Rare '28 Liberty Ford Tri-Motor visiting at Mid-American Air Center

LAWRENCEVILLE, Ill. — Locals this weekend can seize a rare opportunity to take a ride in a 1928 Liberty Ford Tri-Motor aircraft at the Mid-American Air Center: Lawrenceville-Vincennes International Airport.

The airplane was originally used to carry mail but later transitioned into the first all-metal passenger plane and stayed in commission until around 1950. Out of the original 144 made, just eight of them still fly.

Those who choose to take to the sky in the Tri-Motor will be treated to a short tour of the greater Vincennes area at approximately 1,000 feet and at 90 mph, which is the aircraft's top speed.

According to David Lerlie, volunteer for the Experimental Aircraft Association of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, these planes were designed to fly “low and slow,” which is perfect, he said, for locals to view their hometown through the plane's large windows.

The flights will be piloted by volunteer Collin Sousy, who has 25 years of experience flying the Tri-Motor. And even though 90 mph seems slow to us, Sousy said it was “blistering fast in 1928.”

The rides will be available today and through Sunday. Visitors can purchase tickets on site from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. CDT, and the cost is $52 for children and $72 for adults.

The Mid-American Pilots Association and Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) Chapter 114 will also be hosting a Knox County Chamber of Commerce after-hours event at 5 p.m. CDT today at the air center, located at 13608 Hanger Road.

This free event will feature appetizers, corn hole, music, tours of the facility, prizes and a raffle for a chance to win free flights. Additionally, the center’s new Jabiru training aircraft will be unveiled during a 6 p.m. CDT ribbon-cutting ceremony.

The Jabiru 230 is the next generation of training aircraft, according to Dr. Scott Stine, president of the Mid-American Pilot Association, who said that while he completed his pilot training 30 years ago on a 1970's model Cessna, these new two-seater aircraft are safer in that they have been built with the “newest electronics and current avionics, including things such as in-flight weather.”

It’s the hope of the pilot’s association that this new aircraft and corresponding pilot licensing program will get new and former pilots into the cockpit. In the past, earning a private pilot’s license required a minimum of 40 hours of training, but this new program being launched with the Jabiru requires only 20 hours.

Stine said many former pilots become inactive for various reasons, including medical concerns such as high blood pressure or diabetes. But Stine, who is certified by the FAA to complete pilot physicals, says essentially all one needs is a valid driver’s license and the 20 hours of training in the Jabiru to begin flying at a greatly-reduced cost.

Stine says that Mid-American also houses the businesses and services pilots need. A tour of the facility will showcase Hunt Aviation (service and repair), U.S.A. Aero Refinishing, and an onsite oil company, among others. 

The group is also launching a Young Eagle’s Program, which is a national organization providing free plane rides to children ages 8-17.

“What we’re trying to do is create opportunity,” Stine said. “An opportunity to fly and show what’s out there.”

Amid the growing need for pilots during World War II, George Field, as it was once called, was opened as a flight training center for the U.S. Army.

But these days, instead of military planes, residents are likely to see corporate jets, agricultural aviation and aircraft hauling car parts for nearby Toyota manufacturing facilities.

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