Over the past few weekends I had the opportunity to spend time with a Ford Tri-Motor aircraft. I first heard about this plane from my friend Oliver, who is featured in a previous story about his connection between motorcycles and airplanes. As the name implies, the Tri-Motor is an airplane built by the Ford Motor Company.

This Tri-Motor is making several stops at Bay Area airports this month and rides are offered to the public at each location. Oliver invited me to come along to Concord, CA to check it out. Concord is only a one-hour drive from Redwood City, but when you own an airplane, why not fly there? We hopped in Oliver’s Cessna 195 and took off from San Carlos Airport, or SQL as it is known by its airport code.

We landed in Concord just minutes before the Tri-Motor came in for a landing; it had been taking passengers for rides all morning. As we walked across the airport, I was able to snap a few photos of it taxiing back to pick up the next group. The fuel truck pulled up to refuel the Tri-Motor, which gave me a great opportunity to walk around the plane and admire the simplicity of its construction and the massive radial engines on the aircraft. After watching the plane come and go several times, we got back in the 195 and headed back.

My wife and I volunteered on Saturday at San Carlos Airport. After another volunteer briefed passengers on safety procedures, we helped them board their flight and then disembark once the plane returned. We were on a strict schedule each time the airplane would come back and prepare to go up again with new passengers, so we got the process down to a solid routine. At one point I was in charge of giving the signals to start each of the engines. This had me holding a fire extinguisher in one hand (just in case) and raising my other arm to give the signal to the pilot.

I got a chance to catch up with Rand Siegfried that day in between flights. Rand, a long time volunteer for EAA and pilot of the Tri-Motor, gave me great information about the history of the plane.

This Tri-Motor was built in 1929. It was the 69th off of the line of 199 total planes manufactured. I asked Rand what it was like to fly and he replied, “A lot of fun. She’s a little heavy, but will do anything you want with grace, as long as it’s exactly what she wants to do. As long as you make it work on her terms, she’ll never let you down. If you try to make her do something she doesn’t want to do, she’ll let you know.”

Rand continued, “This plane and its sister ship launched Eastern Airlines up and down the eastern seaboard. From there she went to Cuba and started Cubana [Airlines], and then onto the Dominican Republic handling the President and generals around the area. It then came back to the United States, doing smoke jumping and crop dusting in both Arizona and Montana.” He also noted that in 2009 this plane was used in the film Public Enemies and had Johnny Depp as a passenger.

Rand said there’s nothing really difficult about maintaining the airplane, “But you can’t go to a Ford dealer and ask for new parts. Everything has to be manufactured. It’s not difficult, but it is time-consuming.” He explained that they like to make the plane better over time, as opposed to wearing her out, so they do regular maintenance to keep up.

The goal for visiting airports and offering rides on the plane is to introduce aviation to a broader crowd and in a positive light. “Everyone comes off of the airplane smiling and happy,” said Rand. My wife and I witnessed people both young and old lining up to take a ride on the aircraft. All the people we talked to had some special connection to aviation through either military service or a personal interest in airplanes.

As a volunteer, I had a special opportunity to take a ride. The ride was unlike flying in a modern aircraft; the plane is so large and loud, but only cruises at about 80 mph. It seemed like there were cars on the freeway below us going faster. The plane made a smooth round trip from San Carlos down to Palo Alto and back in about 20 minutes. It didn’t take very much runway to get airborne, and it also landed in a very short distance.

The weekend concluded with an amazing opportunity to do an air-to-air photo shoot with the Tri-Motor at golden hour on Sunday. A few other photographers and I went up in a Beechcraft Bonanza and flew above the Tri-Motor. We flew and shot as long as light would allow and then returned back to San Carlos airport to review footage. It was an amazing experience to fly both in and alongside a real piece of history.

Words and Photos by Nick Johnson


  1. That’s simply fantastic. I love the interplay of the corrugated sides, polished panels around the windows, and the engine-turned aluminum on the engine pods and supports.

    I find the squared-off shapes interesting. I assumed at first that the windscreens must be flat because they lacked the technology at that point to curve glass, but the overhead glass belies that theory. Perhaps the flat planes have less distortion than was possible in a formed sheet. And I guess the sharp edges of the fuselage provides more interior space.

    I love transport of all kinds but aircraft has always left me cold for some reason. Seeing this, I realize that it’s probably because they’re not usually human-scaled. This plane clearly is. Just look at how claustrophobic the cockpit appears!


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