Ford Tri Motor NC8407

In June 2013 it appeared out of the sky and landed at the airport in our back yard. This EAA restored 1929 Ford Tri Motor spent two days rumbling through the sky, giving rides to the people of the St. Louis area.

Of course I could not resist taking a look. One evening as it was being put away for the night, Sue and I talked to the pilot and caretaker. It was then that it became clear that this may very well be the SAME aircraft that my sister and I rode over 40 years ago in the late 60's in Chanute, Kansas. That and a penny-a-pound flight in a Cherokee were my first two airplane rides, igniting in me a life-long passion for flight.

History of Ford Tri Motor NC8407

First Flight. 146th of 199 Tri-Motors. 23rd of 24 model 4-AT-E. SN 4-AT-69. Aircraft had wheel & strut fairings & speed ring cowlings.

NC8407 and its sister ship NC8408 (final model of the 4-AT-E) sold to Pitcairn Aviation’s (known for its air mail flying) passenger division, Eastern Air Transport (which became Eastern Airlines). These 2 Fords inaugurated Eastern.

Sold to Intercontinent Aviation (Deleware Corp.) for lease to Compania Nacional Cubana de Aviacion Curtiss (Cubana Curtiss as it was known before the Pan Am purchase) in Havana, Cuba. While in Cuba, its U.S. registration was changed to NM-4, one of 8 Cubana Fords.

It was used to inaugurate Cubana’s very first passenger (and mail) route from Havana to Santiago de Cuba (with stops at Santa Clara, Moron, Victoria de las Tunas and Holguin. On board was Cubana President Mr. William D. Pawley and members of the Cuban press. NM-4 served Cubana Curtiss faithfully, being utilized mainly on the Havana-Santiago de Cuba and Havana-Guantanamo runs. However, it doubled as a multi-engine trainer for the transport rating at the Curtiss flight school in Havana, Escuela Curtiss (from where Cubana was born).

All of the company’s outstanding stock was bought by Pan American Airways and the flight training usage was terminated.

The name Curtiss was dropped from the company name and removed from all aircraft.

Sometime in 1933 it was involved in the only accident while in Cubana service. Under the command of Capt. Jose Alvares del Regato, after a short stop at Guantanemo, the left main tire dropped off the runway surface on landing roll-out at Santiago de Cuba. The dirt was quite soft, causing the gear to dig in and the plane to flip up onto it’s center engine. Neither crew member or any of the twelve passengers were injured. The late Captain William ‘Bill’ Cook (who was later to become Cubana’s director of Flight Training) was at the time a young ‘greasy monkey’ (mechanic) told EAA in 1996 that NM-4 was flying in less than a week! Captain Cook accumulated over 1000 hours of flying time in the plane. He related that while with Cubana, the pilots carried one small jar of gasoline on each side of the cockpit to use to wipe the center windshield off as the old Wright engines were forever smearing the field of vision.

The plane was involved in a minor incident. While turning around at the beginning of the runway at Ciego de Avila Airport in the Camaguey Province, Captain Regato got too close to a fence and damaged the elevator and stabilizer beyond repair. The following day NM-18 flew in replacement components and NM-4 was returned to service.

August, 1946
Aircraft was leased, later sold to Dominicana de Aviacion where it received Dominican registration number HI-2. It was transferred to the Dominican Air Force (Cuerpo de Aviacion Militar Republica Dominica) in 1948 as part of its expansion and received military registration #101. It was ‘Air Force One’ in the Dominican.

Purchased by Jesse Bristow of Miami (same guy that ordered the Samson biplane from Curtis Pitts) presumably the plane was for barnstorming with his famous air show troupe.

Bristow had its old Wright R-975-E radial engines replaced with the newer Wright 975-28’s.

Purchased by Rex Williams of Phoenix, Az. who converted it to a crop sprayer. In May ‘54, the 300 HP Wright R-975-28 engines were replaced with a large 550HP Pratt & Whitney in the nose and 450HP Pratt & Whitneys at each wing position. This made our plane the most powerful 4AT ever flown. In December ‘54, the nose engine was exchanged for another 450.

Sold to David Callender of Eagle, Idaho.

Sold to Aircraft Service Company of Boise, Id. Two 275 gallon tanks with 9”x 20” Bomb doors were added so that the plane could drop fire retardant on forest fires. The mixture of water and Sodium calcite-borate solution weighed approximately 10# per gallon, meaning the Ford was carrying a payload of 5500#. It could lay a swath of chemical in a 70’ x 700’ area. In 1957, Glenn Higby made 74 drops on fires in the Payette and Boise National Forests. One of the drops allegedly saved the lives of several firefighters who were trapped by surrounding wildfire.

Sold to the famous Johnson Flying Service, Cascade, and Idaho division. It is believed that the plane continued to be used as a borate bomber. Further, it was modified for use as a smoke jumper aircraft. The lower half of the original elliptical passenger door was squared off by Johnson Flying Service to facilitate parachuting with firefighting and survival gear.

Sold to LeMaster-Glenn Aerial Spraying Service of Ottawa, KS for use once again as a crop duster. Chuck LeMaster personally travelled to Missoula to negotiate with Bob Johnson. The airplane has been sitting for 2-3 years. It took one week to get the plane ready to fly. On the ferry flight home Chuck lost the right engine. Magneto points in both mags had corroded off. When the plane got back to Ottawa full span spray bars were attached from the engine cowls to the wing tips. This purchase began a 10 year ownership for Dale Glenn and 10 years of flying the plane for Chuck LeMaster

LeMaster-Glenn sold to Ford Tri-Motor, Inc. Lawrence, KS, a Dale Glenn firm. Aircraft served a variety of roles including movie star. In late ‘64 it was leased to Tallmantz Aviation in California for a role in a feature comedy starring Jerry Lewis and Sebastian Cabot called ‘The Family Jewels’. The late Frank Tallman personally flew the plane for the filming. In the film Jerry Lewis is a struggling and very inept airline entrepreneur. In the story, NC8407 is his only plane. Chuck Lemaster retrieved the plane from Santa Anna after Tallmantz missed all of their payments. Tallmantz also made an illegal cut in the belly so that suitcases could roll out during filming of the movie. Pictures of the plane after the Burlington incident clearly show the patched belly. After this brief Hollywood fling, Dale dedicated the Ford to the barnstormer circuit. Chuck did most of the flying on this tour. NC8407 was seen regularly hoping rides all around the United States.

Thanks to Bob Schaller for a picture I never took. This was taken at Lake of the Ozarks, MO in summer of 1970 shortly after the time my sister and I had our first ride.

While at the annual Burlington, WI EAA air show, the Ford was nearly destroyed in a freak, violent Thunderstorm. Despite being tied down as well as having volunteers initially hanging on the wings, it was ripped from its ropes by the 75mph winds, rolled backwards into 2 vehicles, then thrown 50’ into the air, and smashed upside down nose first into the ground. The aft fuselage was broken in two parts, wings were destroyed, the cockpit was smashed and what was left was twisted and bent. Eleven other aircraft were either destroyed or severely damaged by the storm. EAA founder Paul Poberezny rode out this storm in the cockpit of his P-64, literally ‘flying it in the chocks’ as the winds whipped.

Paul Poberezny, on behalf of the EAA Aviation Foundation, purchased the crumpled wreckage from the insurance company for scrap value. Initially, the EAA felt that the plane was too badly damaged to be restored to flying status, that it would spend the rest of its days as a static display in the EAA museum. However, as work progressed, the decision was made to take the project to flying status. Captain JR Nielander (PAA ret’d) located a wrecked Tri-Motor (5AT #13 in the Nicaraguan jungle and barged it to a waiting ore boat which took it to Corpus Christi. It was then transferred by truck to Hales Corners, then on to Kalamazoo and the shop of Kal-Aero under the supervision of Maurice Hovious. From this wreck a huge fuselage jig was constructed within which both the damaged Island Airlines 4ATB#38, EAA’s 4-ATE-69 and Kal-Aero’s 5-ATC-58 (N8419) would be clamped and rebuilt. Tom Soerens, a skilled sheet metal employee of Wag-Aero and Bauken Noack of EAA, together with Maurice Hovius & the Kal-Aero, Inc. sheet metal specialists reclaimed the lost art of precise forming of corrugated alclad aluminum. (They learned that a 36” sheet of .016 Alclad shrinks to 29.5” when corrugated and that there is a precise way to anneal and crimp the ends of each corrugation). Bauken located the original factory corrugating die at Scenic Airlines hangar in Las Vegas. Tens of thousands of hours, much of it from volunteers, went into the restoration and reconstruction of this historic artifact. A major funding effort was led by Dick Wagner. Dr. Peter Williamson played a key role. Dick was a driving force in the restoration of the plane after it came back from Kal-Aero. Pat Packard, aviation artist painted all of the intricate detail on the interior mahogany as well as the E.A.T. logo. Additionally, he did the research as to the correct paint design for inside and out.

After 12 years, 1 month and 4 days of restoration work, NC8407 flew again. Dick Wagner was the Captain on the first flight at the same Burlington airport! He was accompanied by Don Toeppen, retired UAL Captain.

Ford NC8407 continues to fly proudly in support of its’ owner, the EAA Aviation Foundation in Oshkosh, WI. It is maintained in pristine condition by experienced EAA staff mechanics. Many of the jobs involved with operating the Tri-Motor are performed by EAA volunteers at Pioneer Airport, part of the EAA Air Adventure Museum. Its volunteer pilots come from both corporate and active & retired airline ranks. The Ford can be seen hopping rides on weekends (from May 1-Nov 1) at EAA’s Pioneer Airport, Touring the Midwest and east coast, and during the annual EAA Convention at Oshkosh. The Ford continues accumulate special experiences. For example, several couples have been married in the plane (while in flight). Others have become engaged. The plane flew rides at Chicago’s famous Meigs Field for the 50th anniversary of that politically endangered airport. At the 2001 EAA convention, Captain Ralph Charles (age 100 and former TWA Ford Tri-Motor pilot) was able to fly copilot in the Ford. Captain Charles is the oldest active licensed pilot in the USA. Johnny Miller, another 100 year old former tri-motor pilot also flew the plane at Oshkosh in 2006. The pilots who brought the British Airways Concorde (final visit) to the 1998 EAA convention also were able to try their hand flying the plane. Captain Max Robinson, F/O Philip Benson, Engineer Peter Corrigan and S/F/O Mark Jealous all became members of the Ford pilot fraternity. The airplane regularly carries celebrities, regular folks and special people like Make-A-Wish Foundation kids. On June 9, 2003 at 10:07AM she made the first landing of a Tri-Motor at the original Ford Field in Dearborn in over 65 years. This was part of the Ford Motor Co. centennial. In March of 2008 she starred in the Johnny Depp Movie ‘Public Enemies’ filmed at Oshkosh.

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