When you climb on board some airplanes, there’s a feeling that can only be described as passing through a portal into history. As I worked my way between the rows of seats up to the cockpit of the Ford 4AT Trimotor, that was one of those moments: there was no doubt that what I was about experience was something I’d remember the rest of my life. I was about to actually fly a Trimotor Ford.
First, when speaking about the Trimotor Ford, it’s impossible not to reflect on some of its contradictions. On the one hand it single-handedly proved that there was a market for airline travel. On the other hand, old Henry selected a manufacturing process–corrugated skin and massive bridge-like spar construction–that was outmoded before the first airplane flew. Even so, the massive old birds soldiered on carrying smoke jumpers in Montana and school kids in the Great Lake Islands well into the 1980s. Big loads and small runways are the Trimotor’s meat.
I have cranked lots of round motors but not once, before or since, have I called starting sequences that ran “left, middle, right.” And not once have I taxied an airplane with the “ìJohnson Bar” braking system that consisted of a tall lever sticking out of the floor. It gave a rather Caterpillar feel to ground handling, although when taxiing, the big rudder worked fine and what that couldn’t handle, differential power did.
Takeoff in the old penguin was a hoot! As I shoved the three levers forward, a raucous racket enveloped us and the airplane leisurely picked up speed. I hesitated a few seconds and gave the big oak control wheel a manly shove forward. The tail had barely come up and I was concentrating on keeping the nose straight when the airplane lifted off in a level attitude. I doubt if we were doing 50 mph at take off.
Right from the beginning it became obvious that the Trimotor is a lot of things, but a dainty dancer isn’t one of them. I was flying the airplane for a photo mission and, as I closed on the camera plane, I found myself working hard to make the tiny movements required to slide from one position to another. Tiny movements aren’t the old Ford’s forte.
Landing was as much fun as the takeoff. We were only doing about 65 mph on final and as we closed on the runway, I bought both outside throttles to idle to fly the rest of the approach on the center engine only. In essence, I was flying it like a single-engine airplane.
My most notable memory of the landing was having to jockey the elevators back and forth as I felt for the groundóthereís a slight dead spot in the elevators right at neutral and I was sort of bouncing from one side of it to the other to plant it on the main gear in a wheel landing.
The airplane squished onto those soft tires and it took only a hint of forward pressure to nail it on. Of course, we were barely moving at a fast walk, so keeping up with the airplane was hardly brain surgery.
I supposed a phrase that best describes the Ford is “crude, but effective,” which doesn’t sound like it, but is actually a compliment.
BY BUDD DAVISSON