Ford Tri Motor: flying in history


1929 Ford Tri Motor NC9645. Photo by Scott Hamilton.

Oct. 4, 2016, © Leeham Co.: The Ford Tri Motor waddled up to the private air terminal in Aurora (OR) Sunday, with a three Pratt & Whitney radial engines running smoothly until shut down. Then the No. 3 engine backfired several times, spitting flames from the exhaust stacks.

This was its introduction of the ancient airplane to a score of people who waited more than an hour for rain to stop and the ceiling to rise to about 2,000 ft so short, 15 minute rides could begin.

With taxi in-and-out, the entire experience would last all of 30 minutes, not long for the $70 fee. But then, how many times does the opportunity to ride on one of aviation history’s most iconic airplanes arise?

Aviation history

The Ford Tri Motor 5-AT, NC9646, S/N 8, made aviation history, according to EAA, the organization that operates the plane today. S/N 8 inaugurated the USA’s first trans-continental air service. The forerunner of Trans World Airlines, Transcontinental Air Transport, owned the airplane and operated the flight. NC8645 is painted in TAT colors.

The airplane, built in 1929, is in spiffy condition. The corrugated metal exterior shines, even on a rainy day. The interior is to 1929 standards, including seat belts (though these are today’s models), which were optional then.

The Ford 5-AT carries 10 passengers. The smaller 4-AT carries eight. EAA also has this model in its collection, also airworthy.

Tracing operators

After TAT, NC9645 was operated by Grand Canyon Airlines, TACA, Mexican airlines and private owners. Casino magnate William Harrah eventually purchased the airplane and put it on display with his famous automobile collection.

TWA used the airplane in 1975 and flew it from Reno (NV) to Newark (NJ) to commemorate its air service.

The aircraft passed from Harrah to a company in Idaho and then to Evergreen Vintage Aircraft. It was put on display at the new museum in McMinnville (OR), a 40 minute drive from Aurora, where LNC caught up with the airplane.

Liberty Aviation Museum in Ohio purchased the airplane in 2013. The aircraft is on loan to EAA.

The flying experience


The Ford Tri Motor 5AT carries 10 passengers. Photo by Scott Hamilton.

The interior is cramped and the seats uncomfortable, though no more so than those in today’s Bombardier’s CRJ and Embraer’s ERJ regional jets. Whereas the regional jets can fly 1,500 miles or so in three hours, the Fords cruise at an advertised 122 mph for a maximum 560 miles.

The Ford’s engines are noisy, assaulting the ears. But with a flight just 15 minutes long, the three engines were a symphony throwback to the early, early days of commercial aviation.

The videos below don’t adequately convey the noise of the engines.

We’ve now sampled the Ford, the Douglas DC-3, Doulgas DC-7B and Convair C-131 (CV-240) from the piston era.

Ford Tri Motor arrives at terminal. Be sure to listen for the backfires as the engines shut down right at the end of the video.


Servicing a Ford Tri Motor. The pilot fills No. 3 engine with oil and talks a bit about the Fords.


Leaving the gate. The video doesn’t do justice to the noise from the engines.

Ford Tri Motor taking off.


Ford Tri Motor landing.



19 Comments on “Ford Tri Motor: flying in history

  1. The last US new design trimotor postwar was the Northrop YC-125- the original “Raider”, but wasnt what the USAF really wanted postwar !

    Fords Trimotor was revived as the Stout Bushmaster in the mid 1950s, but didnt fly till 1966. Some features were modernised but still looked like the original

    A few others were adaptations of classic designs, the DC3 and the Beechcraft 18.

    • William Bushnell Stout like Tupolev in the SU followed Junkers design templates. Corrugated sheet metal attached to an underpinning tube framework.

      do the postwar designs still use this or have they changed over to monocoque design.?

      ( Didn’t know that Stout seems to have detached himself from Ford )

  2. Great experience, I am jealous.

    I guess that somewhere next in the least must be a Connie! 🙂

  3. Back in the (early 1980’s?) I had to opportunity to fly on a Ford out of PDK doing flights out over Stone Mountain and back. I thought it was a lot of fun. The weather was nice and she flew steady as a rock. Just about a 30 min. jaunt.

    Hard to imagine what a day and a half coast-to-coast flight—-through bad weather would have been like on a Ford, however, I remember enough about what it was like on a DC-3 to imagine.

  4. Reminds me of Rudy Hillinga’s trip report on this site on the very similar F7 :

    “ first flight in 1933 at the age of five, on a Fokker Tri- motor, also a high winged aircraft, from Bandung where my dad ran a manufacturing industry, to Batavia, the capital of the former Dutch
    East Indies, I will also never forget my fascination, if not ecstasy, when looking out of the large rectangular plexiglass window next to me and the earth sinking way below me, looking at the belching exhaust gases coming out the six inch diameter exhaust pipes and the large rigid landing gear and the roaring three-bladed propellors pulling the craft to ever higher altitudes! That flight, without any question, also cemented my fascination with aviation for the rest of my life!”

    Arguably the oldest first hand detailed trip report on the web 🙂 Posted on LNC:

    A combination of flying in the thirties & posting in forums in the ten’s. Hope Rudy Hillinga is OK, haven’t seen him posting for a while.

  5. Ok, old war stores. Alaska Coastal Ellis back in the day flew Gooses and PBY

    First trip out of Sitka on the PBY, I think I am lucky no one has grabbed the bubble seat (about 7 years old)

    Off we go, cobs the throttles and the water starts pouring in around the bubble. Guy next to me says, that’s why no one sits there.

    Well, I still had a great view and if you minded being wet you didn’t survive in South Eastern Alaska!

    Of all the inco9nci ones I would like to fly though, one of the Tris is top of the list.

    The orange ear plugs work great these days so you can do that ok.

    • PRICELESS, SCOTT! Thank you.

      I recall a Ford was flown in non-scheduled summer service to an island resort in Upper Michigan during my 74 years.

      • They were still operating a few years ago, have to look it up when I get my quote refilled in a few days.

  6. Amazing. I wouldn’t have passed it up if I were there. Talk about a trip back in time.

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