By ANN Correspondent Tom Griffith
The National Air Tour (NAT) 2003 last week was ready to make the
next leg of its trip that would take it to the western-most city on
its 26 city itinerary: Ft. Worth (TX). This is unfortunate for the
West, as the Tour planes and people are all first-rate; any city
lucky enough to have the Tour stop at their airport can count
themselves lucky, even blessed.
Speaking of "blessed,"
I stood on the blacktop ramp at the Tulsa (OK) airport, not far
from my ride back home: The Stinson Trimotor, NC-11153. My personal
crew, John and Lyn Mohr, were visiting with local Tulsa airport
officials, among them a man by the name of Dale Frakes. Dale is the
director of the Tulsa Air and Space Center, and he was expressing
his enthusiasm for the Tour and thanking the Mohrs and the other
pilots and NAT team members for their coming to Tulsa.
The visits were drawing to a close all over the ramp. Everyone
who wasn't going to Ft. Worth with the Tour, or who wasn't going to
be marshalling planes had to leave the ramp area -- the guy on the
PA system made the announcements to clear the ramp of non-Tour
people. An important addition to the Tour people was yours truly,
Tom Griffith - the pharmacist, pilot, photographer and
correspondent for ANN. My job was to continue photographing and
observing as we winged our way south to Texas.
It is worth noting that I flew to Tulsa from Love Field in
Dallas on Southwest Airlines, but I'd be returning on an American
Airlines plane. This beautifully-restored Stinson Trimotor, with
the FAA registration number of NC-11153, is officially designated
the Stinson SM-6000B, Model T, and is the oldest surviving American
Airlines (originally American Airways, Inc) airliner. While I would
not be served coffee and peanuts on the trip from Tulsa to Ft.
Worth, I would be treated to an adventure that modern airline
flights simply cannot match. I found out from John Mohr, my pilot,
that we would be cruising at 1,000 ft AGL most of the way to Ft.
Worth. At times, we were more like 300 ft AGL, and just before
arrival into the Dallas-Ft. Worth Class Bravo airspace, we reached
almost 2,500 feet AGL, flying at 3,000 ft. MSL at one point. Break
out the oxygen!
I must digress from the actual trip itself and let ANN readers
know a little about John Mohr. John is a little younger than
I -- I didn't ask him, but an article in Air and Space this summer
pegged his age at 49. John's dad and grandfather operated a
seaplane base in the Minnesota Boundary Waters area, so flying is
in his blood. I know that his son Ryan, whom I met first by the big
Stinson Model T, is also a pilot and he had flown her on other legs
of the trip. (What luck for this young man!) Luck really does not
enter into it though: Ryan is probably looking at his old man's
logbook and figuring out how to get more flight hours than the
John himself has over 30,000 hours in the air. His paying job is
that of a DC-9 captain and instructor for a major airline. He has
been flying since he was a kid; now he also flies a Stearman
biplane in aerobatic routines at airshows.
His "ticket" to getting to fly NC-11153 is that he is a test
pilot of classic aircraft. He has flown a large number of planes
from the 1920s and 1930s -- most of them are ones that have been
restored for Greg Herrick's Golden Wings Museum in Anoka (MN). The
term "test pilot" usually conjures up a man (or woman) in a G-suit,
helmet in hand, climbing up the ladder and lowering himself into
the newest X-plane, or newest version of an existing fighter plane.
John, however, faces every bit as much as a challenge (albeit with
a lot less airspeed and altitude!) as a "modern" test pilot. John
explained to the Air and Space article that the old planes don't
have same control "feel" as more modern aircraft: rudders,
elevators and ailerons can be "stiff," "mushy" or "heavy" (in that
order). Brakes can be bad...the list goes on. Prior knowledge of
this helped me understand why our takeoff (described in my next
article) went the way that it did, and why simple turns went the
way that they did.
I knew that my personal
pilot would be the best man for the job. There to assist him was
his wife, Lyn. During our "short" trip to Ft. Worth, Lyn got a
chance to fly the Model T (that sounds so strange, since a "Model
T" was always an antique Ford motorcar to me!) part of the way.
Although the big plane is a handful, Lyn showed me that the "weaker
sex" can handle such aircraft also. The plane seemed to be one that
needed to be hand-flown (don't forget the feet, either!) from
before cranking the first engine before takeoff, till after
shutting the last one down after landing. There were no autopilots,
I really need to tell a little of the story of NC-11153. Lyn
gave me a copy of a booklet on this special aircraft before the
flight, and it has the history of this particular plane. Like many
old planes, it retired a number of times, only to be resurrected to
fill another role in aviation. After its airline career, it has
flown as a cargo plane (it has even hauled horses!), general
freight hauler, a crop duster, mail hauler; and an airliner several
more times. It started out as a fabric-covered plane, was
"metalized" by being recovered with aluminum (and the requisite
thousands of rivets) and finally re-covered in fabric to return the
external skin to its original form. Of note is the weight of the
aluminum skin and rivets that were removed before it was re-covered
with fabric: over 1,600 pounds!
In the 1950s, more-powerful versions of the Lycoming R-680
radials replaced the originals, upping the power per engine from
215 HP to 300 HP. Constant speed props were added, too. The plane
that I flew in had the later engines and props, which is a good
idea. The better engines and props, coupled with upgraded radios
and instruments are those "new-fangled" things that really do not
detract from the antique aircraft on which they're installed.
Safety is always good!
I found out from John that we would be tail-end Charlie in this
formation. It would be a flight of the three tri-motor aircraft!
Threes: we would have a flight of three planes; each has three
engines; my plane had three souls on board; we would be aloft for
about three hours. I'm sure that I could delve deeper into the
facts and find out that I had three pennies in my pocket,
etc. Regardless, the flight of three classic aircraft would
be taking off after everyone else. This gave me a chance to sit in
the first row of the passenger cabin, on the right hand side, so
that I could observe John over his right shoulder.
I watched John getting situated in the rather cramped pilots'
cabin and then he started the "little" Lycoming radials one at a
time. I've seen radials start up hundreds of times at airshows and
at airports; I don't believe I've ever seen radials that started up
as quickly and smoothly as these. I especially watched as the right
engine was brought to life -- it was right outside my window, and
the prop blades passed a within a foot or so of my front row seat.
While this engine was idling, I knew that being small-displacement
engines or not, I'd need something to protect my ears for the
upcoming flight. In deference to the TSA and everything that is
post-9/11, I didn't bring my own headset. (I didn't want to get
stopped at the security check at Love Field before I left Dallas. I
can see it now - let's see, a passenger with a one way ticket,
carrying a bag FULL of aviation magazines, a Dallas sectional, a
pilot's logbook, etc.) Long story short, John and Lyn had a spare
set of David Clarks and I gratefully put them on. Even WITH them
on, the engines were still LOUD.
John told me through the intercom that the logistics of getting
25 or so planes off and flying in a short period of time is
daunting for the ATC people. The pilots were used to what they
needed to do, having done it at 11 other airports on the Tour, but
the controllers were NOT. We sat there, engines idling, radios and
instruments being set, etc while the smaller planes on the tour
taxied off and took off for Ft. Worth. I saw the bigger Ford
AT-5-CS and Bushmaster trimotors to our right, each with three
bigger radials (Pratt & Whitney R-985s on the Bushmaster
and Pratt & Whitney R-1340s on the Ford, if I'm not mistaken --
each one producing about 450 HP, meaning 50% more power AND noise
than our 300 HP engines). After receiving clearance to taxi, John
followed the other two trimotors out onto the taxiway. Before we
reached Runway 36L, John turned the Stinson into the wind and did
his run-ups. As he cycled the props, I saw the Hamilton Standard
oil pressure-actuated propeller pitch mechanisms move in and out to
change the pitch of the blades. I had a perfect seat to see this.
(I don't remember every being able to see such things from the
cockpit of other multi-engine piston-prop planes that I've flown
The other planes did
their run-ups at the same time, and after everyone was ready, all
three of us taxied onto the runway, with the Ford and Bushmaster
more or less side-by-side in front of our Stinson, with the Ford
slightly in front of the Bushmaster. John made sure that I was
strapped in and ready to takeoff, and a few seconds after the other
two trimotors began to roll, we were in action and started our
I looked out the right side (this plane is excellent for
photography - the windows slide open, allowing one to take
photographs without any kind of glass or plastic in the way) and
the big Tulsa crowd was standing on the other side of the airport
fence, most of them envying the people in those beautiful aircraft.
I took a photo of these people, standing where I'd been so many
times in my life -- on the wrong side of the fence, wishing I were
aboard any of the classic aircraft taking off.
John naturally had his right hand on the three throttle levers
and his left hand on the all wooden(!) control wheel. I couldn't
see his feet, but as the tail came up, I imagined him doing a dance
on the rudder pedals. In a rather undramatic fashion, after what
seemed like a very short takeoff roll, we were slowly leaving the
earth. I was really doing this: flying in a Golden Age
I haven't had a chance to talk to John since the flight, but I
need to ask him about the takeoff from Tulsa. In Air and Space
magazine, John had described such aircraft as having rather
"unfriendly" (my word) controls. We were maybe 100 feet off the
ground, therefore out of ground effect, but were flying more or
less level, and John was REALLY doing some serious aileron work.
The left crosswind obviously was a little meaner as we cleared the
runway. I'm no expert, but being a private pilot helped me realize
that he was working hard, simply keeping the plane flying straight
and level to allow the speed to come up a little. There were trees
at the end of the 6100 foot runway, and while I knew that they were
still a good ways off, such things have a way of looking closer.
Our plane seemed to be genuinely fighting for airspeed and power
that would be able to translate into a climbing turn to the left,
to follow the other two planes, which I could see in front of us.
John reached the right speed and attitude, and next thing I knew,
we were making a graceful sweeping left turn that would finally
have us pointing basically to the southwest, towards Ft. Worth. We
banked at maybe 15 degrees, and I saw the Bushmaster inside of
our turn and the Ford in front of us. We were all pretty much at
the same altitude and airspeed and all making the same turn --
these pilots KNEW how to play together! I saw downtown Tulsa maybe
5 miles away from us, and at 100 mph, and climbing to about 1,000
ft AGL, we had a good view of everything around us. There was a
slight amount of haze in the sky, but it was basically good VFR
I was taking photos a mile a minute at this point - I had enough
digital media to take 300 to 400 good resolution photos and I
didn't want to go home with any room left on my cards.
John and the other pilots were constantly in touch with each
other. The planes established their course to Meacham Field and for
the next three hours or so, they took turns flying in different
positions and at different altitudes. It was like they were flying
only to please me and the photographer who was in one of the other
planes (I believe he was in the Bushmaster). (He was Austin Brown
with Flyer magazine, as I learned later from Suzanne. I've
got to get some of his photos of 'my' Stinson!)
I actually wore myself
out, scrambling around inside the cabin of the Stinson. I took most
of my photos from seats in the first three rows (there is one
comfortable seat on each side of the aisle on the Stinson). I had
to share my seat with a couple of guitars that were riding there,
but that was OK. There are "V" shaped struts between the first and
second rows, and one has to deal with them in passing to the front
and rear of the plane. They actually helped out more than once,
giving me something to hold onto when we flew through a few bumps
in the air.
After nearly an hour of photography, I took a little rest and
remembered what my wife, Louise, had told me before I make a flight
in any antique or classic aircraft: she said to sit back and enjoy
the ride -- forget the cameras for a while and just take it all in.
Better advice has never been given to anyone in my position: there
wasn't any other place in the world where three trimotor aircraft
were following over twenty other classic, antique aircraft. I
looked outside, beyond the other two planes, which were usually
within sight from my seat as I moved from the left to the right
side of the plane. There were muddy, yellow rivers below. There
were also lakes, trees, farmhouses, barns, cows, bales of hay,
people, cars, small towns, roads and lots of grass. When you're
flying at altitudes from maybe 500 to 1,000 feet AGL and doing only
100 mph, you get to see everything on the ground. Since I was a
passenger in the Stinson, someone else had to pay attention to
flying the plane this time, and I got to enjoy the countryside.