Behind the Scenes


What was it like to fly in a Ford Tri-Motor?

America by Air - Ford Tri-Motor Audio Recordings

Authenticity is the name of the game at the National Air and Space Museum, and employees go to great lengths to create displays that are as realistic as possible.

To that end, several staffers flew in a restored Ford Tri-Motor in June 2006. The purpose of the flight was to make an accurate stereo recording of the sound level inside the cabin and do an analysis of the airplane’s vibration.

Recreating the Early Days

The information was used to reconstruct the flying experience as it was in the early days of aviation. In the 1920s through the 1940s, flying was loud and unsettling. Propellers not only produced ear-splitting noise but also created tremendous vibration, and engines were not synchronized well. Airliners were not pressurized, so they flew at low altitudes and were often bounced about by wind and weather.

Let’s get Visceral

Since the National Mall building opened in 1976, visitors have been marveling at an authentic Ford 5-AT Tri-Motor, first produced in 1925 by Henry Ford, suspended from the ceiling in the Air Transportation gallery. When the America by Air gallery opens, a mock-up of a Tri-Motor on the floor will also give visitors a close-up “visceral flying experience.”

Ford 5-AT Tri-Motor, America by Air
Ford Tri-Motor Vibrating Platform in America by Air Exhibition

That’s the phrase used by Dave Heck of Exhibits Fabrication, who built a vibrating platform that imitates the Tri-Motor flying sensation. Standing alongside a scale model of the side of a Tri-Motor with a cutout showing four passenger seats, visitors will activate the platform with a push-button.

“Visitors can imagine themselves as a passenger, hear the sounds emitting from the plane, and feel its vibrations, giving them a chance to pretend they are really there,” Heck said smiling.

How did he do it?

Heck used a pair of industrial duct vibrators to simulate the vibrations – the kind of equipment used to keep dry materials such as concrete or sand moving through hoppers in a factory. Simply put, one shakes horizontally and another shakes vertically.

Long-term effects

Employees who have tried out the platform report that the trembling leaves a weird tingling sensation in the legs for some time afterward. Heck said people have been jokingly comparing it to certain leg vibrating devices on the market that purport to improve circulation. “But so far, there’s no evidence that our device provides any health benefits,” Heck said.

Help from Exhibits Central

A team from the Smithsonian Office of Exhibits Central’s Fabrication and Modelshop built the framework of the display, and are shown here attaching the outside panels.

Tri-Motor Mock-up in America by Air Exhibition
Tri-Motor Mock-up in America by Air Exhibition
Ford Tri-Motor Mock-up in America by Air Exhibition

Behind The Scenes