Restoring history: Foundation works to bring back a Ford Tri-Motor

The Ford Tri-Motor, affectionately known as the Tin Goose, used to be a fixture flying passengers back and forth from the Lake Erie Islands to Port Clinton.

That ended in 1977, but the Tri-Motor Heritage Foundation has been working for nearly 20 years to bring it all back.

“This is the aircraft credited with building the airline industry in the United States,” says Jody Brausch, a board member and spokesperson for the foundation, of the Ford Tri-Motor. “Our particular aircraft started life in Mexico City, then went to Key West and had various owners there, then came to Port Clinton in 1946 and flew for Island Airlines from 1946 to 1952.

“It was one of seven Ford Tri-Motor registered to Island Airlines over its history.”

The craft the foundation is restoring came off the assembly line on April 1, 1929, arriving in Mexico City as the first airplane of Aero Mexico one month later. In 1932, the plane was sold to Pan American Airlines, where it was used to transport passengers from Key West, Fla., to Havana, Cuba.

Since assembly of the Tri-Motor continues, this photo depicts the plane with no engines or wings and before what was finished was taken outside to be painted in the red, white and blue colors of Island Airlines. (Photo/Courtesy of TMHF)It was bought and sold a few times until 1946 when Bill Hershberger bought the aircraft to be part of his fleet of seven Tri-Motors that made up Island Airlines in Port Clinton, serving passengers from Port Clinton to Put-in-Bay, Middle Bass, North Bass and Kelleys Island. It was then sold to Johnson Flying Service of Missoula, Mont., where it was to be used to ferry firefighters into the mountains to fight forest fires.

Unfortunately, the aircraft crashed at High Mountains Airstrip in Missoula in 1952. Ultimately, Maurice Hovis, known as the godfather of the Ford Tri-Motor in aviation circles, bought what was left of the aircraft and returned it to Port Clinton, with the local nonprofit foundation beginning its restoration in 2004.

The Foundation quickly discovered the aircraft was in such a state of disrepair that most of the original pieces could not be used. The group then set out to reverse-engineer every single component of the airplane while keeping it as close to original as possible.

“That’s why it has taken so long to restore this airplane,” Brausch says. “Every rivet has to be in the same spot, everything has to be basically identical. There are a handful of original parts, but 99% of it is completely brand new.”

New components also make for more safety for passengers. For instance, the original Tri-Motors were equipped with wicker seats for their passengers.

“Our aircraft will have seats that are much safer,” Brausch says. “It's safety first so we’ll make sure the experience is authentic as possible as it can be without sacrificing passenger safety. That’s how we feel about it.”

The Port Clinton aircraft is one of 199 Tri-Motors built by the Ford Motor Company from 1928 through 1933. Henry Ford’s efforts created an airplane that helped change public perception that air flight was dangerous.

“He thought if he could build an airplane with an all-metal frame and all metal skin, with three engines so it could fly if one engine failed it could continue on its way, that would go a long way in overcoming perceptions and invite a segment of the population to consider air travel,” Brausch says. “That’s why the design is what it is.”

An interior view of assembly progress of the Tri-Motor. (Photo/Courtesy of Tri-Motor Heritage Foundation)The aircraft Ford designed looks very similar to the Fokker F.VII, which was manufactured in the Netherlands. Ford and his son Edsel invited all major aircraft manufacturers in 1925 to the Ford Reliability Air Tour, but used the opportunity to have his engineers take measurements and design data on all the aircrafts assembled for the competition to come up with what would ultimately become the Ford Tri-Motor.

“Henry Ford was a very bright man and he was not above getting data from competitors in maybe a not-so-transparent way,” Brausch says. “The Ford Reliability Air Tour was not really an air race, but an opportunity for aircraft manufacturers to show reliability and the ability to cover great distances.”

The Ford Tri-Motor showed the public that air travel could be safe and became part of the fleet of many of the major airlines of the time that survive to this day—United, Transworld Airlines, American, and Eastern to name a few. However, the airplane was slow and carried just 11 passengers, so it was quickly replaced with larger and faster aircraft.

“We’re talking about an aircraft that, once restored, will go between 85 to 90 miles an hour and carry 11 passengers,” Brausch says of the Foundation’s aircraft. “It’s a slow boat to China. It’s not an efficient means of transportation.”

Brausch estimates the Tri-Motor Heritage Foundation has already put more than $2 million in its restoration efforts, using volunteer labor to keep the costs down. He noted there are only four or five Tri-Motors in operation today, mainly because of the costs associated with keeping it airworthy. Many have ended up as museum pieces, or are opened to allow people to walk through while still on the ground.

“They are very valuable,” he says. “If you were to have even a minor incident, we here in Port Clinton, and maybe one other group near Kalamazoo, are the only ones who know how to repair the aircraft, so its a very finite group who can actually work on the aircraft. If you had to replace one, the costs would be several millions.”

The timeline for getting the aircraft back into the air has not been finalized, but the Foundation is working to get it up and running by the summer of 2024.

“We’re going to give living history rides with the aircraft,” Brausch says. “Once the aircraft is completed, we’ll run it through a series of tests to make sure the aircraft is good to go, and then on Saturdays and Sundays, and during the summer months, we’ll give rides to the public.

“We want to give the public the opportunity to see what it must have been like to fly in a Ford Tri-Motor in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, and was used as transportation back and forth to the islands.”

However, the airplane will not be stopping at any of the islands it used to service. It will fly under a Federal Aviation Administration guideline called Part 91 which allows the craft to take off with passengers and fly within a 25-statue mile radius, which is much more than the 17-mile Island Airlines used to run between the Lake Erie Islands, but stipulates the aircraft must land at the airport it departed from.

“We’re rebuilding it to commemorate and preserve the romantic history of Island Airlines in our region,” Brausch says. “This airplane meant so much to locals, a small isolated population of people who lived on the islands. Beginning in 1936, air travel made their lives so much easier, especially in the winter months.”

The Tri-Motor Heritage Foundation is a 501-C3 non-profit organization and does operate through donations, and has been awarded larger gifts from the Mylander Foundation and Shores & Islands Ohio.

For more information about the project or to donate to the effort, go to or email Brausch at [email protected]. The Foundation's phone number is (419) 365-6382 and its email address is info@restoretheford.