The Ford Tri-motor - in several parts

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The Ford Tri-motor - in several parts

Postby meteorite » Sat Jun 22, 2013 10:29 pm

]These days we do not think of Ford Motor as an aircraft company. After all their big achievement was to build the huge factory at Willow Run and pump something well over 5,000 B-24 four-engine Liberator bombers out of it to support the U.S. war effort in World War 2. But that was just a national defence contract, assembling bits to someone else's design (Consolidated Aircraft, later Convair) with the factory being repurposed to building automobiles at the end of the war.

But long before that, in the mid-1920s, the Ford family were invited to invest is the Stout Metal Aircraft Company, formed by William B. Stout, an aeronautical engineer familar with the pioneering work of Prof. Hugo Junker in Germany. (Junker would go on to build the JU-52 trimotor transport, the mainstay transport of the Luftwaffe, the JU87 "Stuka" dive bomber, the JU88 long-range fighter-bomber, and other WW2 German aircraft). Stout picked up the tri-motor configuration, and use of corrugated metal to retain strength while reducing weight, from Junker and a Fokker trimotor.
Having had a good look at the industry and his product, Ford bought out his partners, and built and sold about 200 trimotors in his time.

A surviving Trimotor, in the colours of the US Army, correct for the period (1930s) The USAF had not been detached from the Army at this time.
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The aircraft in the picture was the 58th produced and sold, the original owner being Northwestern Airlines. Over time it found its way to the Air Zoo of the Kalamazoo Air Museum in Michigan, which exhibits and operates it.

These photos were taken around Burke Lakefront Airport in Cleveland, OH where a local group has ambitions of creating an aviation museum. The Trimotor was called in to offer sightseeing rides to raise funds for the museum project.
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The Trimotor was reputedly "build Ford tough" with standardized parts (some apparently for Ford's automotive parts bin), and a design that emphasized strength, safety and reliability. That is why perhaps 10% of the original build are still airworthy today (or can be easily made so). It was popular with major airlines, most American but various internationals as well.

What did it in was the very rapid progress of the passenger aeronautical industry in the time period. The first Douglas DC2, first flown in the early 30s and immediate predecessor of the famed DC-3 (military C-47"Gooney Bird"), was prettier, faster, and more commodious. Trans-Canada Airlines, which later changed its name to Air Canada, chose the smaller Lockheed 14 because it was faster - this is the heritage aircraft Air Canada uses in its exhibits at places like Expo 86. Boeing had a strong contender in its 247, though passengers did not like the cabin floor hump where the main spar of the wing passed under the fuselage.

Motor racing fans will find this scene familiar - the Trimotor is landing at Burke Lakefront Airport, for many years the scene of a demanding and exciting CART Indycar race.
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The first Trimotors were fitted with Curtis-Wright engines of about 200 hp each, but towards the end they had got up to Pratt & Whitney engines of more than double that. The engines were nine-cylinder aircooled radials, an interesting design feature being that the control gauges were mounted on the individual engines; the pilot had to look through the cockpit window to see them! Basically they were like individual single-cylinder motorcycle engines, all sharing a common crankshaft.

Notice the propeller - a single wooden blade. It did not, strictly speaking, have a variable pitch, but there was an adjustment available; it could be set to either coarse or fine, one for cruising, the other for landing.
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We'll put in a break here and continue below.
Last edited by meteorite on Tue Jun 25, 2013 5:02 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: The Ford Tri-motor - in several parts

Postby meteorite » Mon Jun 24, 2013 11:49 pm

The Trimotor had five seats on either side of a centre aisle - and note that access to the cockpit was not a problem. And every single passenger got a window seat - much more important in pioneering days than at present.
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My father, a Manitoba farm boy, actually took his first airplane flight in a Ford Tri-Motor in the late 1920s just before I was born. Since I was generally too young to ask detailed questions before he died on Jan. 1, 1950, I never did find out how he ended up airborne - only that he found the flight routine (as opposed to daring), and he was quite bemused by the seating, which consisted of a set of ten wicker chairs to save weight. I got the impression from him that they were even moveable, but this seems unlikely. And even though the plane carried only ten passengers, one crew member was a stewardess - and airline customs of the time suggested she was likely a graduate nurse.

The interesting aspect here is that my father was actually born before the Wright brothers achieved the first controlled, powered flight in history, Yet he was still too young to have children yet when commercial flight had changed from a daredevil's adventure to a relatively routine event in a young person's life. Ford is lauded in history as "the man who put America on wheels". And automobiles were his first concern, thus he lost interest in and sold off his aviation interest when competition obsoleted his not-quite-immortal Model T and he had to turn his attention to building a new product line. So it was left to Douglas and Boeing and Lockheed to truly put America on wings. But let's not forget who was there first.

The current iteration of Trimotor 58 has metal-framed, fixed chairs, and period-correct markings that were originally applied to some of its sister ships purchased for military service rather than 58 which was an airline machine.

The Trimotor had five seats on either side of a centre aisle - and note that access to the cockpit was not a problem. And every single passenger got a window seat - much more important in pioneering days than at present.
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One of the most notable changes from the Trimotor to the more modern design of aircraft was the change from fixed to retractable landing gear, which now is one of the immediate design clues to the chronological place of aircraft. While the issue is not that important with general aviation (private) aircraft, commercial airliners all have the retractable landing gear pioneered in the early 30s by the British Airspeed company (founded by Nevil S. Norway who was also a bestselling novelist for decades) on its Oxford and Envoy series of aircraft, which were very similar in design to the Lockheed Vega flown by Amelia Earhart.

Here is the rigid fixed landing gear, Ford-type solid and reliable but also the source of painful amounts of weight and drag, very costly to the speed and fuel economy of the Trimotor. Notice also the port that effectively gave each seat an air vent - through the window!
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This is strictly for the personal amusement of those who, when flying, love to watch the shadow of the aircraft of the ground. With the Trimotor of course the sound was nearer and the speed much less - 180 mph @ 10,000 ft. or less (the Trimotor was not pressurized). It's one thing to be slightly aware of the flicker of light when a modern jetliner doing 600 mph eight miles up in the air passes over your turf, but with the Trimotor the whole process is so much more noticeable that folks may even wave.

The shadow is running along the shore of Lake Erie, which forms the northern boundary of Burke Lakefront Airport. Fortunately the runways are far enough in that no racing ccars (at least|) ever ended in the drink.
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These photographs were supplied by family members resident in Cleveland, to whom we are most grateful fr their generosity in supplying them and allowing us to reproduce them. For them it was a grand adventure; for the rest of us a fascinating bit of aviation history.
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