreman based at Grangeville,ID,at the time. That many smokejumper drops in one area indicates a very busy fire season in 1959 in northern Idaho.

Charlie Newlon said...

I really enjoyed this blog post. Very interesting and touched on some familiar subjects.

Wife Barbara and I (I write and she makes the stuff look good) are busy with several newsletters, brochures, and fact sheets we produce for the small forestry community in New Jersey.

Glenn Osborn said...

I enjoyed reading this post. My first encounter with a Tri-Motor was at Idaho City.

Al Groncki said...

Your story on the Tin Goose brought back memories I didn't realize were there. While I was working on the Klamath National Forest out of Happy Camp (It must have been on the 1966 fires), a Tri-Motor came in with supplies.

I made one or two flights, I think, pushing out cargo chutes. The thing that impressed me was the loud banging of the metal sheets that covered the plane. I likened it to flying in a Quonset Hut.

schmidleysscribblins,wordpress.com said...

Great shot of the plane. My prayers go out to the brave fire fighters. Your story of your friend's escape is sure to be interesting.

How fortunate that you and your wife will have the opportunity to fly over Kalamazoo. David would love this as he once held a pilot's license. I would not as I get airsick in small planes. Dianne

Jan Qualls said...

Hi, Dick! I enjoyed this post--haven't kept up with your blog all the time--but I enjoy it when I remember to check in. Hope the flight goes well!