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Historic aircraft available for rides today at Gainesville airport
A vintage Ford Tri-Motror plane makes a stop at Lee Gilmer Memorial Airport.

Flying history

What: Flights aboard the 1929 Ford Tri-Motor

Where: Lanier Flight Center, 1660 Palmour Drive, at Lee Gilmer Memorial Airport

When: today and Wednesday

Tickets: $75, adults; $50, ages 17 and younger

Contact: 920-379-8348

The group applauded as pilot John Maxfield gently landed the 1929 Ford Tri-Motor on the airstrip at Lee Gilmer Memorial Airport in Gainesville.

“Can we go again?” someone asked as the plane, also known as “Tin Goose,” came to a rest.

The Monday afternoon ride was more than just a 10-minute trip offering a panoramic view of the Hall County area. Passengers also were transported to the dawn of airline travel, as the plane once belonged to Eastern Air Transport, which became Eastern Airlines.

But no flight attendants or packs of peanuts were on this bird, which only accommodates nearly a dozen people, or one person per aisle/window seat. The engines’ roar curtailed conversation, but that was OK, as passengers on a flight that included area news media kept their video recorders rolling and cameras clicking.

The flight’s most historic passenger was 96-year-old Cecil Boswell, who served in the U.S. Army during World War II, joining the second wave invading Normandy on D-Day and helping with the liberation of Paris in 1944.

He arrived in Europe by boat and walked the continent by foot but never flew in an airplane — until Monday.

Boswell, who sat in the co-pilot’s seat, finished the ride with a smile.

“We’re going to get some pictures of him in there,” said Bob Lawton of Forsyth County, before the flight.

Lawton has known Boswell for a couple of years. After hearing about his war exploits — and that he had never flown — he decided to buy the Gainesville native a ticket.

“Tell (the pilot) you want to fly over your house and rock the wings,” Lawton said.

The Experimental Aircraft Association and Lanier Flight Center at 1660 Palmour Drive are sponsoring rides through Wednesday.

Passengers on Monday’s flight got preflight instructions from Maxfield, including how to fasten and unfasten seat belts, an optional device back in its heyday.

Maxfield, an EAA volunteer pilot, also gave a brief history lesson.

In 1930, the plane was leased to Cubana Airlines, where it inaugurated flights out of Havana. The airplane was later flown by the government of the Dominican Republic.

The Tri-Motor returned in 1949 to the U.S., where it was repurposed for barnstorming and later crop-dusting.

Eventually, the plane would become a movie star, including being featured in the 1965 Jerry Lewis comedy, “The Family Jewels,” and in 2009’s “Public Enemies,” starring Johnny Depp.

While at the 1973 EAA Fly-In, a severe thunderstorm ripped the plane from its tie-downs, lifted it 50 feet into the air and smashed it to the ground on its back.

“That’s when the EAA bought it in four or five large pieces and restored it over about a 15-year period,” Maxfield said.

These days, the Wisconsin-based EAA tours the plane around the country “more as a history lesson and to give people rides,” said Shane Crider, vice president of the organization’s Gainesville chapter and event coordinator.

“A lot of people don’t know that (Henry) Ford even built airplanes, so it’s pretty good history,” he said.

Ford Motor Co., a pioneer in bringing the automobile to the masses, particularly the Model T, also known as the “Tin Lizzie,” built 199 Tri-Motors from 1926 through 1933.

“After World War I, (Ford) recognized the potential for mass air transportation,” according to EAA literature. The Tri-Motor “was designed to build another new market: airline travel.”

“To overcome concerns of engine reliability, Ford specified three engines and added features for passenger comfort, such as an enclosed cabin.”

Maxfield said five or so Tri-Motors are still in flight, while another half-dozen or so are in museums.

“This is the only one you can buy a ride in,” he said.

The plane has the original equipment, down to decorative interior wood panels.

“All the sights, sounds, smells, the vibration — that’s all 1929,” said Maxfield, a Detroit native.

As a pilot, he said, it’s “wonderful” to fly the old craft.

“But the real treasure is in meeting the people, including people who have ridden in Ford Tri-Motors back in the ‘20s and ‘30s,” Maxfield said.

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