By Paul Tennant
---- — NORTH ANDOVER — Taking a ride on a 1929 Ford Tri-Motor is a blast and a half, but beware: Those three 420-horsepower engines make a deafening racket and unlike today's commercial jetliners, the noise is not shielded from the passengers.
Flying on this restored airplane gives one a sense of what it was like to travel by air back in the late 1920s and early 1930s, when aviation was still in its youth. The Tri-Motor, the first all-metal airliner, seated 10 passengers, far fewer than the hundreds that fly on today's commercial planes.
There was no such thing as a pressurized cabin back then, the pilot and co-pilot were plainly visible to passengers and but for the roaring din of the engines, you could have chatted with them.
The Tri-Motor cruised at 90 mph, a fraction of the speeds reached by today's passenger jets, but that was considered fast back in the '30s, according to Colin Soucy, one of the volunteer pilots who have been giving people 12-minute rides in this venerable aircraft at Lawrence Municipal Airport.
Soucy, a retired Delta Airlines pilot, noted that back when the Tri-Motor was young, a Model T, driven along dirt roads, did well to reach 20 mph. In its day, the Tri-Motor was downright revolutionary, according to Penelope Bowman, president of Chapter 106 of EAA, an international organization of aviation enthusiasts that works to educate people about the history of flying, among other missions.
By taking a combination of trains and Tri-Motors, travelers could journey from New York to Los Angeles in just under 48 hours, she noted. A passenger jet today can make that same trip in less than six hours, but 80 years ago, doing it in two days was amazing.
This reporter and photographer Angie Beaulieu got to ride the Tri-Motor, aka "Tin Goose," Thursday afternoon. Flying at 1,000 feet – no need to wear a sweater at that altitude – the view of the Merrimack Valley was spectacular. Each passenger had a window seat so no one missed out on the panoramic vistas of the mighty Merrimack River and the surrounding countryside.
I never realized how many swimming pools North Andover has. It was kind of neat to see landmarks such as St. Augustine Church in Andover, Immaculate Conception Church in Lawrence, the sprawling Lawrence High School, 1890s vintage Tilton School in Haverhill and St. James Church, also in that city.
Soucy assured me we were going 90 mph, but in the air, it seemed a lot slower.
One of the passengers on our flight was Gerard "Red" Gallant of Farmington, N.H., 101 years young. Back in the 1930s, Gallant was a flight mechanic who worked on Ford Tri-Motors. It felt "nice" to be flying in one of those planes again, he said.
During his mechanic days, he would sometimes act as co-pilot, he said. One of the most famous people to pilot a Tri-Motor was Amelia Earhart, whom Gallant met.
"She didn't like the way I rewired the gas filter," he recalled. "So she rewired it herself." In the early days of aviation, he explained, pilots had to "learn to do things."
Gallant was accompanied by his son, Stephen Gallant, and Rachelle LaPorte, the younger Gallant's fiancee.
"I've never felt more comfortable on a flight," Stephen Gallant said.
The older Gallant, who spent much of his career repairing Volkswagens after working on aircraft engines, walked onto the plane and out of it with just a little help from his son. He said he just renewed his driver's license.
Regular dietary habits, he said, have been the key to his long and still-active life.
The EAA – that stands for Experimental Aircraft Association – is offering flights in the Tri-Motor today and tomorrow, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., at Lawrence Municipal Airport. Tickets cost $75 for adults, $50 for children.
Take a flight When: Today and tomorrow, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Where: Lawrence Municipal Airport Tickets: $75 for adults, $50 for children For more info: www.FlytheFORD or call 877-952-5395