Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Ford Tri-Motor Pioneers Commercial Flight

Restored Ford Tri-Motor

In today's jetsetter world, commercial air travel is taken for granted by most people, but in the 1920s the aeronautics industry had to prove itself safe before Americans felt confident enough to board an airplane and leave terra firma. It was not until Henry Ford bought the Stout Metal Airplane Company in 1924 from designer and engineer William Bushnell that public confidence in air travel rose because of Ford's strong reputation for reliability in the automobile business.

Bushnell designed a three-engined transport plane based on an all-metal Dutch plane developed by the Fokker Aircraft Corporation. Ford kept Bushnell on as the president of Ford Motor Company's (FoMoCo) new aircraft division. Production began on the Ford Tri-Motor in 1925. At a press conference, Henry Ford proclaimed "The first thing that must be done with aerial navigation is to make it fool-proof.... What Ford Motor Company means to do is prove whether commercial air travel can be done safely and profitably."

The plane was introduced for limited excursion service as the Ford Tri-Motor in 1926. Soon, the plane became popularly known as the Tin Goose or the Flying Washboard. One-hundred and ninety-nine were produced.

Ford Airport with Henry Ford Museum in the background.

The airplane's body was clad in corrugated aluminum alloy for lightweight strength, which regrettably resulted in air drag reducing the plane's overall performance. The original Tri-Motor was powered by three 200 hp Wright engines but was upgraded to 235 hp Wright engines, and upgraded again with 300 hp radial engines. The propellers were two-bladed with a fixed pitch. The maximum air speed of 132 mph was increased to 150 mph depending on the equipped engine. The plane had a low stall speed of 57 mph. The Tri-Motor could safely reach a height of 16,500 feet with a range of 500 miles.

The Ford Tri-Motor was a combination of old and new technologies. As was common in early wooden and canvas airplanes, the engine gauges were mounted onto the engine struts outside the cockpit, and the rudder and wing flaps were controlled by steel cables mounted on the exterior of the airplane. The plane soon developed a reputation for ruggedness and versitility. It could be fitted with skis or pontoons for snow and water takeoffs and landings. The seats could be removed to carry freight.

External cables controlling wing flaps and tail rudder.

The Ford Tri-Motor pioneered two-way, air-to-ground radio communication with their planes while in flight. Once the Department of Commerce Aeronautics Branch developed the Beacon Navigation System, a continuous radar signal was broadcast from fixed beacon locations across the country. Navigators were able to determine a plane's relative bearings by radio impulse without visual sightings, helping pilots guide their planes to their next destination.

Ford Tri-Motors were equipped with avionics that helped establish air corridors and domestic routes coast-to-coast making reliable commercial flight possible. Pan American Airlines scheduled the first international flights with service from Key West to Havana, Cuba in 1927 using Tri-Motors.

Transcontinental Air Transport pioneered the first coast-to-coast service from New York to California. Initially, passengers would fly during the day and take sleeper trains at night. The first commercial planes carried a crew of three (pilot, co-pilot/navigator, and a stewardess) serving eight or nine passengers. By August 1929, the planes had a passenger capacity of twelve which reduced leg room but increased profitability.

Admiral Richard E. Byrd and supply crew-1929.

To promote air travel and the reliability of air service, Henry Ford's son Edsel financed Admiral Richard E. Byrd's flight over the South Pole to the tune of $100,000. On November 29, 1929, Byrd became the first person to fly over both poles, creating more than $100,000 worth of domestic and international publicity for the Ford Tri-Motor. Byrd left the plane in Antarctica but upon Edsel Ford's request, he retrieved the plane in 1935 and had it shipped to Dearborn, Michigan for display in the Henry Ford Museum where it hangs today.

The Ford Tri-Motor became the workhorse for United States and international airlines. Known as the first luxury airliner, it redefined world travel marking the beginning of global, commercial flight: American Airlines, Grand Canyon Airlines, Pan American, Transcontinental Airlines, Trans World Airlines, United Airlines, and others flew Tri-Motors. A round trip excursion ticket from Ford Airport in Dearborn to the Kentucky Derby in 1929 cost $122 with one stop for fuel in Cincinnati.

Typical excursion advertisement to promote air travel.

The aircraft industry underwent rapid development in the 1930s when a new generation of vastly superior planes like Boeing's 247 and the Douglas DC-2 began to dominate the commercial aviation market. The Tri-Motor had declining sales during the Great Depression and was losing money, so FoMoCo closed its airplane division on June 7, 1933. The company chose to concentrate on its core business--automobiles. On a human level, the death of Henry Ford's personal pilot Harry J. Brooks during a test flight made Ford lose interest in aviation.

Originally designed as a civil airplane, the Ford Tri-Motor saw military service in World War II in the United States Army Air Force. It is believed only eight of these classic planes are airworthy today. In popular culture, it was a Ford Tri-Motor that appeared in the film Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom leap-frogging across the map.

Ford's Willow Run B-24 Bomber Plant

Sunday, June 11, 2023

George "The Animal" Steele in His Own Words

George "The Animal" Steele and his favorite snack.

William James Myers was raised a happy child in Madison Heights, Michigan until dyslexia separated him from his classmates. He was left behind in second grade because he couldn't read. By the time Myers was in junior high school, he was a year older and a year bigger than his peers, and he began to gain notice in school sports. By the time he began Madison High School, the coaches were waiting for him.

Upon graduation, Myers was awarded a full ride scholarship to play football at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan. All he wanted to do was play football, with little concern for the educational opportunity before him. Questionable judgements and bad knees kept him off the gridiron.

With the help of his newlywed wife Patricia, he was able to earn a bachelor's degree at Michigan State and a master's degree with a teaching credential at Central Michigan University in Mt. Pleasant. He was hired as a teacher and a wrestling/football coach at his former high school where he excelled. By then, Jim and Pat had three children and the Myers family was having trouble making ends meet on a teacher's salary.

Jim and Pat Myers

On the advice of a friend, he went to see Bert Ruby, a Detroit prowrestling promoter who sent Myers to Windsor, Ontario to learn the secrets of the squared circle to supplement his meager teaching income. He began to wrestle out-of-town matches wearing a face mask and wrestling under the name "The Student" to protect his privacy. The extra money came in handy.

In 1967, Myers was scouted by World Wrestling Federation's Bruno Sammartino and began working in the Pittsburg, Pennsylvania television market. Sammartino urged Myers to ditch the mask and change his ring name to George "The Animal" Steele. His finishing move became the flying hammerlock.

The "Animal" character was stooped over with a thrust forward shaved head. The thick mat of fur on his back fed into the promotion that he was the long sought after Missing Link. The Animal rarely spoke more than a grunt or a syllable or two and stuck out his green tongue at the crowd. He ate Clorets mints just before his matches. At least his breath was fresh.

Steele cultivated his menacing imbelcile routine in his promotional interviews often appearing with managers like Lou Albano or Classy Freddie Blasse to speak for him. He developed his wildman character by tearing up turnbuckles and throwing the shredded foam rubber at his opponents who stood by looking bewildered. His Neanderthal image couldn't be more different than the private man. 

In 1988, Myers was diagnosed with Crohn's disease. He retired from prowrestling and moved to Coco Beach, Flordia where he lived until his death on February 16, 2017 from kidney failure at the age of seventy-nine.

Before his death, Jim Myers made a candid and touching hour-long video expressly for his fans which tells his life story much better than anyone else can. For viewers interested mainly in Jim Myers' wrestling career, pick up the interview 34 minutes in. Anyone interested in the man, view the whole video.

A Walk Through Life with Jim Myers - AKA George "The Animal" Steele

George "The Animal" Steele vs. Randy "Macho Man" Savage

Tuesday, June 6, 2023

High Flying in Detroit with Leaping Larry Chene

Arguably the most popular wrestler in the Detroit, Michigan area in the early 1960s was Leaping Larry Chene--born Arthur Lawrence Beauchene on June 22, 1924 on Detroit's Eastside. He attended St. Bernard Catholic School where he played team sports. In the early 1940s, he took naval pre-flight training at the University of Iowa and the University of Michigan. Chene wrestled competitively in college before enlisting to fight in World War II. 

After the war, Beauchene started a trucking business which involved long hours and marginal profits. In 1951, Detroit wrestling promoter Bert Ruby needed someone to fill in for one of his injured wrestlers and approached Beauchene knowing he had a wrestling background. Ruby offered him $27.50 for wrestling a thirty-minute bout. He wrestled under a shortened, Americanized version of his real name--Larry Chene. Years later, he was quoted as saying, "This was the easiest money I ever made."

Shortly after, Chene shut down his struggling trucking business and learned the secrets of the squared circle. Chene wrestled in small, local venues five or six times a week for different small promotions while he developed his craft. Then in 1953, he signed a six-week contract to wrestle in Texas. He liked the steady work and the money. Chene had a growing family to provide for, so he stayed for several years developing his high-flying, Leaping Larry Chene persona.

Chene was a spectacular aerial performer whose signature move was the flying head scissors. He was a likeable "good guy" who fans related to when he took a beating at the hands of an assortment of uncouth villains. Unlike his opponents, Chene was personable and bantered with the referees and the crowd. He was always quick with a smile and an autograph when he met the public.

John Squires remembers back in the early 1960's "Dearborn High had a wrestling night in the gym. Larry, the Sheik, Bobo, all were there. Larry got thrown out of the ring and while he was laying in front of us, he borrowed my friend's penny loafer (shoe) and stuck it in the back of his tights. Chene jumped back in the ring and hit the Sheik in the forehead with it and the Sheik started bleeding. Not sure if it was fake or not, but it sure looked good."

Wrestling Promoter Bert Ruby

Chene returned to Detroit in 1960 a seasoned professional wrestler. He signed a contract with old friend Bert Ruby, who was looking for a star to headline his new Motor City Wrestling (MCW) television program which aired Saturday afternoons on WXYZ-TV Channel 7. Chene was featured and quickly became a fan favorite. The television show was essentially an advertisement for Ruby's growing wrestling promotions which were now happening at larger venues like the Olympia arena and Detroit's new Cobo Hall Convention Center. Big money was being made.

During a live Saturday afternoon match on August 26, 1961 to promote an Olympia event, Chene wrestled La Bestia (The Beast)--The Sicilian Sheep Herder. The Beast caught Chene from behind with a bear hug and shook him up and down while squeezing. Chene uncharacteristicly cried out and The Beast dropped him on the mat. The referee stopped the match and the program cut to a commercial break.

The MCW doctor on hand called an ambulance and transported the injured wrestler to Riverside Hospital in Trenton, Michigan where he was diagnosed with a torn stomach muscle requiring surgery and a lengthy period of recuperation. To keep his name in the wrestling public's mind, Chene did the color commentary for MCW until his abodmen healed. Meanwhile, a grudge match with The Beast was heavily promoted for a month before it was scheduled.


In those days, the matches were three falls. The Beast won the first fall and Chene won the second. In a rage, The Beast threw Chene out of the ring. The Beast's manager, Martino Angelo, promptly attacked Chene on the concrete floor. When the referee wasn't able to restore order, he handed the split decision to Chene after disqualifying The Beast.

During his career, Chene won more matches than he lost, and he held many championship titles and belts during his thirteen-year tenure delighting fans. Early in the morning on October 2, 1964, Chene was returning home from a match in Davenport, Iowa when his car went off the shoulder of Interstate 80 and flipped over near Ottawa, Illinois. Initial reports indicated Chene's car hit a telephone pole but that was found to be false. Illinois State Police reported finding a speeding ticket for traveling 92 mph issued to Chene five hours before he was found dead in his car. He was almost forty years old.

On Tuesday, October 6, 1964, services were held for Arthur Lawrence Beauchene at St. David's Roman Catholic Church on E. Outer Drive in Detroit. Beauchene lived in Harper Woods with his wife Mary and their six children. His body is interred in Mt. Olivet Cemetery. Edward George Farhat, the original Sheik, paid for the funeral.

Leaping Larry Chene match with post match interview