Kitty Hawk 100th stirs memories of first flight

<I>Glenn Gillespie photo</I><BR>This Ford Tri-Motor airliner is one of only a few completely restored in flying condition in the United States. It is on display at the Evergreen Aviation Museum in McMinnville, Ore. The Tri-Motors were used by a number of U.S. airlines in the late 1920s and early '30s, and a few are still hauling cargo in South America.

The 100th anniversary of powered flight - the internationally publicized Centennial of the Wright Brothers' epochal flight near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on the windy sand dunes at Kill Devil Hills - was observed with much fanfare Dec. 17.

For our family it was a quiet observance, what with the Christmas holiday and all. Not much thought about aviation at all, except for an airborne anniversary of my own, vivid in the mind's eye even after seven decades.

Coming up in the summer of 2004 is the 70th anniversary of my first airplane ride. It's the kind of special event that everyone remembers without much prompting. More about that later.

Building up to the Wright Brothers' 100th, newspaper stories and television features heralded the event. National Public Radio broadcast a fascinating segment about America's oldest living and still-active pilot. The Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., drew thousands of tourists and aviation fans to view its elaborate exhibits and programs commemorating the 1903 flight. Air museums throughout the country held special events.

Attempts to duplicate the flight with a replica of the Wright Brothers' plane drew the curious to the North Carolina sandhills the week prior to the 17th. But volunteers encountered crankshaft trouble in the four-cylinder engine and had to postpone their flight attempt for a day or two. Commentators said the famous brothers had similar trouble a century ago.

There are numerous books about the historic flight and the unbelievable dedication of the two Ohio bicycle shop tinkerers who changed the world. A detailed biography in my collection of aviation books offers a revealing glimpse of their vision and ingenuity, and later frustration as they tried to market their product. Little has been written about the aftermath of 1903 as the brothers perfected and improved their plane, built new models and tried to sell their ideas to the U.S. military.

They also tried unsuccessfully to crack the European market, crating their plane for an ocean voyage and making demonstration flights in England and France - all before the outbreak of World War I. Aviation historians credit the Wrights for their contributions to the general development of the military planes flown by the Allies in that war.

The centennial observance also led us to the neighborhood post office to check out a Postal Service special issue, a two-sided commemorative of the First.

Controlled Powered Airplane Flight (with capital letters.) Suitable for display in a two-sided see-through frame, the panel has ten 37-cent postage stamps on one side, each with a drawing of the Wrights' airplane. The reverse panel includes outlined photos of the famous fliers and a brief history of the event.

We bought two of the special issue panels - one for my seldom looked-at-stamp collection and other for our son, a stamp enthusiast who likes airplanes.

Now, what about that first airplane ride? In the summer of 1934 an itinerant Midwest pilot in a Ford Tri-Motor (some spell it Trimotor, one word without the hyphen) airplane landed at our hometown airport in Quincy, Illinois, looking for local yokels who wanted to fly. The pilot must have had a good advance man because my dad said the plane's visit was well-publicized in the local newspaper and on handbills spread around town.

I was six months shy of six years old that summer, oblivious of the coming excitement. My dad and mom told me we were going to the airport just to look at the airplane. Back then it was big news when an equally "big" airplane came to town. At the airport, Mother decided to stay in the car and I accompanied my Dad through the crowd, trying to get as close as possible to the shiny plane. Before I knew what was happening, dad bought two $5 tickets for a 15-minute flight over our town and surrounding countryside.

As a retired infrequent flier, I will never forget the thrill of that first plane ride, short as it was. I often think of it on occasional trips in modern jetliners. I remember the upright hard wicker seats for 10 or 12 passengers in the Tri-Motor's cabin; the loud motor noise inside the uninsulated plane and the sporty cap the pilot wore. The pilot also fastened seatbelts for the passengers, nearly all of whom had never flown before. Wish I had saved a ticket stub or other souvenir, or taken a picture with a Kodak box camera we had left at home.

When we landed and returned to our car, Mother wondered what had taken us so long. The truth was that Father had not told her we were going for a plane ride. I don't know to this day if he planned it that way or whether the flight was spur of the moment. When she found out, Mom was concerned for our safety and wanted no part of airplanes, then or ever. She didn't fly commercially until her mid-70s.

Fast forward 70 years to the Evergreen Aviation Museum in McMinnville in northwest Oregon, home of the legendary "Spruce Goose" flying boat built by eccentric aviation pioneer Howard Hughes. Two friends and I visited the museum last spring, mostly to see the gigantic Hughes flying boat.

Sentimental nostalgia hit me hard as we walked in the door. Just inside the front entrance sat a beautifully restored Ford Tri-Motor, a sturdy but awkward looking all-metal aircraft with a corrugated aluminum outer skin. Called the "Tin Goose" by some, the popular Tri-Motors were built originally by the Fokker company in The Netherlands.

In the 1920s the design was licensed to car-maker Henry Ford in Dearborn, Mich., and the Ford plant produced the planes for domestic use by fledgling U.S. airlines. A few Tri-Motors were still in service in South America in the 1990s and may still be hauling cargo today. Later the Ford company turned out hundreds of B-24 Liberator bombers flown in World War II.

It was just after the air museum opened that morning and the crowds hadn't yet arrived. After hearing about my 1934 plane ride, the volunteer guide standing by the Tri-Motor beckoned me inside the "velvet ropes" and asked if I wanted to step inside the cabin. Did I ever! I walked up the aisle - the seats looked the same - checked out the cockpit and re-lived my first-flight moment. After a few minutes I stepped off the old airliner and joined my friends touring the museum.

As we left I talked to another volunteer greeting visitors near the entrance, I told him how pleased and surprised I was that the museum had a Ford Tri-Motor, and explained about my first airplane ride. A week or so later a large envelope arrived in our mailbox. Inside was a nice 8xl0 print of a Tri-Motor and a B-17 bomber flying formation over a Cascade Mountain snowcap - courtesy of the air museum volunteer.

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