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1928 Ford Tri-Motor aircraft flying tours out of Lost Nation, Geauga County airports

Jonathan Tressler | The News-Herald

Eighty-nine-year-old Ed Murray spent some time hanging around Lost Nation Airport as he grew up nearby.

He said he even thought about obtaining his pilot license. But that never came to pass.

“I lived right around the corner and we used to come here a lot,” he said, adding that, as a kid, he enjoyed building model airplanes and learning about mechanical things. “But then I got to be about 16 and started thinking other things were more important, like cars and girls — you know.”

One thing that did keep Murray’s attention over the years, however, was the Ford Tri-Motor Aircraft. He said he finally decided to take a ride on one as it made its first local appearance Aug. 10 while on its 2017 U.S. tour.

“I’ve seen it before, watched it take off and land. But I had to go up in this one. It was built the year I was born,” he said shortly after taking the first flight of the day in the Experimental Aircraft Association’s 1928 Liberty Ford 5-AT-B Tri-Motor, which is offering rides at Los Nation Airport in Willoughby through Aug. 12.

After his ride, Murray talked about how much he enjoyed it and reminisced about a time when Northeast Ohio was host to numerous small airports including one near where LakeHealth’s West Medical Center is located on Euclid Avenue in Willoughby. He said he remembers another across from where The News-Herald stands today, another in Eastlake and others around Lake, Geauga and eastern Cuyahoga counties.

“I don’t know why this area was such a hotbed for aviation. But, for a time, it was,” he said. Murray’s memories and nostalgia are perfect examples of why the EAA maintains and tours its two versions of the “Tin Goose,” as the Ford Tri-Motors affectionately became known as, according to the organization.

Pilot and longtime EAA volunteer Cody Welch summed up why it’s important to keep these birds in the air.

“It’s an opportunity to share history with people who wouldn’t otherwise have the chance,” said Welch, a retired airline pilot who has flown some 47,000 people in a Tri-Motor over the last 25 years.

He added that “we’re in the smiles business.”

“I have never had a sad sack on board,” he said. “People just love the planes, the sense of intrigue they impart, of history, of going back in time.”

He said the planes see quite a few “first flights,” meaning people who are literally taking their first airplane ride, along with a lot of older folks who remember these tin geese from actually having flown in them in the 1930s.

He said multiple folks each year will talk about having traveled on Tri-Motors and bring their grandchildren to share that experience with them.

“I’ll have at least a dozen people, who are grandparents, who will bring their grandchildren on the flights so they could have the same experience their grandmother or grandfather had,” he said, adding that there’s just no comparison to actually experiencing “one of the finest airplane rides available.”

“It’s a beautiful airplane ride. There is no better airplane to take a ride in,” he said, citing its “huge windows,” smooth operation and “lots of leg room.”

The meticulously restored and maintained 5-AT-B Tri-Motor now at Lost Nation Airport is truly a specimen to behold, with its varnished wooden accoutrements, comfortable seats and surprisingly gentle handling aloft.

“It’s like riding in a Pullman car,” he said, referring to what was once the pinnacle of comfort in passenger rail sleeping cars.”

Linn Obery, a volunteer with Chapter 5 of the EAA, based out of the Geauga County Airport in Middlefield Township, agreed with Welch that the flights simply inspire smiles.

When asked what kind of feedback he gets from folks following a ride on a Ford Tri-Motor, he gestured enthusiastically to this reporter’s dad, a 76-year-old retiree (and lover of all things mechanical) the EAA was kind enough to accommodate during the Aug. 10 media flight.

“I mean, look! Look at your dad,” Obery said, as Concord Township resident John Tressler grinned from ear to ear, having just landed after the roughly 10-12-minute flight from Lost Nation Airport, over Lake Erie’s western Lake County coastline and back. “This is what I get — smiles and just pure excitement. What else can I say?”

Obery said it’s that kind of reaction that makes his involvement with EAA so rewarding.

“I mean, what a thrill it is to offer a flight in a Ford Tri-Motor to nice folks from all over!” Obery said, grinning ear to ear, himself.

Tim Connor, another EAA Chapter 5 associate, added that, even beyond the smiles and mild euphoria the Ford Tri-Motor flights inspire, they’re also an important part of the organization’s historical preservation role.

“It’s part of culture to know where you came from,” he said. “(It’s for)the same reason why we remember wars and great explorations. It’s in order to appreciate where we are now.”

And preserving that appreciation ain’t cheap, according to Welch, who said maintaining the tin geese’s namesake three engines is the most expensive part.

“It costs about $50,000 to overhaul these engines,” he said, adding that its done ever 1,500 hours they’re in service and that there are four shops in the country that can do the work.

He said these aircraft are very reliable, however. In fact, that’s how they helped usher in the age of commercial passenger flight, he said.

“It’s the airplane that started all the major airlines,” he said, adding that they were in service with all the “budding” major airlines between 1927-1933 and it was their overbuilt, all-metal construction, ability to perform short takeoffs and landings and the fact that they had three motors that made them the ideal aircraft for a travel industry still in its infancy.

He said that, before the Ford Tri-Motors made the aviation scene, there were no paved airfields, so they had to be able to take off and land on short, grass runways. They were also very reliable and helped restore people’s faith in the safety of air travel, especially following the 1931 crash of TWA Flight 599, which claimed the life of highly regarded Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne and seven others.

That tragedy involved a “primitive,” wooden-winged Fokker F-10A tri-motor airliner, according to a 2011 article by aviation historian Richard Harris.

Even though that particular plane had three engines, it wasn’t “built Ford Tough,” as today’s TV ads for the automobile manufacturer say.

As Welch put it, these planes were designed to appeal and instill confidence in people.

“These are way more redundant than modern-day planes and it’s longevity is attributable to this,” he said, adding that the entire aircraft is a testament to the “cleverness and innovation of people working without computers, who just stepped out of a horse and buggy.”

He said that Ford specifically designed the Tri-Motors with three engines to instill confidence in potential passengers.

“Ford decided to give it three engines to eliminate any concerns about reliability,” he said. “Of course, today, we get on a two-engine plane and go across the biggest bodies of water on Earth with no concerns. But back then, especially the planes made for World War I and shortly after, weren’t so reliable.”

He said that’s where Ford’s three engine, all-metal, overbuilt, luxurious Pullman car in the sky went so far toward establishing commercial passenger flight.

“He was trying to legitimize the commercial use of airplanes,” Welch said. “The only way you could do that was to give ‘em plenty of engines. That’s what they did and it worked.”

Welch said there were 199 Ford Tri-Motor Aircraft built between 1926 and 1933. Of the 19 still around, six are flying and there are only two offering commercial rides.

The EAA’s 1928 Liberty Ford 5-AT-B Tri-Motor aircraft will be at Lost Nation Airport in Willoughby through Aug. 12 and there are plenty of walk-on rides still available, the EAA reports. Adult tickets run $75 for walk-ups (online booking for Northeast Ohio flights are closed.) Children 17 and under are $50 and, for $125, a visitor may sit in the right-hand seat in the cockpit, next to the pilot.

After the Ford 5-AT-B Tri-Motor leaves Lost Nation Airport (Classic Jet Center, 1969 Lost Nation Road, Willoughby, its itinerary shows it scheduled for a day of guest flights Aug. 13 at Hangar 2 at the Geauga County Airport, 15421 Old State Road, Middlefield Township. Additional tour stops are listed on the EAA website. The hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day.

For more information, call the on-site crew at 920-379-8339.