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After 90 years, Ford Tri-Motor stops in Gainesville

April 15, 2018

GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Gator Fly-In offers flights to the public, but expect some bumps along the way

The 90-year-old Ford Tri-Motor looks slightly out of place among the modern planes and jets at the University Air Center off of Northeast Waldo Road.

Its corrugated metal body is shiny in the Florida sun, tilted at an angle on the wheels, its nose toward the sky. It was nicknamed the Tin Goose, and while it’s made out of metal and is an artifact of luxury in the 1920s and ’30s, it’s easy to see how it got the moniker.

Ed Rusch is one of its pilots. He’s a member of Experimental Aircraft Association, which is hosting the nationwide Ford Tri-Motor Tour.

Flights were available to the public as part of the air center’s and Gainesville Regional Airport’s Gator Fly-In and Armed Services Appreciation Day. For modern travelers accustomed to the technological advances that have made flying unremarkable enough to sleep through, it was an adventure.

This Ford Tri-Motor was one of the first mass-produced airliners and was the luxurious option for travel. The tri-motor at the air center, a 5AT, first flew in December 1928. It can go 90 miles per hour and up to 1,350 feet in the sky.

It’s slow compared to the 575 mph at which most commercial passenger planes fly these days, but cars in the 1920s drove at just 20 mph, Rusch said.

“That was lightspeed,” he said.

About 200 tri-motors were made by Ford, but only two are still flying regularly. The 5AT will stop in Ocala April 19-22 before touring as far west as Illinois. A 4AT, an earlier, smaller model to the 5AT, is also part of the EAA tour and will go as far as Nevada. It first flew in August 1929.

Both planes are leased from the Liberty Aviation Museum in Ohio.

These planes are as old as you get, a University Air Center employee said. The 5AT’s control cables are on the exterior, and the cockpit opens up with a latch for an emergency exit.

Smoking was permitted during flights in the early 1900s, but placards attached to the 10 passenger seats in the 5AT that the modern era does not allow smoking in planes.

It feels odd boarding a tilted plane. The seats lean back even though they’re straight. Passengers can see the pilot and co-pilot wearing their headphones in the cockpit as if the plane is a Shakespearean stage on a slant, and the pilots are upstage.

The frames of the passenger seats are tan, and the green cushions are plush. Two lines of five chairs go down the sides of the plane, so each seat is between a window and the aisle. There’s plenty of legroom but maybe not enough room under the seat in front for a bag.

There are no overhead bins; instead, wood paneling covers the insides of the plane. Small reading lights still work, and small cylinders bring air from outside the plane to inside. The curtains have sand-colored curtains with little tassels.

One engine turns on at a time, each with a doo-doo-doo-doo in eighth-note beats. As the third engine turns on, the cabin is filled with a loud whir.

With a rumble and a jostle, the plane taxis. It accelerates quickly on the runway, and suddenly, quietly, the wheels aren’t on the ground. The takeoff is smoother than expected for a 90-year-old plane.

It’s loud. The entire plane is vibrating. But it’s flying.

At 1,350 feet in the air, it’s easy to realize just how many trees Gainesville has. One can see Newnans Lake, an Advance Auto Parts, all of the swimming pools on the top of the Standard, the paneling that reads “FLORIDA” on Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

The plane tilts as the pilots turn. It’s a bit of a bumpy ride, although “bumpy” isn’t quite the right word. The plane gracefully lurches up and down as it goes through wind and thermal pockets.

One can see the University of Florida College of Dentistry, Paynes Prairie, the Gainesville Sun building. The plane gives a small lurch down, a small lurch up, as it makes its way back to the University Air Center.

The descent is smooth, and so is the landing, even though it’s a bit frightening to see how fast the plane is going when the wheels touch down. After the pilots taxi the plane to a stop, the three motors turn off.

It’s quiet again.

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Information from: The Gainesville (Fla.) Sun, http://www.gainesvillesun.com

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