Everyone knows Henry Ford built cars. Most know Ford built what eventually became modern day Richmond Hill.
It turns out he also built a pretty good airplane.
The 1929 Ford Tri-Motor, the first commercial airliner in the world, was on display over the weekend at the Savannah airport and giving rides to those interested in the distant past of air travel.
Thursday, the historic aircraft gave a lift to a handful of media types and others as the Savannah chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association looked to drum up interest in the Tri-Motor and provide a little financial support to the EAA, both nationally and locally.
“Our club brings people together so we can support aviation here locally,” said EAA chapter president Keith Gay, who is, not surprisingly, a pilot.
“When you get an opportunity to bring something like this into town, you do it. How many people have seen a Ford Tri-Motor other than in a picture? You just don’t get to see this kind of stuff every day.”
The publicity is apparently working. Prior to Thursday’s flight it was announced there was a record number of pre-bookings.
And then it was time to fly.
The flight took about 20 minutes, as airline pilot Bill Thacker — he flies 767s for a living, the Ford Tri-Motor as a volunteer — first taxied the metal plane down the runway and into the air and then made a large, sweeping circle around the Savannah skies.
The Tri-Motor, which once flew movie stars in an age where flying was for celebrities and the well-heeled, got to an altitude of about 1,000 feet. Its top speed was about 80 mph.
And it was fun.
“Who wouldn’t want to do this,” Thacker asked after landing, a wide smile on his face.
Gulfstream engineer Adam Hart agreed. The young Georgia Tech graduate was one of the few non-media types aboard Thursday. He said he got his love of being in the air from his father, a pilot who used to take him flying.
“When I heard the Tri-Motor was coming to town, it was a no-brainer for me,” he said. “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
He left the aircraft impressed by its simplicity and its performance.
“It was really cool,” Hart said. “It was old-school flying — it’s louder, things are rattling, it’s not the insulated commercial flying of today.”
Hart said the plane’s ability to take off in a short distance was surprising.
“Nowadays on an airliner it can take you 60 seconds or more to get off the ground,” he said. “With the throttle up you’re rolling and then you’re in the air. And it was loud but smooth. It’s just incredible what they did with the technology they had. It’s built Ford tough.”
The Tri-Motor has a long history. Thacker said Ford got the idea for passenger air travel after realizing people actually paid to fly on mail planes.
“He saw an opportunity there, a way for the moneyed people to go coast to coast in three days instead of three weeks like it took on trains,” Thacker said. “But he said ‘if we want to do that we have to find the airplane to do it with.’”
That led Ford to aircraft maker William Stout, who built all-metal planes in an era when most were made of canvas. Metal would make people feel safer in the air, Ford thought.
“Ford bought the company and incorporated it into the Ford product line. He laid down the design critera … more passenger seats and the redundancy of additional engines,” Thacker said. “He wanted it to have the comforting feel of train travel, because that’s what people were used to back then.”
The plane Thacker flew reporters in on Thursday has its own interesting history. It helped start the first Latin American airline, Cubana Airlines, and was later flown by the Dominican government. It’s also served as a set on a Jerry Lewis movie, “The Family Jewels,” and, more recently, on the Johnny Depp film, “Public Enemies.”
Charles Lindbergh also flew the plane, according to its current pilot.
And since being restored after being damaged in 1973, the plane giving rides to people this weekend has been touring the country, “barnstorming,” Thacker said.
“It’s a way for people to experience what it was like to fly back in 1929,” he said.
That was after his briefing to passengers prior to Thursday’s media flight. At that time, he put things in perspective.
“There are more airplanes on this field than there were in the world at that time,” Thacker said. “Henry Ford’s idea was to build a passenger airplane, which he did, and with it he birthed an industry.”
For more information, go to www.airventuremuseum.org/fordtrimotor/ or call 920-379-8348.