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Alpena pilot navigates 1929 Ford Tri-Motor through gray, wet skies

August 16, 2012
Andrew Westrope - News Staff Writer , The Alpena News

ALPENA - After a 32-year hiatus from Alpena's skies, born-and-bred professional aviator Cody Welch returns to Alpena County Regional Airport this weekend a retired career pilot and a volunteer from the Experimental Aircraft Association museum in Oshkosh, Wis., flying an aircraft with an even longer history than his.

Welch took his first solo flight 45 years ago in a Piper Cherokee that now sits in Hillman, and he's been flying ever since. He said his father started Michigan's first airline in Alpena and was the airport manager from 1947-1971, and his brother Jeff still runs an aircraft distribution business, Freedom Transportation, in Alpena.

"I grew up on this airport. I lived on this airport for my first six months after I was born ... in base housing, where my folks lived when I was born," he said. "This was our playground growing up. It was a different time, there was no Transportation Security Administration, and I fueled airlines when I was a really young child, because there was no rules and everything. It was really a pretty special time."

He left Alpena in 1980 to pursue a career as a commercial pilot for various airlines and retired from Northwest in 2008. Returning to an old haunt in the cockpit of the EAA museum's 1929 Ford Tri-Motor 4-AT this weekend, Welch said it feels "great" to be back.

"They've been asking us to bring the airplane here, they've put in a request for several years, and this is the first year that everything lined up and we were able to do it," he said.

The plane is his personal favorite, a remarkably smooth ride for all its mileage. The Ford Tri-Motor was based on a single-engine model that had been coopted from a World War I surplus engine, one that Henry Ford wanted to adapt for broader commercial purposes by making it larger and more reliable. Knowing that a plane ride could be a viable alternative to driving 10 miles an hour down poor, two-track roads from Indianapolis to St. Louis, Ford saw the plane finished as Easter Airlines' very first aircraft in 1929 and thereby created the impetus for commercial aviation.

At just under 11,000 pounds with a 75-foot wingspan and a nine-passenger capacity, the plane cruises at 90 miles per hour and an altitude of 1,000 feet. The plane Welch flies for EAA was leased out to a division of Pan Am in Havana, Cuba, shortly after its creation, where it inaugurated Cubana Airlines and served for many years before also inaugurating the first airline in the Dominican Republic. A retailer imported it back to Miami in 1949, configured it for crop dusting, and sold it in Tuscon, where it was not very effective and served as a fire extinguisher in the mid-50s. A private owner in Ottawa, Kan., then bought it and sold it to Hollywood for use in the movie "The Family Jewels," though the studio let the lease expire, and it was brought back to Ottawa for "barnstorming" from airport to airport selling rides. A severe thunderstorm almost destroyed the plane in 1973, and EAA bought it, spent 12 years repairing it, and has been flying it continuously since 1985.

The plane is one of 199 made, nine currently capable of flight, and only three actually used for flight. Welch, a senior among 10 EAA pilots who fly the Ford Tri-Motor, said its tour will hit 55 cities this year, and he hopes Northeast Michigan residents will take the opportunity to give it a spin.

"When they all birthed the modern airlines, the lifespan of those airlines was fairly short," he said. "Airplanes went from 90 miles an hour to 150 to 250 and now we're doing 600 miles an hour, but it needed something to jump start the industry, and that's why this airplane is so important."

Rides are open for booking today through Sunday from 9 a.m.-5 p.m.

Andrew Westrope can be reached via e-mail at or by phone at 358-5693.



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