In the 1957 movie “The Spirit of St. Louis” starring Jimmy Stewart, one sees how the custom-built monoplane that was flown solo by Charles Lindbergh on the first non-stop flight from New York to Paris was constructed.
Oregon resident Gil Stuber, 70, has found himself in a similar situation.
Stuber, a former pilot, is not performing any spectacular flying feats. He is part of a group restoring a 1929 Ford Tri-Motor 5-AT-40 airplane. To help pay for the restoration, the Experimental Aircraft Association (EEA) Tin Goose Chapter 1247 is offering flights on another Tri-Motor this week as a fundraiser.
|The Ford Tri-Motor airplane used to serve Island Airways be-
tween Port Clinton and the Lake Erie islands.
|This 1929 Ford Tri-Motor 5-AT-40 airplane is under renovation
by the Experimental Aircraft Association(EEA) Tin Goose
Tin Goose chapter president Lisa Benjamin says its fair comparing their restoration to the custom-built production of The Spirit of St. Louis.
“That was probably very similar. This is an old aluminum airplane — there is no cloth and fabric on it at all. Ford Tri-Motors were the very first true passenger airliner. Every airliner started with Ford Tri-Motors — that was kind of the beginning of commercial aviation,” Benjamin said.
“Other than that plane, there were all kinds of barnstormers and people weren’t real comfortable with flying, but the Tri-Motor turned that all around.”
The EEA chapter has begun hosting Tri-Motor rides at the Erie-Ottawa Regional Airport, 3255 E. State Rd., Port Clinton, and will continue doing so daily through July 4. The plane has room for 10 passengers and two pilots.
The aircraft giving sightseeing rides is not the same one the chapter has been working on restoring for the past eight years, but the same model.
“The one we have in is just like the one we are rebuilding. Obviously, ours is not done yet. It’s on site. People can see it. These rides we are giving the next week are a fundraiser for this project. Our restoration project is funded fully by donations,” Benjamin said.
The aircraft available for public rides has a storied history.
It was Northwest Airline’s very first Ford Tri-Motor and flew for them in the 1930s. It then moved on to fly for Alaska Airlines, operating out Fairbanks, and in the 1950s carried smoke jumpers for Johnson Flying Services operating out of Missoula, Montana. Currently, the plane is touring for EAA giving sightseeing flights to the public and is painted in Army Air Corps ambulance markings to honor the U.S. military.
Chapter members say this is a rare opportunity to take a sightseeing flight over Lake Erie in one of the world’s first passenger airliners. Food, drinks, souvenirs, and Chapter 1247’s Ford Tri-Motor restoration project will also be on site.
Stuber gets hooked
Stuber happened on the restoration project about two years after it began, and now he says he is hooked.
He was raised in Dayton, but his family came to Gem Beach on Catawba Island on the weekends. He moved his family here in 1972 after his parents passed away and his children were attending college at the University of Toledo and Bowling Green State University.
Stuber, now a retired computer maintenance consultant, recalls as a youth the impact Tri-Motor planes had when they serviced Island Airways between Port Clinton and the Lake Erie Islands.
“I come from the days when a Tri-Motors flight flies over, and it was, ‘Well, there goes another Tri-Motor.’ Then I got into flying and my last contract job before I retired officially was doing some work up at U.S. Steel in Detroit, and I thought, ‘Well, the kids are gone, the big bills are paid, I’m making a few extra bucks so I’ll get back into flying.’ Two months later, I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Well, that kind of brought an end to my flying.
“A year or so after I was diagnosed, we have several friends over in the Port Clinton area, and we went over there, and we saw an article in The Blade about how the Tri-Motor was going to be in Port Clinton, so I thought, ‘That’s cool. Maybe I’ll take a ride.’ But while I was at the airport, I saw them working on the fuselage back in the corner of the hangar. I talked to Lisa and got all excited about it, and in two weeks I was hooked on working.”
Stuber, who majored in physics while in college, has discovered a new volunteer “vocation” during this project. There are 40 members of the Tin Goose chapter with 15 to 20 involved in the restoration.
“I’ve been involved in some of the assembly,” Stuber said. “That’s not my forte. Right now, I’m doing drawings and trying to gather up and get everything put together for the paperwork for the airplane.”
Stuber and Benjamin say the plane is starting to look like a Tri-Motor, but has a way to go before it can fly. How much longer it will take, no one knows for sure.
“That’s brought a lot of discussion. The optimists are saying probably four to five years, the realists are saying five, and us pessimists, which I’m a member of, are saying six,” Stuber said.
The Tri-Motor being restored has a history similar to the one available for sightseeing this week. It originally served in Mexico for Pan-Am Airways, then in Cuba, and then at Put-in-Bay. It also ended up in Missoula, Montana, but it crashed.
That’s what they started with — a wrecked airplane.
“Basically, it’s a ground-up restoration,” said Benjamin, who is also a board member of the Tri-Motor Heritage Foundation.
“We had to learn it all — there were pieces from (Tri-Motor expert) Maurice (Hovias) that we brought down and we borrowed others, and we basically reverse-engineered everything. So we had to learn how to measure the material, what thickness of aluminum it was, make templates, rivet, edge, and we had to learn how to clean things off — everything you need to build an airplane,” Benjamin continued.
“As far as some of the framework, we have dual stock that were used on the Tri-Motors — actual old inventory that was never used. When that ran out, we are having the material formed for us. As far as the skin, that’s just regular sheet aluminum that we have to corrugate ourselves and then put on the airplane. Engines are still around, but we don’t have them yet. Engine parts are available and there are plenty of people left that can still work on them, so that’s not a problem.”
The wrecked plane was donated by Hovias, of Vicksburg, Michigan. He has made a business restoring, rebuilding, and repairing Tri-Motors for static displays or actual flying.
“He owns enough parts personally that he could build a few for himself, but he says he is never going to have the chance to do that,” Benjamin said. “Our project came about when we had invited him down just to give a talk to our group because there is a lot of history with the Tri-Motors here and Island Airlines between Port Clinton and the islands. It was kind of a lifeline. Kids used it as a school bus and all that good stuff.
“We (our group) just kind of hit it off with him. He came back with this incredible offer that if we would commit to building it, he would give us the parts and the training we needed to do it and we could keep it here in Port Clinton.”
Tri-Motor rides began June 28 and are available from 1 p.m. to 5p.m. daily and on July 4 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Ticket prices are $80 for adults (ages 16 and up) and $40 for children. Advance tickets are on sale at www.flytheford.org or by calling 1-877-952-5395.