Plane of past propels passengers over C-U

This past weekend out at Frasca Field in Urbana, the Experimental Aircraft Association, or EAA, flew a 1929 Ford Tri-Motor airplane over Champaign-Urbana for anyone who wants to experience luxury as it was nearly 90 years ago.

The plane is the only one of the other four flyable Tri-Motors out on tour, which took passengers high above the fields and buildings of the area, giving riders a chance to take part in a piece of history.

Ilse Harmacinksi, a volunteer with EAA and a pilot herself, said the plane was quite expensive to ride back in its day.

“This was first class travel, and this one had a deluxe interior with leather seats,” said Rand Siegfried, a Californian toy designer and volunteer pilot for the Tri-Motor, which, according to Siegfried, cost $42,000 brand new in 1929. “This one may have even had seat belts.”

Corrugated aluminum plates coat nearly every exterior surface to give the plane extra strength and durability. Building planes out of metal instead of wood was still a relatively new improvement when Ford was building this model. Three large motors — one on each wing and one on the nose — propel it at lift-off and in flight.

With just a glance inside, the standards of luxury are markedly different than what they are today. There are but nine seats, two across, and four that run the length of the right of the plane and five on the left. The interior walls are painted a light green and permeated with large windows for easy viewing of the landscape below.

The Tri-Motor’s utility derived itself from its multiple uses. Not only was it a passenger plane, it also served as a mail carrier, transportation for smokejumpers that parachuted into forest fires and a movie prop in such films as Johnny Depp’s “Public Enemy” and Jerry Lewis’ “Family Jewels.” Another plane of the same model also appeared in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.”

Typical flights when it was in commission lasted roughly two hours, taking passengers about 200 miles before landing so they could use the restroom on the ground. At most, the plane could only fly 400 miles at speeds approaching 100 miles per hour.

On this tour, Siegfried said he flies it around 80 miles per hour so that the ride is more comfortable and quieter because the engines are not roaring as loudly.

Harmacinski said passengers who wanted to fly transcontinental would have to fly during the day and continue by night on a sleeper train because the Tri-Motor could not fly at night. She said the trek coast to coast took close to three days. But speed is not the goal on these flights out at the airfield.

“The purpose of the plane is to show people what it was really like,” Harmacinski said. “What you see right now is what it was like in 1930.”

After six years of touring with EAA’s plane, Siegfried still enjoys it.

“What I get a real kick out of is when I look back during a flight, and I look back after landing, invariably there are such big smiles,” Siegfried said. “What a thrill to get to share this with them.”