In the late twenties only a few rich folks, business executives, and celebrities like Will Rogers flew commercially. This is the story of the three planes that innovated commercial air travel to the American public.

In the late twenties only a few rich folks, business executives, and celebrities like Will Rogers flew commercially. This is the story of the three planes that innovated commercial air travel to the American public.

Ford Tri-Motor 1926-33

Two lawsuits in Europe ruled that Henry Ford’s Trimotor aircraft, introduced in 1926, had infringed on design patents of the German Junkers G24 trimotor, metal-clad airplane. Ford bought the Stout Metal Airplane Division that designed the plane and put son Edsel in charge of producing it in a plant on a 260-acre site in Dearborn, Michigan. It pioneered all-metal aircraft construction in the industry.

Nicknamed the “Tin Goose”, it was noisy, unheated or cooled, and leaked fumes into the passenger cabin causing nausea. Having an operating ceiling of only 6,000 feet it could not rise above air turbulence adding motion sickness to passengers’ discomfort. This being the pre-barf bag era, things got rather messy on board and male flight stewards were added to clean up the resulting mess and calm the passengers

Other innovations included paved runways, passenger terminals, hangars, airmail, and radio navigation. About100 airlines used the model 5-AT, seventeen-seat version of the plane until 1933 when it was eclipsed by the Boeing 247. James Smith McDonnell, co-founder of McDonnell Douglas was an original engineer and later involved in forming Northwest Airlines.

All vestiges of the trimotor in Dearborn are now gone, but the site now includes the Ford Museum and Greenfield Village which my family visited often when we lived in Ann Arbor.

Boeing 247 [1933-36]

Though only 77 were ever built, this aircraft provided a valuable transition between the trimotor and the DC-3. It won several awards for its design. It had a thermostatically-controlled, air conditioned and soundproof cabin and an all-metal, aerodynamic body widely copied by others subsequently. It was the first plane to be able to fly on only one of its engines. No airfield at the time could handle its weight which forced their strengthening. It was the first airplane to be able to fly coast-to-coast without changing planes or stopping overnight—doing it in 19.5 hours, 8 hours faster than the Ford Trimotor.

Its major contribution, however was its influence on the DC-3. When Boeing refused to sell the 247 to TWA its President Jack Frye contracted with Don Douglas to build the DC-1 prototype which eventually led to the enormously successful DC-3.

Douglas C-47 and DC-3 [1936-]

If you have seen movies of Allied paratroopers dropping over occupied France on D-Day you have seen the C-47, cargo version of the DC-3 passenger plane. As you drive by the mall across from Tinker AFB you will see one among the planes on display. In my judgment, this plane affectionately dubbed the “Gooney Bird,” is the most important plane in history.

Introduced in 1936, the DC-3 was by 1939 carrying 75% of all air travelers. Flying at 20,000 feet, it flew above the air turbulence that had made passengers air sick. Its main innovation was the addition of the galley. In the first five years of its operation, airline passenger miles flown increased 600%--largely due to the DC-3! It is the only prewar plane still in revenue-producing service around the world.

Powered by two 1200 hp engines, it could carry an 8,000 pound load at a cruising speed of 207 mph. It was only 65 feet long and 95 feet wide—smaller than many homes today. The DC-3 seated 21 passengers. The C-47 military [cargo] version had benches on each side of the fuselage and could carry 31 passengers--more than a full ‘stick of paratroopers. The Dakota version towed gliders into France on D-Day. Over 10,000 C-47’s were produced in the U.S. during WWII—5,000 at Tinker AFB.

In 1947 my family flew on a Braniff Airways DC-3 from Little Rock to Dallas Love Field to Will Rogers Field. In1958 while in the ANG I flew in a C-47 from Will Rogers field to Keesler AFB on the Gulf. We rode seated on benches facing each other. The ride was endurable, noisy, breezy, and bumpy—very similar to that of the airborne troops on D-Day depicted in the movie series “Band of Brothers.”

Flight Attendants

When Pan American Airways began flying over water, first-aide was added as a requirement. In 1930 Boeing Air Transport introduced the first female stewardesses, requiring that they be registered nurses. They earned $125 a month and were required to be no taller than 5 ft. 4 inches tall, weigh no more than 118 pounds, be between 20 and 26 years of age, and single—rules that lasted until the 1960’s. [sigh!]

Rest of the Story

In WWII Ford built B-24’s at Willow Run , Michigan. Some employees there lived a few miles west in a complex of fourplex condos in Ann Arbor named Pittsfield Village. When we were grad students at the University of Michigan [1968-72] we lived in them and later bought a house nearby when we returned in 1974.

American Airlines was the first air carrier to inaugurate commercial DC-3 operations. Employees at their Maintenance and Engineering Base in Tulsa are volunteering their time and money in restoring the “Flagship Detroit,” flown between 1937 and 1947. They have affectionately renamed it “The Queen.” It is a plane that earns affection.