Tuesday, December 08, 2020

Group working to restore Ford aircraft

Jody Brausch with his Piper PA-30 Twin Comanche. Brausch, an investment advisor, has a commercial pilot's license and has flown Fort Tri-Motors.

A 1929 Ford Tri-Motor takes shape in a hangar at Liberty Aviation Museum near Port Clinton.

A view of the tail of a Ford Tri-Motor undergoing restoration at Liberty Aviation Museum.

PORT CLINTON, Ohio — Year by year, rivet by rivet, the ghost of a romantic old aircraft is being turned into a working airplane.

Volunteers with the Tri-Motor Heritage Foundation of Port Clinton have labored since 2004 to restore a vintage Ford Tri-Motor aircraft. They are appealing for tax-deductible donations and volunteers to help them finish the job. 

While other planes have been restored by professionals, the project being carried out in a hangar at Liberty Aviation Museum is unique. It's among the few projects done mostly by amateurs and volunteers, said Jody Brausch, a Huron resident who is president of the group.

“This is the largest amateur-built aircraft restoration in history,” Brausch said. 

Aviation buffs have a soft spot for the Ford Tri-Motor, the legendary Tin Goose built by Henry Ford.

It’s the plane that helped launch the airline industry, serving as a passenger plane for early versions of United and TWA. Passengers in Columbus, Ohio, boarded it for flights of Transcontinental Air Transport, a 1929 air-rail venture largely run by aviation hero Charles Lindbergh that promised to speed passengers from New York to LA in just 48 hours. 

Admiral Byrd flew a Tri-Motor for his historic flight over the South Pole. And Island Airlines for decades flew the plane from Port Clinton to the Lake Erie islands. 

The plane the Heritage Foundation is working to restore rolled off Ford’s assembly line in Dearborn, Michigan, in April 1929, Brausch said. It was flown to Mexico City, where it became the first aircraft operated by Aeromexico, Mexico’s national airline.

In 1931 or so, it was sold to Pan American Airways, run by aviation legend Juan Trippe. 

“We have his signature on our logbooks,” Brausch said.

Pan Am flew the plane from Key West to Havana, Cuba, from 1931 to 1933 before it was sold to a Cuban airline in Havana. 

It then changed hands again and came to Ohio, where it was flown by Island Airways from 1946 to 1952 from Port Clinton to Put-in-Bay and other island stops. 

Johnson’s Flying Service in Missoula, Montana, bought it in 1952, using it to transport smokejumpers, firefighters who parachute into remote areas to battle wildfires.

In 1953, however, the plane ground looped on a mountain airstrip, touching its wing the ground during a takeoff or landing. 

“They left it there in the forest in a mangled heap,” Brausch said. 

Maurice Hovious, an aircraft repair and restoration specialist, bought salvage rights for the wreck, loaded it on a truck, and brought it back to Kalamazoo, Mich., Brausch said. 

Hovious agreed to let a group in Port Clinton restore the plane, and in 2004, restoration work began in a hangar at Erie-Ottawa International Airport. In 2012, Liberty Aviation Museum began providing hangar space for the project.

Liberty Aviation Museum’s collection of aircraft includes a historic Tri-Motor that’s still flying, the “City of Port Clinton.” The plane originally was named the “City of Wichita” and was part of Transcontinental Air Transport, the airline that began operations in 1929 and eventually evolved into TWA. 

“Steel Rails and Silver Wings,” a history of TAT by aviation historian Robert Serling, explains that many aircraft in the original TAT fleet were named after the cities the airline serviced, such as Wichita, Kansas. The fleet also included two “City of Columbus” aircraft, named after Columbus, Ohio. 

Brausch, who has a business background, came on board the restoration project in 2008 and helped the group obtain 501(c)3 nonprofit status.

“So far, we’re about 80 percent complete,” Brausch estimates, with the plane about three years away from being able to fly again.

About $1.7 million has been raised so far and about another $350,000 to $400,000 is needed to finish work. 

Tax-deductible donations may be made at restoretheford.org. There are opportunities to purchase a memorial brick for an outdoor walkway at Liberty Aviation Museum, and to sponsor a seat in the finished aircraft, with a brass placard to be permanently attached.

Volunteers also are needed, particularly ones with technical skills. 

“We would love to have volunteers who have a background in metalworking, more specifically aluminum, more specifically riveting,” Brausch said. Help is welcomed from retired metal workers, airframe mechanics and retired power plant mechanics, although all volunteers will be given work to do.

The restoration group has a core group of about a dozen enthusiasts, while about 35 people have come and gone, Brausch said.

They’d like to wrap up their work and complete the job of having a flyable aircraft.

“It’s been 12 years of my life,” Brausch said. 

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