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Travel Detective Blog: Reliving Aviation History in Oshkosh, Wisconsin

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It happens every July in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. For one week, the small Wittman Regional Airport is transformed into one of the busiest airports in the U.S., and the control tower becomes the busiest in the world. Hundreds of airplanes—of every shape, size, pedigree and incredible story—fly in. For airplane geeks like me, the Experimental Aircraft Association’s (EAA) AirVenture Oshkosh Fly-In & Convention is…Mecca. But this year held special significance for me, and it dates back to 1929.

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But first some background. In 2003, I was visiting my mother in New York, shortly before she passed away. She told me she had something she wanted to give me, and motioned me over to her desk. There, hidden in a drawer among dozens of letters and mail, was a hardback accordioned map. On the cover were the letters TAT.

“Open it,” she said. As I pulled the cover, out folded a map, with a written explanation: It was to commemorate the first transcontinental flight across America on TAT (the predecessor to TWA). It was presented to my grandfather, a passenger on that first flight. It left Los Angeles in 1929 and flew—with many stops—to Columbus Ohio, where the passengers continued their journey by rail to New York. The length of that first trip was 48 hours.

My grandfather got a seat on that historic flight because he was the real star reporter for William Randolph Hearst at the old L.A. Examiner. On one side, the map showed the route the plane took. It was actually all of the train tracks heading east—the plane simply followed the railroad. On the other side was a certificate proclaiming the flight—and my grandfather as the passenger. Then I made an amazing discovery: the bottom of the certificate was signed by the pilot, Charles Lindbergh! I wasted no time taking that map and putting it in a very safe place.

Earlier this week, in Oshkosh, the story came alive again. One of the planes on the ground was a Ford Trimotor, built in the late 1920s, and I was offered a ride. Painted on the side of the plane’s corrugated metal skin were the letters TAT. I asked about its history. It had been flown in for the air show from Port Clinton, Ohio, where it normally resides in an aviation museum. It was built in 1929, and it flew for TAT. It was later sold and flew for 20 years in Central and South America. It was then purchased by the casino legend Bill Harrah, and flown to California, where it was thoroughly renovated and re-engined. It’s one of a handful of still operating, still flyable Tri-Motors.

I went for a ride. The ten-passenger plane—every detail perfectly restored, from the old electric light bulbs above each seat, to the wooden side walls and the leather seats—takes off at just 60 miles per hour. It never flies faster than 90. It was the first all metal multi-engine commercial airliner, and led to the construction of the first paved airport runway.

Then came the best part of the story. When we landed I had a chance to talk with the pilot, who knew all about this plane. On that morning in 1929, when my grandfather was a passenger flying east on the first transcontinental flight, there was a second Ford Trimotor—the plane I was now flying. As soon as the Los Angeles TAT plane was airborne, the second Trimotor left Columbus, Ohio, followed the railroad tracks, and headed west.

What an amazing full-circle experience for me, and totally unexpected. Now, nearly 90 years after my grandfather hopped aboard that TAT Trimotor, I was now aboard the second plane that flew that transcontinental route.

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Thanks to everyone at the EAA for making this flight possible. Next year, you’ll probably find me right back in Oshkosh, hoping for the chance to relive a bit of aviation history and fly again.

By Peter Greenberg for PeterGreenberg.com

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