I Lived To Tell About It

Friday, September 29, 2017 - by Willard Rice, Jr.

I lived to tell about it..... 

You are leisurely rolling down the runway and 12 seconds later you realize that the wheels hanging from the wings have lifted off the ground. Dallas sized houses along the runway with their own hangers gradually recede as the plane lumbers skyward. It banks left and barely slides by Grindstone Mountain and you worry how it got that name. 

Just another escape from the ravine that is Collegedale Airport but this time in a vintage Ford Tri-motor. You think --what is in better shape than when it was born 87 years ago?  A person? My couch? Any machine in my garage? What about this airplane? 

I am comforted by the awareness that the pilot, Bill Sleeper, is as confident as Tom Cruise in Top Gun that we’ll make it back. The cabin of this plane could easily fit in the upper deck first class section of the 747s that Bill has flown around the world. 

Yet, here he is piloting this plane which has a mahogany bakelite-looking steering wheel ..yes, a steering wheel that looks like it came out of your grandfather’s 1953 Oldsmobile. He doesn’t have to do it but he is jockeying this antique at 90 mph instead of tooling through the air at jet speed. I tell myself that you don’t get to fly 747s with 500 people aboard without being at the 99+% level on the human rationality scale. 

So I do not sweat a thing... just revel in the view. Which is unlike any I’ve seen before. We are flying over spreading subdivisions you had never known existed in the furling hills of East Hamilton County. Swimming pools shimmer in the afternoon sun. We are so low their yellow rubber duckies might be getting a push from our prop wash. I’m thinking we must be in drone territory but, if some yahoo is flying his birthday present up where we are, we’ll gleefully chew it to bits with our three props. No gaping jet intake on this baby to cause major indigestion like on Sully’s plane. 

Looking around, I see nine other wide-eyed passengers – from kids to grandpas - taking it all in. I’m thinking about the passengers who were aboard during this plane’s 1929 birthday year. Surely, they were outfitted in their best suits, dresses and shoes. Remember, people used to get dressed up to travel somewhere and a flight on this plane would have been like going to Paris on the Concorde. No jeans, tank tops, flip flops or jeans like those adorning the captives on the last airliner I was on.    

Think about this..in 1929 you are boarding an airplane powered by gasoline internal combustion engines which were cousins of the engines in your rattling cars, cars that routinely wouldn’t start or would quit a few miles down the road. And now you are going up in an airplane. 

Henry Ford, the Steve Jobs/Elon Musk of his era, and his associates thought they knew a thing or two about getting the populace to embrace a new technology. What would it take to get people to take to the air? Confidence and a sense of elegance were the emotions the Tri-motor was designed to evoke. Three engines, count them .. not just two. Corrugated aluminum skin, the picture of strength, not shod in thin-looking metal or the fabric that still was standard.  

And in the cabin, no structural innards to snag your Sunday ‘s finest. It was 1929 and, if you are flying in the first real airliner, you certainly were not in the group wiped out in the crash. Undoubtedly, not the best time to launch the concept of long distance air travel but who can see the financial future that was only going to get worse for a half dozen years? Enjoy the wood-paneled cabin, comfortable seats, personal lights and ventilation spigots overhead. Room to stretch your feet. A center aisle permitting an easy trip to the “lavatory” or a view of the 2 pilots, their steering wheels-- even a stewardess. 

This model may have been the inaugural plane that made us think that air travel could be special, not a bus ride.  Generations of boys and girls dreamed to be part of it. Pan Am was an early adopter of the Tri-motor ..and was there ever an airline that lifted ones thoughts higher to what an elegant life included more than Pan Am?  Once upon a time?

Oh, now we are coming down to earth, gliding, fortunately, not grinding, by Grindstone mountain again. What is that sweet aroma coming through my personal ventilation vent? It must be Little Debbie baking day at McKee. Life is Good. 

You can experience the same — if you are quick .. Hurry over to Collegedale airport today through Sunday, from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. 

The local Collegedale/ Chattanooga Experimental Aviation Association club is holding an open house. .. no charge to see the visiting Trimotor (or the best $75 you ever spent for a ride on an airplane). It’s a once-in-a- life-time experience.   

Willard Rice, Jr

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