ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A visit to Albuquerque this week by a 1928 Ford Tri-Motor aircraft represents a flight back in time to an era when the city played a part in the early history of commercial air transportation.
It was a time when pilots, flying for Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT), a precursor of Trans World Airlines, made their way cross country by following a course marked by concrete arrows and 51-foot-high beacon towers outfitted with rotating white-light beams.
“Albuquerque was one of the 1929 fueling stops for Transcontinental Air Transport,” said Steve Owen, chairman of the Western New Mexico Aviation Heritage Museum at the Grants-Milan Airport. “That was Oxnard Field, part of Kirtland Air Force Base today. That was the pit stop for air travelers. They would have come from Clovis to Albuquerque and would go from Albuquerque to Winslow (Ariz.).” And eventually on to Los Angeles. And they came from Clovis and went on from Albuquerque in Ford Tri-Motors, a durable, three-engine aircraft built by Henry Ford, who produced 199 of the planes between 1925 and 1933.
“They had a lot of capital invested in them,” Owen said. “They were extremely sophisticated, the pinnacle of technology at the time. It was not the most comfortable but it was the strongest and safest, compared to wooden and fabric aircraft, because it was all metal.”
The Tri-Motor visiting Albuquerque this week came off the Ford Motor Co. line in December 1928 and was originally christened the City of Wichita. TAT bought the plane and it started commercial air service on July 7, 1929. It is owned today by the Liberty Aviation Museum of Port Clinton, Ohio, and operated by the Experimental Aviation Association chapter based in Oshkosh, Wis. The plane’s stop in Albuquerque is sponsored by Albuquerque Chapter 179 of the EAA.
Visitors may view the plane for free or pay to take 30-minute flights on the aircraft. Exhibits on early aviation history will be displayed by Calvacade of Wings, an Albuquerque-based aviation history group, and the Western New Mexico Aviation Heritage Museum, which was created by the Cibola County Historical Society.
The Aviation Heritage Museum complex at the Grants-Milan Airport includes one of those beacon towers that guided pilots and also a shed that housed an electric generator that fed power to the beacon. Beacon towers and generator sheds were anchored on concrete slabs shaped like an arrow. The arrow’s head pointed the way to the next beacon.
“They were located at about 10-mile intervals,” Owen said of the beacons. “They were maintained every few days by technicians who serviced the sites.”
He said the beacons were activated by an automatic timer just before sunset and operated throughout the night. Most of the 1,500 beacon towers and generator sheds that once spanned this country have been removed, but many of the arrow-shaped concrete slabs remain, including some in New Mexico.
TAT’s transcontinental service, launched in July 1929, advertised a coast-to-coast trip in 51 hours. But only part of that trip was made by air in Ford Tri-Motors. Passengers traveled portions of the journey on a train, a fact that prompted some folks at the time to suggest that TAT really stood for “Take A Train.”
To get from New York to Los Angeles, passengers boarded a Pennsylvania Railroad train in New York and rode it to Columbus, Ohio. There they got on a Ford Tri-Motor that made stops in Indianapolis, St. Louis, Kansas City, Wichita and Waynoka, Okla. At Waynoka, they caught a Santa Fe Railway train for an overnight trip to Clovis. At Clovis they hopped a second Ford Tri-Motor that took them to Albuquerque, Winslow and on to Los Angeles. One-way fare for that trip was $338 and included a lower berth each night spent on a train.
The Ford Tri-Motor, which, in most versions, carried eight to 17 passengers, quickly earned a reputation for strength and dependability. But, tragically, both the plane’s fame and public confidence in commercial aviation were undermined by a deadly accident in New Mexico.
Mount Taylor crash
On Sept. 3, 1929, the Ford Tri-Motor called City of San Francisco flew west out of Albuquerque into a storm and crashed on Mount Taylor, killing the three crew members and all five passengers.
“They got caught in a thunderstorm that was much more severe than expected,” Owen said. “Flying blind in heavy clouds and rain was the biggest factor.”
The crash on Mount Taylor hurt the passenger airline business and the crash on Wall Street the very next month was another blow to the fledgling enterprise. In the early 1930s, Henry Ford got out of the aircraft business as other all-metal airplanes such as the Boeing 247 and Douglas DC-2 started competing with his Ford Tri-Motor.
But for decades after their heyday as a passenger aircraft, Ford Tri-Motors continued to fly, often as cargo planes used to carry heavy freight to mining operations in jungles and mountains.
And this week, one will be flying in Albuquerque.