Ford Tri-Motor
6 min read

In 1935 I was six years old, and we were living in Ponca City, Oklahoma. One day a Ford Tri-motor flew into our grass airfield and offered rides, at a price, to our “city’s” inhabitants. I, at that age, wasn’t aware of any of this happening, but for some reason my father took me out to the airport to just watch, and I was completely enthralled at the sight of that graceful vehicle leaving the ground, becoming airborne like a huge (though throaty) bird, under perfect control, and returning to gently alight again.

Ford Tri-Motor

The Ford Tri-motor was popular for hauling people and mail.

This happened pretty often, as the rides just circled our fairly small town, which took a total of about 15 minutes of flying time. I begged my Dad to let me go up in the airplane, and he relented.

Now I was flying, effortlessly (and slowly), like a bird myself, at about 2000 feet above the ground, and was entranced by the ability to see, clearly, so much of the town and the surrounding area. I was completely hooked on aviation from that moment on, and determined that I wanted to be part of it. Perhaps unusual for that age, my strongest desire was to design vehicles like that, but of course then fly my own creations.

As time went on, this meant reading airplane magazines, bicycling out to the airport in whatever town or city we lived in, sometimes being offered a ride, and–despite not quite knowing what it took to be an airplane designer–planning my life to become able to do that.

That included the courses I took in high school to further that ambition (math, aeronautics and engineering drafting) and joining the Army at age 17, at the time of the closing segments of WWII, to serve my country but also to get in on the GI Bill with the intent to get the right degree for my ambition, though I was still not quite sure what that degree would be in. On the troop train ride to the Army post where I would take Basic Training, I was reading one of those aviation magazines, and it told me what I needed was a degree in Aeronautical Engineering.

I volunteered for the Air Corps but, I think because of the drafting courses I had taken, was instead assigned to the Corps of Engineers, probably the next best thing. Following discharge, the GI Bill allowed me to undertake, and obtain, a degree in Aero Engineering.

During my first summer between school years I was attending military camp, since I was in the Reserves (this was better; it was the Air Force Reserves), and had time to learn to fly (as a civilian). During the war, WWII is my war, cars were scarce and I lived in big Kansas City with a great transit system, so I had never learned to drive, including while in the Army, till almost the same time I learned to fly (at age 20).

I attended Wichita University and nearing graduation I got employed, as an engineer, by Cessna Aircraft in Wichita, and got in on what I had thought during school was what airplane design consisted of, that is preliminary design, aerodynamics and flight testing. I soon joined the Cessna Employees Flying Club, continued my piloting development and earned a Commercial license. I also got elected as the Treasurer of the Flying Club, and independent of that, got authorized to fly company airplanes (for ferrying or business trips, but later as a test pilot).

This is where Ponca City entered the picture again, except its airport was now a more thriving place and had a concrete runway, a large hangar or two and good tie-down space. And it was the destination of choice if a thunderstorm with potential hail approached Wichita, and authorized pilots ran out to where completed airplanes waiting to be delivered were tied down to pick a plane, any plane, and fly it to safety at Ponca City (if Ponca wasn’t also in the storm’s path; the cities are about sixty miles apart) to be hangared or at least tied down there.

A couple of pilots were instead assigned to flying the rest of us, in threes, immediately back to Wichita to go back to work, and I was never involved in returning those saved planes from Ponca to Cessna, so don’t know how that was arranged. I’m sure it was more leisurely.

But that approach didn’t always work out, since sometimes the storm arose so quickly that airplanes outside at Cessna field got hail damaged and, I have to conclude, were considered unmarketable. This was great for our Flying Club, because, to the extent that we needed them, the company gave those otherwise new airplanes to us free. It is worth noting that those little dents were unsightly, especially on the easily seen top of the horizontal tail, but the effect on performance was almost unnoticeable.

EAA Tri-Motor

EAA’s Tri-motor offers rides year round.

And having served as Treasurer, I can tell you the company supported its Employees Flying Club in many other ways, too, so that we had rates and rental rules–like no charge for ground time even on long, multi-week trips–that I’ve never seen equaled.(Our honeymoon trip was from Wichita to Acapulco, and had a lot of ground time for the Flying Club airplane we used, but I could afford it under these circumstances.)

Now skip forward in time about 55 years to today, when I recently was induced by this magazine to attend EAA AirVenture for the first time in my life. It was, in all, to be an unforgettable experience for me. Especially since I saw in the advance information for AirVenture that one of those Ford Tri-motors, born about the same time as me in 1929, was to be on static display, and I wasn’t going to miss it.

But miss it I did because on arrival at Oshkosh I found they were offering rides on two other Ford Tri-motors, for a price I judge higher than back at Ponca, and still that was even more something I couldn’t miss. The airplane I rode in had been used as a passenger transport in Central and South America – which didn’t mean it hadn’t given rides around the country in the 30s – and it looked just as I remembered a Tri-motor, with the all corrugated skin, flat sided fuselage, with room for about ten passengers inside, each with a window to themselves, and the highly sloped cabin floor (and narrow central aisle) when in the taxi attitude.

The ride lasted, again, about 15 minutes, but with a lot more taxiing before and after, flying at an altitude of about 2000 feet, and the view was as spectacular to me as I remembered as a child. It was a most satisfying duplicate of my first flight a little over seventy five years earlier, and rekindled that feeling that led me to an equally satisfying career in the aviation business. Only this time I saved the boarding pass.

Harry Clements
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9 replies
  1. Ary Glantz
    Ary Glantz says:

    It was a pleasure reading this article! I worked for Cessna Aircraft as an aeronautical engineer from 2007-2009 and obtained my instrument and commercial ratings at the CEFC (Cessna Employee Flying Club). Reading your story brings back a nostalgic feel of the glory days of aviation, which in a way seems to be going obsolete – but there is something about Wichita that still holds and captures the beauty of aviation. It seems no matter which nearby town you go to or who you talk to, they are somehow involved and passionate about aviation. I can definitely relate to the low-cost prices of the CEFC; there is no way I would have been able to afford it on my own. Cessna really knows how to take care of their employees and they see the value in giving their fellow Cessnans the opportunity to become a part of the aviation community. I wish other companies would do the same. Thank you, Mr. Clements for that great read!

  2. Gary Stokes
    Gary Stokes says:

    Until the early 1990s, Austin’s municipal airport — Robert Mueller Airport — was situated right alongside IH35 just north of downtown. Aircraft on final often passed less than 100 feet above the traffic, and drivers were startled by huge jetliners flaring for the numbers on the southeastern runway. One day in 1971, as I was driving north and about to pass the runway threshold, a gleaming Ford Tri-motor lumbered over the cars ahead of me and gracefully squatted to a perfect, full-stall landing just a few hundred feet down the runway. I immediately cut across the right-hand lane to take the 51st Street exit and drove up to the Ragsdale FBO parking lot just as the old girl was taxiing to a stop.

    I was interested to see a small cluster of state legislators and other VIPs milling around on the ramp, along with a news crew from one of the local TV stations. The Tri’s pilot opened the door and got out, and began to motion to the VIPs and TV crew to get on, obviously for a ride around the town in the vintage plane. Not intending to miss such a grand opportunity, I walked boldly up to the Betacam-laden video guy and asked if I could help with his heavy battery belt; he was more than thankful, and I simply walked unchallenged up into the plane like I belonged there. No one even shot me a second glance.

    Door secured, the pilot (I learned afterward that he had over 13,000 hours in type) went up front and got the trio of big Pratts turning. Moments later we were cruising the Central Texas skies and oooing and ahhing at the view of the Capitol, UT, and the lakes west of town. I dutifully fulfilled my imposter’s role as videographer’s assistant, all the while enjoying the ride even more because of my surreptitious status. Forty-five or so minutes later we were back in the pattern and lording our position over the motorists below.

    I hung around a bit after the crowd left, and as the pilot was doing his preflight while he waited for the fuel bowser to top her off, I told him what I’d done. He threw his head back and laughed out loud, then took my hand and shook it in congratulations for having the audacity to pull such a thing off. We chatted for a while and then he was off. It was my only time airborne in a Tin Goose, and I only regret I didn’t have my logbook.

  3. Steve Vana
    Steve Vana says:

    I grew up just outside Cleveland and frequented the local airports with my two uncles who flew. After getting my private at Ohio University in 1975 I heard about the Trimotors used by Island Airlines in Port Clinton, Ohio. I finally got to fly on one of their sightseeing flights in N7584 on July 9, 1981(I have the certificate). I think that this is the Trimotor that Kermit Weeks has at Fantasy of Flight in Florida (after it survived Hurricane Andrew). The Trimotor is undoubtably the loudest aircraft I have ever flown in. Imagine yourself in a tin room with fifty men using hammers on the exterior.

  4. henk schiphorst
    henk schiphorst says:

    While working for PanAm in Amsterdam I became Chairman for the (local committee) USTTA PowWow (largest Fair in the world for Touroperators, Holiday Facility suppliers, etc.). Their location somewhere late seventies was in Las Vegas. Scenic Air had such a Ford Trimotor on site for airrides with special guests. I was lucky to be on one such ride and was even more than pleased when that proved to be an old PanAm aircraft that flew their Carib routes during the late twenties.
    White shawl and goggles were provided for each guest and we flew around the city and Boulder Dam. Quite a sight and obviously a very thrilling experience.

  5. James Scott
    James Scott says:

    In (or about) 1936 or 1937, my folks and I lived in Yuma, Arizona. The
    YUMA airport was just a short distance from our house. There was an
    airline that used a Ford Tri-Motor. I would hang out there to see the
    landings and takeoffs of the Tri-Motor. It was one big airplane, to my
    young eyes!


  6. G A Hutchinson
    G A Hutchinson says:

    Summer of 1936 a Tri motor Ford came to Woodring Field, Enid for an Air Show. The Airport Manager, Harold Kindred, put me in an empty seat; otherwise, I couldn’t have found the $2 it took to buy a lap around the Field. I marveled at tremendously powerful sound of the engines and the breath taking rate of climb of that monster. Since then; AA restored a Tri motor in about 1970, Mel Burton flew it down to FTW, and I told him I wanted to fly it. Mel said, “No you don’t. You have to wrestle that thing. It flys like a barge.” My romantic memory was gone, and I was disappointed.

  7. Bill Scott
    Bill Scott says:

    Only the label was different.
    I’m about two years younger (born in 1931) than Harry Clements, but grew up along the South shore of Lake Erie near Port Clinton, Ohio. There was a man there – – Milt Hershberger, if memory serves me correctly – – who used Ford Trimotors to provide daily people and cargo services to/from the Lake Erie Islands. Some kids went to school – on the main land – every day by Ford Trimotor. Hershberger somehow acquired ten (10) and used bits and pieces from seven (7) to keep three alive (airworthy? ? ?). Only once in about 1947, did I get a chance to be a passenger in one of those fantastic aircraft, with folding ladders built into the wings so access to the cargo areas was easier. Even though I learned to fly in Aeronca Champ, on floats, on the nearby Huron River – – I never had a second opportunity to fly in a Ford Trimotor again. BUT,forty three years later in 1990, I heard the unmistakable sound of three engines, dashed to look out my window in Johannesburg, South Africa and saw – – what at first glance was a Ford Trimotor. Close, but not quite. In this case it was a Junkers 52 owned and operated (for nostalgia purposes) by South African Airways. After contacting fellow aviators during the next couple of weeks, I was able to arrange for a 20 minute flight over Johannesburg from Lanseria Airport at 2,000 feet above ground level – – with me in the right front seat. What a thrill. It was not 75 years like Mr Clements,and it was not a FORD.
    But from my recollection, only the label was different.

  8. jame kloss
    jame kloss says:

    Good comments , I loved the points . Does someone know where I would be able to get ahold of a sample My Life Planning Workbook copy to complete ?

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