Ford 5-AT Tri-Motor
Affectionately known as the “Tin Goose,” the Ford Tri-Motor was the largest civil aircraft in America when it first flew on August 2, 1926. Its all-metal, corrugated aluminum construction and the prestigious Ford name made it immediately popular with passengers and airline operators. Noisy but reliable, the Ford Tri-Motor played a major role in convincing the public that air travel was safe and practical.
The 5-AT, a more powerful version of the earlier 4-AT, had three Pratt & Whitney Wasp radial engines and entered service in 1928. The airplane on display above was restored by American Airlines.
Gift of American Airlines
Wingspan:23.7 m (77 ft 10 in)
Length:15.2 m (49 ft 10 in)
Height:4.2 m (13 ft 8 in)
Weight, gross:5,738 kg (12,650 lb)
Weight, empty:3,470 kg (7,650 lb)
Top speed:217 km/h (135 mph)
Engine:3 Pratt & Whitney Wasps, 420 hp
Manufacturer:Stout Metal Airplane Co. (a Division of Ford Motor Co.), 1928
One of the most important events in the selling of aviation to the general public was the entry of Henry Ford into aircraft manufacturing. The Ford automobile was at the time the symbol of reliability, and it followed in the minds of a good many people that a Ford airplane would be safe to fly. And it was. The Ford Tri-motor was a rugged, dependable transport airplane, which won a permanent place in aviation history.
The story of the Ford Tri-motor begins with William B. Stout, an engineer who had previously designed several aircraft using principles similar to those of Professor Hugo Junkers, the famous German manufacturer.
Stout, a bold and imaginative salesman, sent a mimeographed form letter to leading manufacturers, blithely asking for $1,000 and adding: ‘For your one thousand dollars you will get one definite promise: You will never get your money back. Stout raised $20,000, including $1 000 each from Edsel and Henry Ford.
The two Fords became very interested in air transportation, and in April 1925 the Ford Motor Company started an experimental air freight service between Detroit and Chicago. In August of that year, Ford purchased the Stout Metal Airplane Company.
Up to this point, Stout airplanes used a single engine. The introduction of the lightweight Wright air-cooled radial engine, however, set Stout and his design team onto a new course: a three-engine airplane.
The first Ford Tri-motor was retroactively designated 3-AT (for Air Transport). It was an unsightly airplane, which could not be landed power-off because of the terrible air-flow patterns generated by its unusually positioned engines. A mysterious fire broke out in the factory in January 1926, after the third flight of the 3-AT, destroying that airplane and others of Stout’s. The 3-AT was dropped from further development, and proved to be Stout’s last major design effort with Ford.
A team of engineers began work on the 4-AT, which was the prototype for the classic Ford Tri-motor design. While it bore more than a superficial resemblance to contemporary Fokker products, the Ford had two overwhelming advantages for the domestic market: the Ford name and all-metal construction.
The first 4-AT made its maiden flight on June 11, 1926. By the time Ford stopped producing aircraft in 1933, 199 Ford Tri-motors had been built. More than one hundred airlines flew the Ford in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, Europe, Australia, and China.
Increasing airline use and the availability of the new Pratt and Whitney 420-hp Wasp engine led to the 5-AT model in the summer of 1928. The 5-AT became the most famous of the Ford Tri-motor designs. Two other types, the 8-AT and 14-AT, did not go beyond prototype status.
The Ford Tri-motor is an inherently stable airplane, designed to fly well on two engines and to maintain level flight on one. Its rugged construction and ability to operate from grass and dirt airstrips have kept the Tri-motor in operation. Island Airlines of Port Clinton, Ohio, still flies a Ford in its daily operation on scheduled sight-seeing trips.
The museum’s Ford Tri-motor is a 5-AT-B, NC9683, donated by American Airlines. Its long and varied history began when it was sold to Southwest Air Fast Express (SAFE) on April 12, 1929. the thirty-ninth 5-AT built by Ford. It sold for $55,475 in cash. American Airlines bought out SAFE the following year, acquiring the Tri-motor in the process. During 1931, NC9683 flew the routes of Colonial Air Transport, a division of American. Later, it flew on the transcontinental route between Cleveland and Los Angeles. In May 1934 it was transferred to the Chicago base until it was retired from American in 1935.
In 1936 the airplane was sold to TACA International Airlines, and operated in Nicaragua for several years. In 1946 NC9683 was sent to Mexico, where it was used for passenger and cargo hauling until 1954, When it was resold to a crop-dusting company in Montana.
During its operations with the crop-dusting company the airplane also flew a cargo route in Alaska until it was resold in Mexico. It finally ended up beside a small airfield in Oaxaca, in use as someone’s living quarters. A wood-burning stove had been installed, and a chimney stuck through the aluminum roof.
Reacquired by American Airlines, NC9683 was fully restored and was flown on public relations tours throughout the country, including the first regular flight departing from Dulles International Airport, Virginia, in November 1962. At the close of its public relations career, it was donated to the National Air and Space Museum, where it hangs in the Air Transportation gallery.