Last week the Marshall airport hosted a piece of history. The Ford Tri-Motor Liberty airplane, built in 1928, was the first commercial airliner. Only 199 total planes of this model were made. Six are still air worthy, and two are in commercial use for that purpose. The reason so few were made before production stopped was not because of some fatal design flaw. Assorted improvements in aviation technology led to lighter and faster planes. One huge innovation that came after the Ford plane was retractable landing gear.
The Ford Tri-Motor was designed for simplicity. There are comparatively few moving parts, so the plane rarely needs repairs outside of scheduled maintenance. The three motors make steering a breeze on the ground, and the plane creates so much drag the brakes are pretty much never used. Cody Welch, a retired Northwest Airlines Captain, pilots the plane. Prior to the flight, he tells stories and the history of the plane. Older planes had to land into the wind, so instead of narrow landing strips, a large wide open field was needed. Also the controls give direct feedback, instead of a computer generating artificial feedback as the pilot tries to line up the cursor, "like a kid's video game." During takeoff, I felt the drop in my stomach, similar to zero-G or a roller coaster. It was exhilarating and scary how we could feel every little dip or any movement of the plane. I kept expecting the pilot to say "Ok, let's make this flight interesting" and start diving and rolling, but there were no such shenanigans. Even sitting directly next to the propeller engine, the noise level wasn't uncomfortable.
I recorded parts of the flight, and it was interesting to see the frame rate of the camera create an illusion that the propellor was turning very slowly instead of the blur my eyes saw. We flew at a height where you can see how land was divided up, but still see individual people and vehicles. After a ~25 minute tour, the plane came in for a smooth landing. This tour was put on by the Experimental Aircraft Association. The organization is focused on recreational flying. The Ford Tri-Motor planes were in service until the mid-1930s but what worked in the past still works today. Welch prefers the "classic" plane, having direct control instead of "everything being done by a computer." More information can be found at FlytheFord.org.