TOLEDO (WTOL) - Deep inside of a hangar at the Liberty Aviation Museum at Port Clinton the sound of riveting fills the air; it must be Thursday. That’s one of the days each week that history is being made, or re-made in this aircraft museum. On this day about a dozen volunteers are measuring, cutting, and riveting sheet metal as they craft what some might view as a time machine. Sort of.
“We are building a flying airplane, not just a kit plane, this is scratch built, every part has to be meticulously built,” said Doug Moore, a professional air frame mechanic, who has been tasked with not only directing the project, but teaching the volunteers how to build an airplane. And the plane they are re-building is a big one.
A 90-year-old Ford tri-motor, affectionately known for decades as the “Tin Goose”. Historically one of the most important planes ever built as it became, with its three engines and a metal skin, the nation’s first airplane that was considered reliably safe.
Jody Brausch, a volunteer and spokesman for the project said the tri-motor came into being in 1920’s and was designed to allay the fears of those who had serious misgivings about the safety of airplanes. “This airplane changed the way the public perceived aviation."
There were just 199 of the tri-motors ever built. A heavy plane, with three engines, a 74 foot wing span, and about 50 feet long, they could carry 10 passengers and a crew of two. By 1934, they were being employed in the first cross country flights which involved part air travel and part train travel, but promised a coast to coast journey in just 48 hours.
In the Liberty Aviation Museum hanger at the Erie-Ottawa Airport is where this particular Tin Goose, first built in 1929 is being rebuilt by a the crew of volunteers as part of the Tri-Motor Heritage project. It is no small task. It is demanding and requires precision at all levels.
“This is the largest amateur restoration of an aircraft in the history of aviation," Doug Moore the project director said.
Doug, himself, is no novice to aircraft construction. During his military career he worked on B-52’s and KC-135’s. He understands how airplanes fly and the engineering they demand. “They have to be able to fly, not just look like they can fly,” he said. There is no tolerance for mistakes.
Like Doug, many of the volunteers engaged in this project do have some miles on their personal log books. Some have a history with the plane when it was the back bone of Erie Island Airways which flew between Port Clinton and the Erie Islands for decades. Jack Devore, who grew up on North Bass Island and recalls traveling on the Tin Goose when he was much younger and recalls the value of what it meant to the people who depended on them when the Tin Goose flew regular flights between Port Clinton and the islands. “It was a workhorse, it brought mail, it brought groceries, it brought everything we needed to the islands,“ Jack said.
The Ford Tri-motor with it corrugated sheet metal fuselage was a familiar sight for the islanders. It flew regular schedules to the islands for over 40 years and was known as the world's shortest airline.
This particular plane that is the object of determination by these volunteers in the museum hanger first rolled off the Dearborn assembly line in 1929. It was sent to Mexico for air service there and later sold to a buyer in Cuba and then sold to Juan Trippe as one of the first planes in the fleet of what would become Pan American Airlines. By the 1940′s, it was back in Ohio and flew for Erie Islands from 1946 to 1952. Then it was sold to the U.S. service in Idaho used in fighting forest fires as a smoke jumper’s plane. In 1958, however, it crashed. Its parts and wreckage were later recovered and those parts are the seeds from which this restoration project grew.
“It was an amazing journey," quipped Jody Brausch, who is quick to point out that the journey for this Tin Goose is far from over. While it is already a decade in the making with over a million dollars invested, it may take another four or five years to complete and at least another half million dollars.
For the stalwart crew of volunteers who convene here every week, it's worth it.
“Seeing it come together, really watching it grow every day you come here and you say we didn’t do much and you look back after a couple of weeks and say wow,” said Devore who is a former pilot himself and used to be known as the “Flying barber” flying his own Piper Cub between Port Clinton and Put-in Bay every day.
For Doug Moore, whose said the project does keep him up at nights as he contemplates the many things that have to be completed, it not just a labor of love, but a stubborn goal.
“I wanted to retire, but when the plane is built and flying that’s when I can take a vacation,” he said.
Project volunteer Jody Brausch who lives in Cleveland and commutes to Port Clinton to keep watch on the progress said it’s all about preserving history. “We feel like if we don’t do it, if our generation doesn’t do it, it will be lost, it will be lost in time.”
For now, in the hands of this generation the dream of restoring this plane is safe so that someday the people of Port Clinton and the area can once again hear the heavy rumble of the three engines rumbling down the runway to wing its way back into the skies.