The Magical History Tour

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

Air & Space Magazine

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That was the attitude Ford was trying to change—not only with the air tour but with the three-engine aircraft his company would build. The Ford Tri-motor projected a look of steadiness and safety, an image necessary for commercial flights to catch on in the United States. For passengers who might doubt the safety of an aircraft that relied on a single engine, the tri-motors provided two backups. The early Ford Tri-motor, like the one Herrick coveted in the rancher’s field, and its Stout 2-AT predecessor were nicknamed “Tin Goose” for their aluminum alloy construction. (The Tri-motor also got the name “Flying Washboard” because of its corrugated skin.) One of the first all-metal, multi-engine transports, the Tri-motor underwent a number of refinements over the years and eventually became the workhorse for more than 100 airlines in a dozen countries.

In 1926, the year of its introduction, a Ford-Stout Tri-motor 4-AT-A, with a pilot and four passengers, flew in the second Commercial Airplane Reliability Tour, along with 24 other pilots, who traveled 2,600 miles to 13 cities, before huge crowds. In the 12 months since the first tour, airplane design had undergone enormous changes. Unlike the Swallows, Yackeys, and Martins on the 1925 tour, all but two of the aircraft had the new air-cooled radial engines, wheel brakes, and a much larger carrying capacity.

Charles Lindbergh’s solo Atlantic crossing in 1927 fueled a nationwide obsession with aviation. The Midwestern airmail carrier made Americans curious about airplanes the same way a great athlete can trigger the nation to embrace a previously ignored or misunderstood sport. The 1928 Ford tour rode the wave of interest to a banner year complete with 25 pilots, who flew a 6,300-mile route to the delight of millions of spectators.

Collins recalled: “The crowds at the airport had grown to 18,000 a visit and many of the visitors were eager to take their first ride.” Just three years had passed since the first tour, yet the Ford air tour brochure now carried ads from airlines announcing passenger routes. (A hop from San Francisco to Seattle took seven hours and cost $55.) Henry and Edsel’s vision of establishing a highway in the air for the average American no longer seemed like a fantasy.

At about 9 a.m. on Monday, this September 8, Edsel B. Ford’s grandson, Edsel II, will wave a starter flag at the Dearborn Proving Ground, formerly Ford Airport, near Detroit. When he does, 30 airplanes—several Ford Tri-motors, other early airliners, mail carriers, bushplanes, amphibians, and barnstormers, accompanied by the last Douglas DC-3 to be operated by the FAA—will begin the 26-city 2003 National Air Tour. The aircraft will fly 4,000 miles, following a route planned for the 1932 tour, which was canceled when towns suffering from the Depression simply couldn’t find the money to welcome touring airplanes.

As Herrick heads the re-creation of the early Ford tours, he is tackling many of the details the original organizers faced: lining up sponsors, pilots, airplanes, airfields, and ground crews. “Imagine the logistics,” he says, “for 30 airplanes all going 110 mph and leaving Dearborn at basically the same time on September 8.”

But he doesn’t dwell on the nuts and bolts. When I ask him about the task of organizing the tour, he answers by describing how much it means to the pilots who will fly their Golden Age airplanes this fall and telling me about Rosemarie Schlee, at 87, the last known living participant of the original tours.

Her father, Ed Schlee, flew two-thirds of the way around the world in 1927 (he skipped the Pacific Ocean), just after Lindbergh won the Orteig Prize, awarded for the first solo nonstop flight from New York to Paris. “Airplanes were our business,” Rosemarie says today. “We owned an airport. I remember my dad gave me a parachute and hung me from some rafters to show me how to use it.”

In 1927, Rosemarie, then 12, flew in the Ford air tour with her father in the family’s Stinson S-1. Schlee had Eddie “Lucky 7-11” Stinson, founder of the airplane manufacturing company of the same name and one of the finest pilots of the era, at the controls. That year, dressed in a well-pressed business suit and straw hat, Stinson won with ease, his suave style convincing one newspaper reporter that “flying is not the strenuous proposition it used to be.”

Rosemarie recalls the lavish lunches and dinners various towns put on for the pilots and their passengers. People crushed in on the field and the airplanes. “We flew to New York and I couldn’t believe how many people showed up. It was like we were coming back from the moon or something.

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