Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Airway Express to Butler

There are several things in my life that I have avoided at a younger age that I've tried again as an adult. For instance as a child I tried and disliked I go out of my way to eat them. Or, when I was dating Barbara, we went to Kennywood (a local amusement park) and I mentioned that I did not "do" roller coasters because they scared me when I was a kid. She suggested that I might find it fun now and cajoled me onto "The Racer". (I mean, I was dating her, how could I not?) She spent the ride hugging me (not a bad thing) and I still got off the ride shaking and thinking I was going to die.

Likewise I had avoided propeller planes since the jet age since I tended to get very airsick on them. Years ago there was a regular service flown by Ford Tri-Motors from Port Clinton, OH to the Lake Erie Islands. Although my friend Bill Metzger took several flights at the time I never even made the trip to see them in flight because of this aversion. In subsequent years I discovered that my airsickness (at least in good weather) was more a function of age than of the engines powering the aircraft. Alas, the air service ended in 1986 and so I was resigned to not being able to add this aircraft to my list of plane types flown.

On July 4th, before we left for our family picnic, I was relaxing and reading the Saturday edition of the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette when I came across an article "Care to Fly a Ford?" that said that one of the eight currently flyable Ford Tri-Motor airplanes would be visiting the area and offering rides the following weekend. I resolved to take one of the flights if the weather was clear.

Why would I, a rail enthusiast, want to fly on a historic airplane? I'm actually a transportation enthusiast though I will not take long plane flights just for the sake of flying in a new aircraft. This short flight though, was not an issue. But there was another reason I wanted to fly this particular aircraft and that was because of its history.

The Airway Express

The Ford Tri-Motor had a range of 570 miles and a cruising speed of about 100mph. The distance from New York to Los Angeles is just under 3,000 miles. Best case the trip by plane would realistically require six or seven stops, and each leg would take about five hours assuming that the plane flew at cruising speed. Allowing for refueling time, etc. theoretically the trip could be done in around 45 hours of very uncomfortable flying. But in 1929 flying by night and over mountains was dangerous and so, in reality, a transcontinental air trip would require several overnight stops, perhaps doubling the time.

The train was a much more comfortable way to travel and night travel by train was routine. The trip required but a single stopover of several hours (usually in Chicago or St. Louis) and took roughly 100 hours. And so beginning July 7, 1929, the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Santa Fe Railway inaugurated the "Airway Express" which would leave Pennsylvania Station in New York at 6:05pm and arrive in Columbus, Ohio the next morning. Passengers (up to 10) would transfer to the Port Columbus airport where they would find a Transcontinental Air Transport Ford Tri-Motor awaiting. (TAT was a predecessor of Trans World Airlines--TWA--or American Airlines if you're too young to remember TWA!) The plane would fly the passengers to Waynoka, Oklahoma (about 1,000 miles). That evening in Waynoka the passengers would transfer to a Santa Fe Railroad overnight train to Clovis, New Mexico. At Clovis the next morning they would transfer to another Tri-Motor which would take them the rest of the way to Los Angeles (also about 1,000 miles.) When researching the trip I discovered that the particular aircraft I was to fly was the very same one used to inaugurate the service almost exactly 86 years ago today.

So it was that this Sunday morning, July 12, 2015, I arose early got dressed and started heading for Butler County Airport about 25 miles from my home in Pittsburgh. I had tried to get my daughter, Lizzy, to join me, but she elected to sleep in--her loss. Enroute to the airport I stopped for breakfast and arrived at the airport a few minutes before the 3rd flight of the day departed at around 10am. I quickly purchased a ticket for the next flight for $75 and then took pictures of the aircraft as it prepared to leave on its flight.

About five minutes before the Tri-Motor returned from the previous flight the 11 passengers (one person paid extra to take the co-pilot seat before I had a chance to do so) gathered for a mandatory briefing in which we learned how to use the seat belts and where the emergency exits were and where the life jackets in case of a water landing were located (I'm not kidding about this.) We then lined up and as soon as the passengers from the previous flight deplaned, we boarded. We each had a window and aisle seat.

The first thing I noticed was that the doorway was short. It would be easy for almost anyone to bump his head on it. The second thing I noticed was that the slope of the aisle was much steeper when walking up it than it appeared from the outside. The third thing I noticed was the wood paneling and comfortable (but non-reclining) seats. And as I took said seat I noticed leg room that was greater than almost any domestic first class plane sports today.

The engines started and the noise was considerable. The Tri-Motor is sheathed in corrugated tin and the whole thing vibrates quite noisily. The pilot taxied to the runway and before we knew it the plane was in the air. It was a beautiful day for flying and we flew a large circle north of the airport around Butler, PA before returning to the airport at 15-20 minutes later. The landing was very smooth and we were at the "gate" a few minutes later.

After deplaning I hung around a bit longer to take some pictures and a movie of the next flight taking off and then headed home, able to check off another aircraft type on my list. So my current list, now includes: Ford Tri-Motor, DC-3, DC-6, DC-7, DC-8, DC-9, DC-10 (but I don't think MD-11), MD80, Boeing 707, 717, 720, 727, 737, 747, 757, 767, and 777 (but not the 787), Airbus 319, 320, 330 (not sure about the 300, and I plan to fly a 340 and a 380 next winter), Convair 540, 880, 990, BAC-111, BAe 146, Caravelle, Lockheed L-1011, Fokker 100, Martin 404, YS-11, Fairchild Metro, Bombardier Q400, De Havilland-Bombardier Dash-8, Canadair CRJ (various), Embraer RJ (various), and the Grumman Goose. (There is also one model of prop plane that I flew from Detroit to Alpena to Saulte St. Marie (US) on NW but I don't have any memory of the specific plane.)

Note: there are at least two Ford Tri-Motors traveling around the country to raise money for the Experimental Aircraft Association. If you are interested in learning where you can fly in one please visit

No comments:

Post a Comment