Flying an 80-Year-Old Plane
A rare chance to take the controls of a 1931 Stinson Tri-Motor.
Do you hold on to your old issues of Air & Space magazine? If so, dig out the September 2003 issue and take a look at the cover. You’ll see a picture of a vintage 1931 Stinson Tri-Motor. This is the oldest surviving American Airlines plane, NC-1153, and I was fortunate enough to find myself at the controls of that very plane recently.
The article in that issue tells about this plane’s owner, Greg Herrick, whose passion is finding and restoring vintage aircraft. He currently owns 42 planes, many of them literally one of a kind, and has several on display at the Anoka County airport, just north of Minneapolis-St. Paul.
I got invited to ride in this plane because a friend had won a raffle. Every year he contributes to a worthy charity, the Captain Jason Dahl scholarship fund, and this year they awarded two random contributors (and a guest) a ride in the Stinson. When my friend won the ride, he called me to be his guest because he felt pretty sure I would appreciate such an opportunity. He was right.
Before I get to describing the ride, let me say a little more about the charity. Jason Dahl was the captain of United Flight 93, which crashed into the Pennsylvania countryside on 9/11 after passengers overwhelmed the terrorists in the cockpit. Jason’s wife Sandy established the scholarship fund in his memory. Sadly, she passed away between the time I was invited and the day of the ride, so I missed the chance to meet her personally. The scholarship will continue, however, under the stewardship of some of Captain Dahl’s fellow United pilots.
I caught a jumpseat from D.C. into Minneapolis-St. Paul early on a Saturday and met my friend. We rented a car and set out for the Anoka County airport (identifier: ANE). When we got there, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that there was an airshow/fly-in going on. Lots of activity and some very interesting planes on display, including a privately owned T-38 Talon, the same type of plane that NASA astronauts fly. As we got out of the car, the Stinson was being rolled out of the hangar, so our timing was excellent. We were each given a multi-page liability disclaimer before setting foot on the plane. I initialed and signed in a dozen or more places, but I admit to not even reading it. Not really concerned.
The plane was being flown by retired Northwest Airlines Captain Harry Thibault, with Greg in the right seat. After we boarded, Harry started the three engines and got clearance to taxi out. Everyone at the airshow stopped to watch, and lots of cameras were pointed our way. We had the windows in the back open, and they stayed that way throughout the flight. The day couldn’t have been better for such a flight: 70° with scattered puffy clouds at about 4,000 feet and winds out of the northwest at seven knots.
We headed off to a nearby grass strip at the Forest Lake Airport, where we stopped for a while. The plane drew a lot of attention there as well. For the flight back to Anoka County, we each got a turn at the controls of this wonderful plane. I found it to be very sensitive in yaw, and I seemed to be dancing on the rudder pedals the entire time. I flew it all the way to short final, at which point Harry took over for the landing. Approach was at about 80-85 knots. We made a zero-flap approach, which is standard for this plane since it’s not equipped with flaps.
After the flight, Greg gave us a private tour of his hangar, The Golden Wings Flying Museum. He has a fascinating array of very rare vintage planes. His collection includes a Ford Tri-Motor, serial #10. This particular plane has an incredible history, and was piloted at various times by several famous flyers, including Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart. For someone who usually flies modern jetliners, one of my biggest thrills on this trip was sitting in the left seat of that plane and feeling a link to the pioneers of flight.