Friday, November 2, 2012
Island Airlines - The Ford Tri-motor Remembered
A deep rumble permeates the plane and its passengers as they taxi to the end of the airstrip. A pause. A turn. The pilot, Harold Hauck, looks back at his passengers, grins, and then turns to the controls as the Ford Tri-motor he pilots gallops down the runway and finally lifts into the air. It is a thrill I fondly remember from my youth in the late 50s and 60s as my family made our weekly visit to their vacation home on South Bass Island in Lake Erie.
The Ford Tri-motor, or the Tin Goose as it was nicknamed, was a major mode of transportation for the Island Airlines of Port Clinton, Ohio, for over 50 years. At one time I believe they owned three. It carried passengers and cargo to the Lake Erie Islands of South Bass, Middle Bass, North Bass, and Rattlesnake. In the winter, it was the only means of public transportation to the islands and was used as a “school bus” for the children on the outer islands who attended school at Put-In-Bay or Port Clinton on the mainland.
My very first plane ride was in the Tin Goose whose corrugated metal sides shone brightly in the sun. The Goose had room for two pilots and seventeen passengers who sat on small metal seats padded lightly with vinyl cushions. The back of the metal seat barely made it to the small of an adult’s back (the restored version appears to have much more comfortable seats) and most hunched forward to look out the windows as the plane flew its scenic route. Often cargo was stacked on one side of the plane, passengers sat on the other and when the plane banked, hands would go up to be sure the cargo stayed in place.
The most exciting trip for me came later when my husband and I hitched a ride on the mail route on the Tri-motor. We lifted off and touched down at each of the islands where mail pouches were exchanged. Landing and take-off at Rattlesnake Island was as exciting as any amusement park ride could be. The airstrip was cut across the little island and the pilot had to judge his landing quickly at the start of the runway so that he had enough distance to brake and turn before falling off the cliff at the other end. Take off was equally exciting as the plane gunned engines at one end of the runway and took off with a burst of “speed” while everyone held their breath to see if we could lift off before reaching the lake on the other side.
There were only two crashes that I know of in the islands. One took place on Kellys Island in 1954 and the other at Port Clinton in 1972. The pieces-parts of the Island Airlines Tri-motors are shown here in a series of photographs taken in Vicksburg, Michigan, where the plane was being restored.
There is a restored Tri-motor that tours in the summer and offers rides. What a privilege we had to ride at a $5-10 rate when we were kids. And there is now a museum dedicated to the Tri-motor in Port Clinton, The Tri-Motor Heritage Foundation.