This weekend, visitors to Lakeland Linder can fly in a 1928 Ford Tri-Motor, the plane that popularized commercial air travel in the 1920s
Mike Zidziunas stands on a grassy field outside the Lakeland AeroClub hangar at Lakeland Linder Regional Airport. In front of him stands a group of high school students, all members of the club, many also students of the Central Florida Aviation Academy. Behind him, perched at an angle and pointing to the sky, sits a glimmering monument to aviation innovation, more than six tons of corrugated aluminum and Detroit engineering, a 1928 Ford Tri-Motor 5-AT known as the City of Wichita.
Ninety years ago, it was one of the planes that revolutionized transcontinental travel and jumped started commercial aviation in the U.S. Today, it’s a piece of living history. Still flying around the country, it’s a testament to the reliability of air travel.
For the next few days, visitors to Lakeland Linder can take a flight in a time machine aboard the City of Wichita and experience what air travel was like in the Roaring ‘20s. Brought to Lakeland by the Experimental Aircraft Association and the Liberty Aviation Museum in Port Clinton, Ohio.
“Anyone know what ‘TAT’ stands for?” Zidziunas asks the students.
“It says it right there. Transcontinental Air Transport,” one of the students smartly responds.
“The naysayers said it stood for take-a-train,” he tells them. “This was the concord of its day. A pillar of luxury and the fastest you could possibly go. Fifty-one hours from New York to Los Angeles.”
By the late ‘20s trains were still the preferred method of travel, taking about five days to get from coast to coast. Henry Ford, though, knew the future was in the skies.
“The reason Ford is so important is that he brought mass production,” Cody Welch, the City of Wichita’s pilot says, standing beneath one of the plane’s top-mounted wings. “He knew how to bring together all these engineers.”
Before the Tri-Motor — which became affectionately known as the Tin Goose — was introduced, the public was wary of air travel. Most planes were wood and featured a single or double engine configuration.
“To get the public to climb off their horse-drawn buggy and get in an airplane they had to do a few things,” Welch says. “The first was make it all metal because there were war stories of airplanes that had wood internal structures that had failures. Another thing, it had to be reliable. Aircraft engine technology was brand new. They put the third engine on to prove to the public that one engine could fail, another engine could fail. We got redundancy on top of redundancy.”
The plane’s loud, radial engines weigh it down, as does the solid metal body — the first of
its type, but people trusted it. A trip across the country became a combination of rail and flight. Passengers boarded an overnight train from New York to Columbus, Ohio, then climbed through the rounded rear hatch of a Tin Goose’s fuselage into a wood-paneled passenger compartment.
It’s a tight squeeze with one seat per side, but it feels more adventurous than cramped. Luxurious light sconces on the walls and velvety window curtains tell you you’re traveling in style.
From Columbus, the City of Wichita made a handful of stops on the way to California, but the trip was cut from five to two-and-a-half days.
As the engines rip and roar to life, you feel like Indiana Jones searching for the next adventure. But there’s no fedora pulled over your eyes for a quick nap. There’s too much to take in too quickly. The guest flights last about 20 minutes as you fly 1,000 feet over Lakeland and Plant City, cruising a steady 80 mph.
Travelers, like Chris Parker, keep coming back to catch the plane’s annual tour. He first flew in it about five years ago when it visited Plant City.
“It’s about the nostalgia. It’s a great old plane,” Parker says. “It was the start of commercial aviation. Like flying in a piece of history.”
The weight and speed of a Tin Goose weren’t the most practical, but it was a statement,
Welch says. It proved to the public that air travel was viable and reliable and jump started the passenger airline travel industry. The Tri-Motor only had a shelf-life of about five years, but by the mid-30s airline travel was a booming, burgeoning industry. It spurred further innovation, ushering in a generation of airliners that were larger, faster and capable of flying even further.
“It had to happen. We’d be 10 or 15 years behind. We’d still be riding in propeller-driven airliners if the Tri-Motor hadn’t gotten the industry started,” Welch said. “Once it started, the development was just rapid.”