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The Magical History Tour

Why are so many Golden Age airplanes traveling the country together this fall?

We sped along the roads north of Minneapolis, passing miles of flat, brown landscape. When we swung into a parking lot next to a hangar, I spied a small sign over a side door—“Golden Wings Flying Museum.”

I have never been so awed by the beauty of a practical object. What a difference between the aircraft inside the hangar and the 727 I’d flown on from Washington, D.C. Herrick’s 1931 Stinson Tri-motor, deep blue with varnished wooden trim, reminded me that moving people through the air was once an artform. The collector delights in pointing out the craftsmen’s attention to detail on all of his purchases: the fine wicker seats and brass handles on a Travel Air 6000, the quaint wheel covers on a 1935 Waco with a cream-colored fuselage and elegant red trim.

It soon becomes clear that every one of his airplanes comes with a story. During the two days we spent together, he never stopped chatting about the one-of-a-kind Sikorsky flying boat that he’s spent $600,000 to salvage from the bottom of a lake in Alaska (and so far gotten just a piece of the airplane’s fabric to show for his efforts) or the number of calls he’s had to make to track down the owners of a particular airplane he really, really wants. The rancher in Idaho, the mechanic in Florida, the widow in California—all are characters in Herrick’s great airplane collecting adventure, and he takes great pleasure in reenacting the various parts. (On the way back from dinner, he played a mechanic sucking on a cigarette.)

“I was very interested in preserving history,” says Herrick, and the era he thought needed the most attention, he says, is the Golden Age of aviation. “That isn’t to say that there aren’t a lot of people saving Wacos and Travel Airs, but what really interested me was those that had disappeared or almost disappeared. It’s like anything you develop an interest in—wine, cars—you start to refine it into categories you’re interested in. I decided I was going to save one-of-a-kind vintage airplanes from the Golden Age.”

He also decided that for the centennial year of flight, he was going to find an appropriate way to celebrate the contributions of the Golden Age, and that decision has brought him to his latest, greatest story. To tell as many people as possible about one of aviation’s great eras of invention, Herrick is re-creating the Commercial Airplane Reliability Tours, which flew between 1925 and 1931, were sponsored by Henry Ford, and stimulated a remarkable transformation in air travel.

Prior to 1925, people saw airplanes as something used only by a daring stunt pilot or barnstormer, not by an average Joe wanting to go someplace. A few entrepreneurs and industrialists saw the airplane’s potential: William Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, Philip Wrigley, and Lester Armour all put up capital for airlines bidding on mail routes. But the capitalist most responsible for transforming the airplane from a novelty into a necessity was Henry Ford.

Ford got into the airplane business in 1922 by investing in the Stout Metal Airplane Company, created by William Stout, an engineer who introduced all-metal construction into the manufacture of U.S. aircraft. Ford soon combined Stout’s ideas with a few of his own to produce the Ford Tri-motor 4-AT. He knew he’d have to build a market for his new product, just as he had built a market for his cars. Encouraged by his son Edsel, he decided to sponsor an airplane tour that would show Americans how sturdy and reliable airplanes had become. He modeled it on the Glidden Reliability Tours, which had opened people’s minds to the possibility of car travel. (Financed by Charles Glidden, who made his fortune in the telephone industry, the tours brought automobiles into towns all over the United States between 1905 and 1913 and fostered competition among the manufacturers to build the sturdiest car.)

In 1925, the Fords commissioned a $7,000 sterling silver trophy and invited 17 pilots to fly a 1,900-mile route, with stops in over a dozen cities. Edsel himself waved the starter flag at Ford Airport in Dearborn, Michigan. There was no winner or loser in the first race. To emphasize reliability and safety, rather than speed and daring, a committee set up an elaborate equation that measured the accuracy and quickness of pilots’ takeoffs and landings and their average cruising speed between the various stops on the tour. Any pilot who sustained the required cruising speed at least 75 percent of the time and met other performance criteria could win a perfect score and get his name engraved on the imposing three-foot-tall trophy. (Things turned more competitive the following year, when only the top point-getter was honored.)

In a 1929 article in Aviation magazine, Ray Collins, a former World War I pilot who refereed or managed all seven tours, recalled the 1925 debut: “We had six days of awful weather, continual rain and storms, including a cyclone in Kansas City. Servicing for the ships was very poor too. Gas was poured into the tanks by the bucketful and gas mileage was lousy so you could only go 175 miles in a day.

“The average crowd at the various airports was about 3,000 persons. The interest at that time seemed to be more in going out to see a group of daredevils fly. The idea of the general public themselves taking a trip in the air was not brought home to them then.”

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