Taking a flight through aviation's past


MARSHALL — One experiences aviation history when they step aboard the 1928 "City of Wichita" Ford Tri-Motor NC9645, the first commercial passenger plane.

"It is the nation's first serious airliner. It started all the major airlines," said Cody Welch, a veteran pilot, who has spent the past 25 years flying the vintage tri-motor across the country.

Airplane enthusiasts will have the opportunity to see — and fly in — the NC9645 Saturday and Sunday at the Willmar Municipal Airport John L. Rice Field, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. both days.

"It is so unique," Welch said.

Flights are available for purchase for both days.

Walk-up tickets are $75 for adults and $50 for children. For more information, visit www.flytheford.org or call 1-800-843-3612 or 920-379-8339.

This summer the Experimental Aircraft Association, based in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, is hosting the Ford Tri-Motor Tour. The historic plane made a stop Thursday and Friday at Marshall's Southwest Minnesota Regional Airport, opening its doors to the public for flights each day.

The beginning of passenger flight

The Ford Tri-Motor, as the name suggests, was built by Henry Ford. The Tri-Motor allowed — for the first time — coast-to-coast flight, first as part of a passenger rail/air service combination in 1929 and then total air service by October 1930.

The plane introduced new technology and opportunities for flight; it could reach over 90 miles per hour, slow in modern terms, but fast for the 1930s.

"It paved the way. The ability to fly in the clouds was something that didn't exist before the Ford Tri-Motor," Welch said.

While at first only 40 to 50 percent of the flights arrived at their destinations without issues, the Tri-Motors eventually became known for their strength and reliability. Even aviation greats Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart flew Ford Tri-Motors.

The plane made up the vast majority of the plane fleets for airlines like Northwest, United, TWA and American until the mid 1930s. The Tri-Motors were eventually replaced with new planes built by companies like Boeing, but in the early days of commercial flight Henry Ford lead the way, just like he did with automobiles, Welch said.

At the peak of its popularity there were 199 Ford Tri-Motors constructed. Today there are only about 19 left and only six of them can still fly.

"These planes are a trip back in time," Welch said.

From the first flight to today

The NC9645 has a long and varied history. It first started flying for Transcontinental Air Transport, eventually TWA, in January 1929. In 1935 is was sold to Grover Ruckstell, who took passengers on air tours of the Grand Canyon and Boulder Dam.

In 1937 the NC9645 went international, flying for airlines in Honduras, Nicaragua and Mexico. In 1954 the plane returned to the United States.

An extensive restoration was completed in 1971 and the plane was part of the Harrah's Automobile Collection in Reno, Nevada. TWA flew the plane from Reno to Newark, New Jersey, in 1975 to commemorate the 1930 all-air service.

The NC9645 ended up spending several years literally in the shadow of a very famous plane. Purchased in 1990 by Evergreen Vintage Aircraft, it was eventually put on display at the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum, directly under Howard Hughes' Spruce Goose.

The current owner of the "City of Wichita" is the Liberty Aviation Museum in Port Clinton, Ohio. It is on loan to the EAA Aviation Foundation for the Ford Tri-Motor Tour.

While the plane has gone through extensive renovations through its 89 years, in all the ways that matter it is the same plane that came off the assembly line in 1928.

"It is literally that airplane. The spirit is still there. This is the 'City of Wichita,'" Welch said.

The joys of the Tri-Motor

Welch has decades of flight experience, including as a modern airbus pilot, but the Tri-Motor allows him to really fly a plane, instead of the computers today's airliners have become. Welch enjoys being able to feel the plane as he flies, the feedback as he calls it.

"It is very rewarding. It is not difficult but it is demanding," Welch said.

Still having the chance to fly the Tri-Motor, and to share that opportunity with the public, keeps flight history alive. It also shows how able and creative the early pioneers of aviation really were, especially since they did not have modern technology to help them.

"They really knew what they were doing. It is simple and that translates to reliable," Welch said.