The Ford Tri-Motor: The Tin Goose
Story and photos by Corey Beitler
When the Liberty Aviation Museum’s 1928 Ford 5-AT-B Tri-Motor comes in for a landing during one of its ride flights at one of its “Fly The Ford” tour stops in the United States, one can easily see why the Tri-Motor was nicknamed the “Tin Goose”. The Ford does look like some sort of mythical bird with its large metal wings and large belly. The nose with one of the three large radial engines up front, and the unique cockpit windows, can be imagined to resemble a bird’s beak and eyes. Closer inspection of the aircraft reveals the corrugated Alclad, the corrosion-resistant aluminum sheeting that covers all parts of the aircraft’s structure.
When the Ford Tri-Motor was introduced in 1926, it provided the American airline industry, which was in its infancy, a safe and reliable aircraft. With the proud reputation of the Ford name behind it, the Tri-Motor helped convince a skeptical American public that commercial air travel was safe. During its brief time in commercial airline service, the Ford Tri-Motor revolutionized the airline industry and air travel, putting both on the path to the passenger airline service and modern airport infrastructure enjoyed in the United States today.
The Ford Tri-Motor’s story begins with an inventor named William Stout. After graduating from college, Stout covered aviation for the Chicago Tribune and later founded and published his own aviation magazine, Aerial Age. During World War I, Stout worked for Packard, which produced Liberty aero engines. Later, Stout managed to get himself assigned to the Wartime Production Board. During his tenure with the War Production Board, Stout had the opportunity to view and evaluate many different airplane designs. It was well-known the United States had fallen behind Europe in both the designs of airplanes and aero engines. The designs evaluated by Stout left him unimpressed, and in his eyes, from an engineering perspective, he could see why the United States had fallen so far behind European nations in aircraft design. By the end of the war, Stout was convinced that there had to be a better way to build and design aircraft, and soon began building his own airplane.
The first aircraft constructed by Stout after the Armistice was called the Batwing. After building a second and improved version of the Batwing, Stout landed a contract to build a twin-engine torpedo bomber for the U.S. Navy. The machine Stout built was years ahead of its time, but was crashed by a U.S. Navy test pilot on its first flight. Soon after, the U.S. Navy lost interest in the project and to Stout’s dismay, canceled the production contract.
After this setback, Stout was broke and his reputation damaged, but his desire to build a successful airplane was not. For his next project, he contacted all the leading Detroit industrialists who had shown an interest in aviation. Freely admitting they would probably never get their money back, Stout asked them each to contribute $1,000 toward a new aviation company. Over 60 of these businessmen went along with the idea, some contributing over the $1,000 requested. Among the backers was Henry Ford, persuaded to back the project by his son Edsel, who had loved airplanes since childhood.
The new company was called the Stout Metal Airplane Company and its first airplane was a four-seat, deep-bellied monoplane made of wood and fabric and powered by an old Curtiss OX-5 engine. Called the Air Sedan, the airplane was underpowered and did not fly very well. An improved version of the Air Sedan, powered by a Hisso engine and made of corrugated metal, didn’t fly much better. Stout was frustrated and complained to the Fords about his lack of success. Henry Ford suggested to Bill Stout that he build a larger airplane.
The Fords continued to provide Stout more funding. Stout’s next airplane, the Air Pullman and later, the Air Transport, were close in design to the “Tin Goose” but single-engine machines. By 1924, the Fords had a majority stake in Stout’s company. The Fords continued to feed more money into the company and built Stout a proper factory to build his airplanes. The Fords started their own scheduled airline service using examples of Stout’s Air Transports to fly employees and executives between Ford factories in the Detroit area.
In July 1925, Henry Ford bought out all the other investors in Stout’s company. Ford wasn’t satisfied with the performance of Stout’s Air Pullman and Air Transport aircraft, so he brought in his own chief engineer and told Stout to build a larger, multi-engine transport aircraft. Stout’s answer to Ford’s request was to stick three Wright Whirlwind radial engines on an Air Pullman airframe. The airplane looked terrible and flew even worse. Henry Ford was trying to figure out what to do next when the Stout factory burned down one winter evening.
The fire was a blessing to Henry Ford, who had become annoyed with Bill Stout’s lack of progress. As the factory was rebuilt, Stout was sent by Ford on a publicity and lecture tour. Henry Ford brought in three young engineering graduates of MIT to redesign the Air Pullman and make it a successful airplane. The result was the first Ford Tri-Motor, the 4-AT, which flew for the first time in 1926.
The 4-AT was a revolutionary airplane. For its time, it was big, with a wingspan of 74 feet and a length of 50 feet. The cabin could seat 12 passengers comfortably, and with a height of 16 feet, allowed people to fully stand up inside. The cabin even had lighting so passengers could read a newspaper or book during an evening flight. The pilots sat in an enclosed cockpit that protected them from the wind and the elements. In a world of wood and fabric airplanes, the Ford was all metal, even the control surfaces.
The new 4-AT also had some other interesting aspects to its design. Similar to other aircraft of the era, the metal wires that actuated the rudder and elevators were strung along the outside of the aircraft. Many of the gauges for the engines were mounted externally on the engines themselves and had to be read by the pilot looking out the cockpit windows. The brakes for the wheels were operated by a lever called a “Johnny brake”. Finally, the three-engine design was a notable safety feature at a time when the reliability of aero engines was still suspect. The Tri-Motor flew safely with one engine out, and a lightly loaded Tri-Motor could even fly safely on just one engine.
The 4-AT also flew well. The airplane would lift off the ground and land with ease. The wide track of the main landing gear prevented ground-looping. The 4-AT also had a 500-mile range and could carry a payload of over 2000 lbs. The Tri-Motor’s three Wright Whirlwind radial engines were reliable and provided plenty of power. The only drawbacks of the 4-AT’s design were its speed and the noise. The 4-AT had a cruise speed of only about 80 miles per hour. This lack of speed was partially caused by the Tri-Motor’s corrugated skin, which contributed to significant drag on the airframe. The cockpit was also extremely noisy, with the pilots often having to yell at each other to communicate.
It wasn’t long before orders came pouring in for the new Tri-Motor. Ford’s new factory began churning out the aircraft, using the same assembly line and manufacturing techniques that had made the company successful in the automobile industry. Understanding the importance of parts commonality in manufacturing more so than most, Ford used some parts from his automobiles on the Tri-Motor. The steering wheel to move the ailerons came from the Ford Model T, and the engine starter switches off the Ford Model A. Near the factory, Ford built a 600-acre airport. The airfield had many modern amenities unheard of at the time, including two paved runways, radio beacons, a weather station, a passenger terminal, and a pilot training center.
The 4-AT was soon developed into an improved variant, the 5-AT. The 5-AT had three more powerful and reliable 420-horsepower Pratt & Whitney Wasp radial engines instead of the Wright Whirlwinds used on the earlier 4-AT. The 5-AT also had a larger cabin that increased passenger capacity to 15. To increase the Tri-Motor’s cargo capacity, the 5-AT had drop-down baggage compartments in the lower inner wing sections. With its more powerful Pratt & Whitney engines, the 5-AT could cruise at speeds of just over 100 miles per hour. Tri-Motor operators also had the opportunity to customize their aircraft with engine cowlings, wheel spats, and three-bladed propellers instead of the standard two-blade units.
Ford sold 198 production model Ford Tri-Motors between 1926 and 1933. All sorts of operators bought them including airlines, oil companies, mining companies, and freight companies. During its career as an airliner, over 100 airlines operated the Ford Tri-Motor. For the airlines, the Tri-Motor offered the opportunity for them to offer transcontinental flights in the United States for the first time. For major corporations, the Tri-Motor offered many of them the opportunity to operate an aircraft for business and executive travel. Military operators such as the U.S. Army Air Corps, Royal Australian Air Force, and Royal Canadian Air Force used small numbers of the Ford Tri-Motor as military transport aircraft and air ambulances.
In service, the Tri-Motor, like Ford-built cars and tractors, was rugged, reliable, and inexpensive to operate. The Tri-Motor could be refueled and serviced with simple ladders and scaffolds, so ground crews did not need special equipment. The Tri-Motor’s passenger cabin had seats that were easy to remove and a structurally reinforced floor, allowing the aircraft to be easily adapted to hauling cargo. To operate from remote locations, the Tri-Motor’s wheels could be switched to skis or floats.
In 1933, the Ford Tri-Motor’s time as a commercial airliner began to end. The Boeing 247, an airliner that introduced features such as retractable landing gear, a cantilevered wing, and an autopilot system, entered service in 1933. The all-metal Boeing 247 was also 100 miles per hour faster than the Tri-Motor. In 1935, the Douglas DC-3 entered service. The DC-3 was more reliable, could fly three times as far as a Tri-Motor, and was over 130 miles per hour faster than the Ford. The introduction of the Boeing 247 and Douglas DC-3 quickly relegated the Ford Tri-Motor to second and third-tier airline service. Some smaller airlines continued to operate the Tri-Motor into the 1960s. One of the major uses of the Tri-Motor after being replaced in airline service by more modern aircraft was to haul heavy equipment to mining operations in jungle or mountain regions. Some Tri-Motors were used for decades in this role.
Another reason the Ford Tri-Motor met its end was Henry Ford lost his enthusiasm for manufacturing airplanes. Ford himself had never been fond of airplanes and flying and had only flown once in his life. Three of Ford’s test pilots had been killed in crashes. One of those pilots, Henry Brooks, was a close friend of Ford’s. Brooks was killed testing a new prototype aircraft for Ford called the “Flivver”. The “Flivver” was an inexpensive single-engine monoplane Henry Ford envisioned as being affordable to anyone. After Brooks lost his life testing the “Flivver” prototype, a distraught Henry Ford canceled production of the small aircraft and eventually the Tri-Motor as well.
Today, 18 Ford Tri-Motors remain in existence as museum displays, restoration projects, or in airworthy condition. One of the most viewed Tri-Motors on display in a museum is the 1929 5-AT-B in the National Air and Space Museum, donated to the museum by American Airlines. A 1929 5-AT-B operated by Pan American Airways is on display in the San Diego Air and Space Museum in California. Another famous Tri-Motor on display is the 1928 4-AT-B used by Commander Richard E. Byrd during his 1929 expedition to the South Pole. This Tri-Motor is displayed at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.
Eight of the 18 surviving Ford Tri-Motors have current airworthy certificates from the FAA. Of those eight, two Tri-Motors are flown regularly as part of the Experimental Aircraft Association’s “Fly The Ford” tour that travels the United States each year, allowing the public to ride in a Tri-Motor and see one up close. One is the 1929 4-AT-E owned by the Experimental Aircraft Association and based in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. This Tri-Motor was originally owned by Eastern Air Transport and was restored by the EAA after being badly damaged in a storm many years ago and thought to be a total loss. This Tri-Motor returned to airworthy status this year after being the subject of an extensive restoration project that involved building new wings for the aircraft after airframe corrosion was found during a routine maintenance inspection a few years ago.
The Tri-Motor featured in the photographs of this article is the 1928 5-AT-B operated by the Liberty Aviation Museum and based at the Erie-Ottawa International Airport in Port Clinton, Ohio. This Ford Tri-Motor is nicknamed “The City of Wichita/City of Port Clinton” and wears the livery of Transcontinental Air Transport, one of the first airlines to operate the Tri-Motor. This Tri-Motor is leased by the Experimental Aircraft Association to be part of the “Fly The Ford” tour that the organization operates in the United States each year. This Tri-Motor has also appeared at airshows and has been used in several historical and living history photo shoots.
The Ford Tri-Motor’s time as a commercial airliner was very short, but it left a lasting legacy on commercial aviation and air travel in the United States. Thanks to Henry Ford’s influence, the Tri-Motor helped introduce the airline industry to flight schedules, paved runways, radio beacons, passenger terminals, weather stations, and pilot training centers. The Tri-Motor, built with Ford’s reputation for quality and durability, proved to the American public that commercial air travel was safe and that aircraft could be built to carry passengers across the country in relatively comfortable accommodations. Later aircraft like the Boeing 247 and Douglas DC-3 built on the Tri-Motor’s revolutionary concepts, offering faster service, improved reliability, and more comfortable passenger accommodations.
Today, the Ford Motor Company remains a world leader in the production of cars and trucks. For a brief time in the late 1920s and early 1930s, with a loud and slow three-engine aircraft nicknamed the “Tin Goose”, the company was a world leader in the production of aircraft as well. Thanks to the efforts of the Liberty Aviation Museum and the Experimental Aircraft Association with their “Fly The Ford” tour stops, people have the opportunity to experience what it was like to fly on a Tri-Motor and see the airplane up close on the ground. The continued popularity of these tour stops with the public indicates that the Ford Tri-Motor still has a story to tell, over 90 years after the airplane changed aviation forever.