The Ford Trimotor (also variously identified as the "Tri-Motor", and nicknamed "The Tin Goose") was an American three engine civil transport aircraft first produced in 1925 by Henry Ford and continued in production until June 7, 1933. Throughout its lifespan a total of 199 aircraft were produced. Although designed for the civil market, the aircraft was also used by the military and was sold all over the world. Unlike his famous Ford Model T cars, trucks and farm tractors, Ford did not make the engines for these aircraft.
Design and development
The story of the Ford Trimotor begins with William B. Stout, an engineer who had previously designed several aircraft using principles similar to those of Professor Hugo Junkers, the famous German manufacturer.
Stout, a bold and imaginative salesman, sent a mimeographed form letter to leading manufacturers, blithely asking for $1,000 and adding: "For your one thousand dollars you will get one definite promise: You will never get your money back." Stout raised $20,000, including $1,000 each from Edsel and Henry Ford.
In the early 1920s Henry Ford, along with a group of 19 other investors including his son Edsel, invested in the Stout Metal Airplane Company. In 1925, Ford bought Stout and its Hugo Junkers-influenced aircraft designs. Ford adapted the traditionally single engined Stout design with three Wright air-cooled radial engines. After a series of test aircraft and a suspicious fire causing the complete destruction of all previous designs, the 4-AT and 5-AT emerged. The Ford Trimotors used an all-metal construction — not a revolutionary concept, but certainly more advanced than the standard construction techniques in the 1920s. The aircraft resembled the Fokker F.VII but it was all metal allowing Ford to claim it was "the safest airliner around."Its fuselage and wings were constructed of aluminum and corrugated for added strength although the incipient drag reduced overall performance. This has become something of a trademark for the Trimotor. Transcontinental Air Transport, which later became part of Trans World Airlines, used the aircraft to begin its transcontinental air service from San Diego to New York in 1929.
Although designed primarily for passenger use, the Trimotor could be easily adapted for cargo hauling as the seats in the fuselage could be removed. To increase capacity, one unusual feature was the provision of "drop down" cargo holds in the lower inner wing sections of the 5-AT variant.
One 4-AT with Wright J-4 200 hp engines was built for the Army Air Corps as type C-3, and seven with Wright R-790-3 (235 hp) as type C-3A. The latter were upgraded to Wright R-975-1 (J6-9) radials at 300 hp and redesignated C-9. Five 5-ATs were built as C-4 or C-4A.
The original (commercial production) 4-AT had three air cooled Wright radial engines. It carried a crew of three: pilot, co-pilot and stewardess as well as eight or nine passengers (up to 12 passengers could be accommodated in special configurations).The later 5-AT had more powerful Pratt & Whitney engines. All models had aluminum corrugated sheet metal body and wings. However, unlike many aircraft of this era, extending through World War II and later, the aircraft control surfaces were not fabric covered, but were of corrugated aluminum. As was common for the time, the rudder and elevator were controlled by wires that were strung along the external surface of the aircraft. Similarly, engine gauges were mounted externally, on the engines, to be read by the pilot looking through the windscreen. Another anachronism was the use of the hand-operated "Johnny Brake."
Like his cars and tractors, these Ford aircraft were well designed, relatively inexpensive, and reliable (for the era). The combination of metal structure and simple systems lead to a reputation for ruggedness. Rudimentary servicing could be accomplished "in the field" with ground crew able to work on engines using scaffolding and platforms.In order to fly into normally inaccessible sites, the Ford Trimotor could be fitted with skis and floats.
The rapid development of aircraft at this time (the vastly superior Douglas DC-2 was first conceived in 1932), along with the death of his personal pilot, Harry Brooks on a test flight led to Henry Ford losing interest in aviation. While Ford did not make a profit on its aircraft business, Ford's reputation lent credibility to the infant aviation industry, and Ford helped introduce many aspects of the modern aviation infrastructure, including paved runways, passenger terminals, hangars, airmail, and radio navigation.
In the late 1920s, the Ford Aircraft Division was reputedly the "largest manufacturer of commercial airplanes in the world." Alongside the Ford Trimotor, a new one-passenger commuter aircraft, the Ford Flivver or "Sky Flivver" had been designed and flown in prototype form but never entered series production. The Trimotor was not to be Ford's last venture in aircraft production. During World War II, he built the largest aircraft manufacturing plant in the world at the Willow Run, Michigan plant and assembled thousands of B-24 Liberator bombers under license from Consolidated Aircraft.
A total of 199 Ford Trimotors were built between 1926 and 1933, including 79 of the 4-AT variant, and 117 of the 5-AT variant, plus some experimental craft. Well over 100 airlines of the world flew the Ford Trimotor.
The impact of the Ford Trimotor on commercial aviation was immediate, as the design represented a "quantum leap over other airlners."Within a few months of its introduction, Transcontinental Air Transport was created to provide a coast-to-coast operation, capitalizing on the Trimotor's ability to provide reliable and for the time, comfortable passenger service. While advertised as a transcontinental service, the airline had to rely on rail connections with a deluxe Pullman train that would be based in New York being the first part of the journey. Passengers then rendezvoued with a Trimotor in Port Columbus, Ohio, that would begin a hop across the continent ending at Waynoka, Oklahoma where another train would take the passengers to Clovis, New Mexico where the final journey would begin, again on a Trimotor, to end up at the Grand Central Air Terminal in Los Angeles.
The gruelling trip would only be available for a year before Transcontental was merged into a combine with Western Air Service. Ford Trimotors were also used extensively by Pan American Airlines, extending service from North America into Central and South America during the same period.The heyday for Ford's transport was relatively brief, lasting only until 1933 when more modern airliners began to appear. Rather than completely disappearing, the Trimotors gained an enviable reputation for durability with Ford Ads in 1929 proclaiming, "No Ford plane has yet worn out in service."First being relegated to second and third tier airlines, the Trimotors continued to fly into the 1960s, with numerous examples being converted into cargo transports to further lengthen their careers and when World War II began, the commercial versions were soon modified for military applications.
Some of the significant flights made by the Ford Trimotor in this period greatly enhanced the reputation of the type for strength and reliability. One example is of Ford 4-AT Trimotor serial number 10, built in 1927. It flew in the United States and Mexico under registration number C-1077, and for several years in Canada under registration G-CARC. It had many notable accomplishments; it was flown by Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart among many others. It made the first commercial flight from the United States to Mexico City, and the first commercial flight over the Canadian Rockies. After damage on landing in 1936, it was grounded and remained for decades at Carcross, Yukon. In 1956, the wreck was salvaged and preserved, and in the mid 1980s Greg Herrick took over C-1077 and began restoring it. As of 2006, C-1077 is in flying condition again, restored to its December 1927 appearance.
Making headlines became a Trimotor trademark. Between November 27 and 28, 1929, Admiral Richard E. Byrd and his crew made the first flight over the South Pole in a Ford Trimotor called Floyd Bennett (one of three aircraft on the expedition, the others being The Stars and Stripes and The Virginian), replacing the Fokker Trimotors Byrd previously used.
Franklin Roosevelt also flew aboard a Ford Trimotor in 1932 during his presidential campaign in one of the first uses of an aircraft in an election, replacing the traditional "whistle stop" train trips.
The long-range capabilities of the Ford Trimotor were exploited in a search for the lost flyers of the Sigizmund Levanevsky Trans-Polar Flight in 1937. Movie stunt flyer Jimmie Mattern flew a specially modified Lockheed Electra along with fellow movie flyer, Garland Lincoln flying a stripped-down Trimotor donated by the president of Superior Oil Company. With 1,800 gallons of avgas and 450 gallons of oil in the modified cabin, the Trimotor was intended to act as a "tanker" for the expedition. The Electra was able to transfer fuel in the air from the Trimotor, through a hose cast out the 4-AT's door. With the first aerial refueling test successful, the pair of pilots set out for Fairbanks, landing first at Burwash, Alaska on August 15, 1937, but the Trimotor ran out of fuel and crashed in inclement weather the following day. The Trimotor was abandoned on the tundra.
In postwar years, the Ford Trimotors continued in limited service with small, regional air carriers. One of the most famous was the Scenic Airways Ford Trimotor N414H which was used for 65 years as a sightseeing aircraft flying over the Grand Canyon. Characteristically, the aircraft is still in use as of 2008, mainly for promotional and film work.
As of 2008, there are 18 Ford Trimotors in existence, six of which are flyable. The oldest flying Trimotor is Greg Herrick's 1927 4AT-B, Serial No. 10, C-1077. It is based at the Golden Wings Museumnear Minneapolis, Minnesota. N8407 (4ATE, 1929) is based at the EAA AirVenture Museum in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and tours the United States. N9645 (5ATB, 1929) is based at the Evergreen Aviation Museum, McMinnville, Oregon. N414H is based at Valle Airport in Valle, Arizona and was used in 2008 and 2009 for flight instruction and type ratings. N9612 and N9651 are also flyable.
Non-flying examples are on display in museums, including the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.; the Air Zoo in Kalamazoo, Michigan; the Henry Ford Museum, and the San Diego Air & Space Museum in San Diego, California.
From 1954 onwards, efforts have been made to produce a modernized version of the Trimotor as the Stout Bushmaster 2000 However, with financial, management and marketing problems, only two examples were initially built with a third fuselage never completed.
Specifications (Ford 5-AT Trimotor)
Director Howard Hawks' Only Angels Have Wings 1939 features a Trimotor that catches fire after a freak accident with a condor eventually performing an emergency landing on an airfield. A real and a model Trimotor were used for the sequence.
A number of flyable Trimotors have been seen in recent films, including Trimotor 5ATB N9651 which played a feature role in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). Presently, this aircraft is in the Fantasy of Flight museum at Polk City, Florida.
Published in July 2009.
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