PORT CLINTON - When it comes to passenger planes, they sure don't make 'em like they used to.
For decades, visitors to Put-in Bay and other Lake Erie island destinations climbed aboard Ford Tri-Motor airplanes operated by Island Airlines, one of the nation's oldest passenger carriers.
Island's last Tri-Motor flight touched down in 1986, but the Oshkosh, Wis.-based Experimental Aircraft Association brought a restored 1929 Tri-Motor to Port Clinton this week, offering aviation enthusiasts the chance to fly in the historic plane that helped early commercial airlines like United and American get off the ground.
Erie-Ottawa Regional Airport, Island Airlines' hub, was named a state landmark by the Ohio Historical Society in a ceremony yesterday.
As speakers recalled the airport's history and unveiled the commemorative plaque, the Tri-Motor rested on the tarmac behind them, a humming piece of history.
It will remain at the airport through Sunday.
To passengers used to the relative comfort of modern aviation, the Tri-Motor might seem uncomfortable and even a bit scary.
The propellers on the plane's three engines buzz deafeningly, shaking the cabin throughout the flight. Passengers hear the screech of tires when the plane lands.
Cody Welch, a Northwest Airlines pilot who flies the plane as a volunteer, described it as "a joy" to operate despite its flaws. "Frankly, it flies like a winged Winnebago - without power steering," Mr. Welch said. "It goes very slow, makes a lot of noise, and puts a smile on everybody who has the opportunity and the pleasure of flying on it."
The plane's cabin offers a glimpse of a bygone era, when air travel meant more than getting from one place to another.
The cabin, painted light green, has decorative wood paneling and light fixtures. It holds up to nine passengers in padded leather chairs with ample legroom. They can watch the pilot fiddle with knobs and switches in the cockpit, which is elevated above the rest of the cabin.
Dick Knapinski, a spokesman for the Experimental Aircraft Association, said improved technology has made air travel faster and safer, but has taken away some of the charm flying had during the heyday of the Tri-Motor. "Airline travel at the time was more of a romantic pursuit - it was more elegant," Mr. Knapinski said. "People certainly dressed to the nines to go flying."
Island Airlines, founded in 1930 as Island Airways, used Tri-Motors from 1936 until 1986 and owned several of the planes at a time.
The Tri-Motor, built from 1926 to 1933, was nicknamed the "Tin Goose" for its then-innovative all-metal design.
Tri-Motors became a staple of early airlines because the planes had enclosed cabins, which shielded passengers from the wind, and because their sturdy construction eased fears about the reliability of airplanes, Mr. Knapinski said.
Island Airways used the planes during the summer to carry vacationers to the islands. During the winter, when island residents were hemmed in by frozen Lake Erie, the airline served as a lifeline to the mainland, said George Tyler, a former Island Airlines pilot who attended the ceremony.
Island Airlines flights typically started at the airport in Port Clinton and landed at Kelleys, South Bass, Middle Bass, and North Bass islands. It was dubbed the "World's Shortest Airline" because the round-trip flight was 17 miles and took just 45 minutes.
By the late 1930s, most airlines abandoned the Tri-Motor for faster and larger models. Though Ford built only 199 Tri-Motors, aviation enthusiasts consider the plane an icon of its era, Mr. Knapinski said.
Microsoft included the Island Airlines route in the video game Flight Simulator 2004: a Century of Flight, and the makers of the film Public Enemies, starring Johnny Depp as 1930s gangster John Dillinger, borrowed the plane to lend a touch of realism to scenes where police transport Dillinger after his arrest, Mr. Knapinski said.
The Experimental Aircraft Association bought a damaged Tri-Motor in 1973 and began a 12-year restoration process aimed at returning the plane to its original condition.
The plane bears a large curly Ford logo and the insignia of Eastern Air Transport, an Eastern Airlines forerunner that used Tri-Motors for passenger flights in the early 1930s.
The organization offers flights on the plane at its headquarters in Oshkosh, and also takes the plane on tours.
Port Clinton is usually a destination because of Erie-Ottawa Regional Airport's history with the Tin Goose.
The Port Clinton chapter of the EAA is restoring a Tin Goose of its own, chapter President Lisa Benjamin said.
The group holds regular meetings to work on the fuselage and wings of the plane, stored in a hangar at the airport.
Jerry Virden of Cleveland traveled to Port Clinton yesterday with his son, Timothy, to fly on the Tri-Motor.
Mr. Virden, who has a pilot's license, said he relished the chance to fly aboard the historic plane.
"It's not every day that you get to fly in a Ford Tri-Motor," Mr. Virden said. "There's not very many left, but this one's still hanging around."
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