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Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Tin Goose


I was talking to a man today who commented that he was almost born on a Ford Trimotor airplane on a flight from Rattlesnake Island in Lake Erie. Rattlesnake Island is a private island which is the home of the exclusive Rattlesnake Island Club. The man volunteered that he was 48 years old. I looked up Rattlesnake Island and apparently it is still being served by this same airplane today. I don't know why I was so surprised. Maybe the Ford Trimotor seems like something you would see in the Smithsonian (which you can) or in an old Humphrey Bogart movie. But for the plane to still be flying a regular run is remarkable.

[Image from Wikipedia]

The Ford Trimotor (affectionately nicknamed the Tin Goose) came out of an early interest by Henry and Edsel Ford in the newly emerging field of aviation. An engineer named William Stout trying to start an airplane company sent letters to leading industrialists asking for $1000. The letter stated, "For your one thousand dollars you will get one definite promise: You will never get your money back." Henry and Edsel and 18 other investors put up the money to get Stout started.

By 1925, Henry Ford wanted control of the company and bought it from Stout. The company continued to operate until June of 1933 when Ford's interest in aviation waned in the face of the much more successful aircraft being designed by Douglas Aircraft Company. But in the eight years it was in operation, the Ford aircraft operation produced about 200 Trimotors. Many of these aircraft had long and productive careers.

The one in the Smithsonian, for example, started with American Airlines and was then sold many times over the years for use in hauling cargo and even crop dusting. It ended up being converted into a dilapidated 'house' outside of Mexico City, complete with a stove pipe through the roof of the fuselage. American Airlines repurchased the plane and restored it to its original condition, using it for public relations flights. It even made the first commercial flight out of the newly-opened Dulles Airport outside Washington, D.C. in November, 1962. American Airlines donated the plane to the Smithsonian when it was no longer used for public relations and it now hangs in the Air Transportation gallery.

I don't often hear someone casually mention that they had flown multiple times on a Ford Trimotor. It's like hearing someone say they drive a Stanley Steamer. The point here is that technologies don't disappear overnight. As long as they perform a useful function in a serviceable and cost-effective manner, even old technologies can still be found side-by-side with the latest New-New Thing. The Ford Trimotor flies at a cruising speed of 90 knots and lands on a dime, perfect for Rattlesnake Island. You have to admire the Tin Goose for doing the job so well for so long. Here's to another 75 years of service!

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