'The granddaddy'
Briscoe Field to display one of the first mass-produced airliners

LAWRENCEVILLE - When the Experimental Aircraft Association's Ford Tri-Motor made its first flight in 1929, Herbert Hoover had just been inaugurated as president, Popeye had only recently made his comic strip debut and a stock market crash that would send the country into the Great Depression was looming on the horizon.

Seventy-eight years later, Hoover has passed away, Popeye's only printed on Sundays and the economy is out of the depression, but that same Ford Tri-Motor will be flying local residents around Gwinnett today through Monday.

The local chapter of the EAA has helped bring the historic plane to Briscoe Field in Lawrenceville and is offering 15-minute rides at $50 per person ($40 for EAA members). The flights will take place between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.

Ford made 199 Tri-Motors between 1926 and 1933.Only eight are still flying or expected to fly again soon, said Cody Welch, one of several volunteer pilots for the EAA.

"This is a very rare occasion to have this 1929 Ford Tri-Motor here," said Duane Huff, a former president of EAA Chapter 690, which is based out of Briscoe Field.

The Tri-Motor was the world's first mass-produced airliner, according to the EAA.

The Tri-Motor that will be in Gwinnett this weekend was first a part of Eastern Air Transport's fleet. Eastern Air Transport later became the now-defunct Eastern Airlines, which had a hub in Atlanta for many years.

"This is the granddaddy of Eastern Airlines," said Welch, who also pilots for Northwest Airlines. "For historical significance in aviation, it doesn't get much better than what you're seeing here."

After two years with Eastern Airlines, the plane became a part of the Cubana Airlines fleet, flying between Havana and Santiago de Cuba.

"This is an opportunity to see what the airlines started like," said Joel Levine, publicity chairman for EAA Chapter 690. "This is probably the first of the real airliners."

After being outdated by newer passenger planes, this particular Tri-Motor spent time crop spraying and aerial fire fighting before being severely damaged in a thunderstorm in 1973. The EAA bought the plane at that time and undertook a 12-year restoration process.

In 1991, the plane began flying passengers again and still looks as new as the day it rolled off the assembly line.

"It is so beautifully maintained. They have obviously put tremendous amounts of dollars as well as hours into doing it absolutely right," said Sandy McCulloh, a Stone Mountain resident and pilot for Eastern Airlines from 1966-1989.

McCulloh, who was on-hand to ride in the Tri-Motor on Thursday, said it takes a skilled pilot to make sure that type of plane's engines are synchronized, which results in a smooth ride.

Welch has been flying the Tri-Motor for 15 years and pilots about 250 of the 1,000 flights it makes each year.

"He doesn't have instruments up there to tell him what speed each engine is running, so he has to do it by feel," McCulloh said, adding that Welch did an excellent job.

"It was a delight. It was an opportunity for me that was probably once in a lifetime."

The local EAA chapter will also be giving rides in a B-17 bomber in a few weeks.

The chapter offers numerous activities throughout the year, including a Young Eagles program that gives young people a chance to experience general aviation.

SideBar: If you go

' What: Fly in a 1929 Ford Tri-Motor

' When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. today to Monday

' Where: The Aviation Institute of Maintenance hangar at Briscoe Field in Lawrenceville

' Cost: $40 for Experimental Aircraft Association members, $50 for non-members

' For more information on the Ford Tri-Motor: www.flytheford.com

' For more information on the Experimental Aircraft Association: www.eaa.org