History roared through the skies over the weekend as an antique Ford Tri-motor airplane flew over Greeneville and surrounding communities during a tour to promote aviation.
While not technically classified as a time machine, the historic luxury aircraft that launched modern air travel in the early 20th century invites the imagination to step back to 1929 when the adventurous who could afford it traveled across the country in the first metal passenger plane.
“The thing I think is most fascinating about this particular airplane is that this particular airplane inaugurated a coast to coast air service in 1929 — this actual airplane,” said volunteer pilot Bill Sleeper. “You’d jump on a train in New York at night, ride the train all night long, get out and jump in this thing, fly during daylight hours ... then get back on a train to Clovis, New Mexico, and another one of these things is there flying you all the way to Los Angeles, a two day trip.”
It was $351 one way back in those days, according to Sleeper. Today’s equivalent would be in the thousands of dollars he said.
“Transcontinental Air Transport, TAT, was nicknamed the Lindbergh Line because he was deeply involved with this whole thing way back when,” Sleeper added. “There’s no record that Lindbergh ever flew this plane but Amelia Earheart was also deeply involved with this, along with him, so it’s not hard to believe that at least they laid eyes on this airplane, or maybe rode on it or flew it. It’s a piece of history so it’s kind of a privilege flying this thing.”
Sleeper, who has been a pilot for over 50 years said that he’s never seen anyone walk away from a flight disappointed.
“It’s nothing but ear-to-ear grins coming off this,” he said. “It’s just a fun experience.”
Passengers during the 4-day event held at Greeneville Municipal Airport ranged in age from toddlers to those in their golden years. Among them were 4-year-old Phoebe Lewis and her father Jeremiah.
“It was really, really high up and scary and he was really holding my hand,” said Phoebe, who said she had fun and would like to do it again.
Jeremiah Lewis, who said his daughter has ridden on three antique planes and a helicopter, enjoys finding adventures for him and his daughter to enjoy together.
Paul Mauney, publisher of the Greeneville Sun, decided to take the flight in honor of his father.
“My dad was an aircraft mechanic in the navy. He retired out of the navy,” Mauney explained before his flight. “But he also had his private pilot’s license and loved planes, loved plane engines. He would absolutely love this! That’s one of the main reasons I’m doing it.”
“It got my heart racing a little bit,” he said afterwards. “Glad I had the opportunity. It was a lot of fun.”
Rep. David Hawk said it was amazing to think about the Ford Tri-motor being the original form of passenger flight.
“It was a great flight!” Hawk said. “It’s a great experience. It’s a piece of living history. It was really a cool experience to be able to go up.”
Greeneville Mayor W.T. Daniels found the experience interesting and also reflected on how air travel has changed over the years.
“It was different!” Daniels said.
Greene County Partnership CEO Jeff Taylor described the flight as “floating” and “magical.”
“It’s so slow, you float,” Taylor said. “It’s so different from modern flying. It’s so wonderful to see our wonderful community from the air at a slow speed.”
“It shows you that aviation tourism is an important part of our tourism economy,” he added.
Brian Hartwick, a volunteer tour coordinator with the Experimental Aircraft Association which runs the event, said the goal for EAA is to promote and support aviation.
“We have chapters all over the world based on the common interest in aviation or building aircraft,” Hartwick said. “Since then, it’s blossomed beyond experimental planes. We have a couple of airplanes touring the country to promote and support aviation. It’s mostly outreach but it does help to maintain them.”
The Ford Tri-motor is not an experimental model and carries a standard air worthiness certificate like any other certified airliner.
But that’s where it’s comparison to modern jet airliners ends. Where sight, sound and feel are concerned, the Ford Tri-motor offers a unique experience, an opportunity to take a taste of the history of flight at its most adventuresome.
“I guarantee you’ll get off with a smile on your face,” said Hartwick.
For additional photos and a video of a Ford Tri-motor flight, visit greenevillesun.com