Vintage Aircraft Visits South Dakota

Jun 27, 2013

The volunteers of the Experimental Aircraft Association are traveling around the United States this summer to give the public a taste of the “old days” with aviation. For 75 dollars, people can take a ride on a 1929 Ford Tri Motor Airplane and see a stepping-stone in avionics history. The Tri Motor was the worlds first mass-produced airliner.

It’s a weird feeling to fly on an airplane that is nearly as old as my grandpa. The 1929 Ford Tri Motor plane is 84 years old to be exact but from the way it shines, it could pass for something newer. This vintage airplane is making its way through the eastern part of South Dakota and anyone can take a 20-minute ride.  I caught up with the plane in Yankton. When I arrived, Pilot Ashley Messenger was briefing passengers on the runway about the flight. He began with safety awareness that's similar to any pre-flight training.

"Seat belts have to be fastened during the whole flight. They are the airline style seatbelt. Flat metal in, in to the large metal buckle. Release, slip up on the metal top. There’s a fire extinguisher located behind the co-pilots seat that actually works. The one we have hanging on the back door doesn’t cause it’s a decorative piece. There’s a life vest under each seat in case we go down in the river, which I’m not planning to do I’ll tell you that," Captain Messenger says.

Crews preparing the 1929 Ford Tri Motor for flight

Once the briefing was over, we boarded the aircraft. The seats resembled a comfy chair that would have been seen at a 1950’s leave it to beaver table, except bolted to the floor. The orange seats depict colors that were popular “back in the day.” The plane has nine seats with four on the left side and five on the right.

The plane was a lot louder then I expected and very bumpy. Once up in the air and at  a cruising speed of 85 miles per hour, you can start to feel a warm breeze. This is the air from outside because on this aircraft, the pilot rides with his window open. These are planes with no air conditioning and also no heater for the cold months. This is because the plane is not pressurized and we only flew at about 14 hundred feet.

This plane ride was twenty minutes long but the experience and memories are something anyone can take with them for a lifetime. Captain Messenger says anyone can experience the flight for just 75 dollars and this is actually pretty cheap to what it use to cost in the 1930’s.

"The coast to coast fare was 17 hundred dollars which translates to about 14 thousand today. Fares in between smaller destinations, closer cities like up and down the east coast would run anywhere from 10 dollars to 25 to 50 dollars, depending on the length of the flight," Messenger says.

He says coast to coast flights would also take a long time because of the cruise speed the plane had.

"The airplane would stop every two or three hours because that’s its fuel range but they would fly all day and sometimes a day of flying would be eight or nine hours of actual in the air time over a 12 or 14 hour day. You had to be tough back in those days," Captain Messenger says.

Flight over rural Yankton, SD

The next stop for the plane was Mitchell.  Mayor Ken Tracy decided to take a ride on the plane. Tracy, got the lucky co-pilot seat. He says the ride gives him a new appreciation for the city of Mitchell.

"Well this is tremendous, as I just mentioned it gives you an appreciation for the beauty of the city when you see it from that perspective. Course it’s nice when we’ve had the rain and everything is nice and green but it’s quiet an experience to fly in a plane older than myself. Glad that we have an opportunity for something like this in Mitchell," Tracy says.

Mayor Tracy says he would do it again if he could because he'd likely see and observe more after a second trip over his city.

"It took a very short distance on the runway to get off the ground and before we knew it we were up in the air, smooth flight. It’s a little loud but I had earphones on. They allowed me sit in the co-pilot seat, which was a nice experience so I had a front row seat and able to see and talk with the pilot, so it was a very rewarding experience," Mayor Tracy says.

There was one man aboard the flight who was actually older than the 84-year old plane. Donald Headley is a resident from the rural area of White Lake who is 100 years old. Headley rode on a 1929 Ford Tri-Motor at the World’s Fair in Chicago back in 1933. Headley says this was a dream come true because it brought back memories from 80 years ago.

"It was so nice that, I kind of forget, but one thing I remember about this flight, that I remembered about the first time was it’s so noisy inside. And that’s the first thing I noticed when they opened the engines up it was so noisy. Otherwise, it was a beautiful flight, i liked it," Headley says.

Headley says he was a mechanic in the military as well so he did a lot of work with planes. He says avionics are something he has been interested in his whole life.

"Well I was thinking, wouldn’t it be fun for me to fly one of these," Headley says with a grin.

At 100 years old, his mind is still good and his sense of humor is plentiful. Captain Ashley Messenger says these are the types people who can be touched by the volunteers of the Experimental Aircraft Association. He  says he hopes to touch young generations and older like Donald Headley with the 1929 Ford Tri Motor Plane experience.

The Tri Motor plane is currently located in Aberdeen through Sunday June 30.   For more information click here:   (