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Flying into the past in Fairhope

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Guy Busby

Residents along Alabama’s Eastern Shore might have caught a glimpse of aviation history flying overhead. A fully restored Ford Trimotor airplane from the 1920 spent time buzzing around the skies of the Gulf coast.

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Guy Busby
The restored Ford Trimotor airplane that visited the Alabama Gulf coast

Auto pioneer Henry Ford became famous for building a car called the Tin Lizzie. He made airplanes, too. Each went by the nickname the Tin Goose. Climbing aboard one of these century old airplane is like a stroll in aviation history.

Guy Busby
The passenger cabin of the Ford Trimotor airplane that buzzed around Fairhope

You walk uphill past 10 seats upholstered in green leather. This was where American airline travel began. Famous pilots from those days, like Charles Lindberg and Amelia Earhart, flew planes like this at one point.

This is something from the Roaring 20s. If writer F. Scott Fitzgerald wanted his character Jay Gatsby to get from his Long Island estate to California in two days, a Ford Trimotor airplane might have worked its way into the plot.

The plane I’m aboard, is now fully restored. It was in Fairhope as part of a display by the local chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association. The group goes by the nickname EEA.

“This airplane is 93 years old, 93 years old,” said Duane Theisman, a member of the local EAA chapter.

“This airplane was built in 1928, which is one year after Charles Lindberg made his famous solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean,” said Theisman. “This airplane is very, very unique in many, many regards.

Guy Busby
The view of Fairhope from the cockpit of the Ford Trimotor

For an aviation enthusiast like Theisman, this is a unique piece of history.

“Well, it’s goose pimple good isn’t it,” he observed. “I mean, here we are. We’re witnessing and experiencing something that basically changed the way we even think about flying. Mass aviation or mass air travel, an airline concept, the idea of being able to fly from one coast to the other commercially, that was brand new with this airplane.”

This trip goes from Fairhope, out over Mobile Bay and back, about 10 minutes. I was told that I’d be in the co-pilot’s seat. In the cockpit, pilot Bill Sleeper prepares for takeoff. The maximum number on the speed gauge is 80 miles an hour. The steering wheels are made of wood.

The plane taxis out onto the runway. As it speeds up, the tail lifts and then the old Trimotor takes to the sky one more time.

The piers of the Eastern Shore pass below. With the window open a few feet from the right engine, the sound penetrates the headphones Sleeper provide. The ride is smooth, even with a 450-horsepower engine roaring in the nose just in front of you.

The plane turns back east, over downtown Fairhope and back to the airport.

Guy Busby
Passengers aboard the restored Ford Trimotor

For passenger Bill Miles, the trip was a journey into his past. At 96, he flew one of these after serving in World War II.

“I enjoyed it a whole bunch,” Miles said. “I flew one up at Oshkosh one time and a friend of mine that was in the crop dusting business in Arizona had one and let me fly it.”

We met ninety three year old Duane Theisman earlier in this story. He says events like the flights in Fairhope help the EAA promote interest in aviation.

“This aircraft travels across the United States offering rides, but you have to host it and you have to sponsor it to do that and the chance of bringing it here into the Gulf Coast region was too good to pass up. It hasn’t been in this area for a long, long time and so we decided to bring it in,” he said.

The plane and paying passengers also raise money for the group’s scholarships for young pilots.

“We will have achieved our sixth scholarship here for pilot training, our sixth scholarship, which is phenomenal,” Theisman contends. “So these you people will actually get their pilot’s license on scholarship. They have to put the effort in, but as long as they do and are capable of flying and do all the prerequisites, we can help them pay for it.”

Guy Busby is an Alabama native and lifelong Gulf Coast resident. He has been covering people, events and interesting occurrences on America’s South Coast for more than 20 years. His experiences include riding in hot-air balloons and watching a ship being sunk as a diving reef. His awards include a national Sigma Delta Chi award from the Society of Professional Journalists as part of the APR team on the series “Oil and Water,” on the anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Some of his other interests include writing, photography and history. He and his wife, Elizabeth, live in Silverhill.
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