Retired Pilot Set For Trip Of His Life In 1932 Plane
By Leon Alligood
Make: Great Lakes, NC-12847, 1932 (Warner 165)
Tullahoma couple participating in National Air Tour
TULLAHOMA, Tenn. — Ted Beckwith has been flying for almost 40 years, 32 of them as a commercial pilot for Delta Airlines. But tomorrow he begins a journey unlike any other in his flying career.
Sometime tomorrow morning he and wife, Beverly, will squeeze themselves into the cockpit of the 1932 Great Lakes Aircraft biplane Ted spent 10 years restoring and will take off into the wild blue yonder.
Destination: Dearborn, Mich., near Detroit.
There, on Monday, the Beckwiths will join about 25 other vintage airplane owners to begin a 17-day, 4,000-mile flying tour of the eastern seaboard and the Midwest. The National Air Tour seeks to re-create a slice of the golden era of aviation when flying was a novelty that easily captured the public's imagination. When planes landed, people flocked to see them.
The tour is an official ''Centennial of Flight'' event, one of many commemorating the 100th anniversary of Orville and Wilbur Wright's first flight near Kitty Hawk, N.C., in December 1903. But the 2003 tour is patterned after the National Reliability Air Tours that took place from 1925 to 1931, according to Beckwith.
''The thrust of those tours was to prove to the public that aviation was safe and reliable and not just for barnstormers,'' said the longtime pilot, who also noted that Ford Motor Co. was the primary sponsor of those early tours.
''Many people don't remember that Ford made airplanes, too,'' Beckwith said. A Ford Tri-motor is among the planes in the National Air Tour.
That message of the early Reliability Tours was successfully delivered, for commercial aviation became a catalyst that produced changes, not only in how society did business and went on vacations, but in how Americans perceived the world. Airplanes made the globe smaller and more accessible to the common person.
The tour that begins next week holds a different message for 21st-century air travelers, used to traveling in comfortable, wide-bodied jets that can cross the ocean in only a few hours.
''I think it's good that we look back at how far we've come,'' said Beckwith, who when he retired more than a year ago from Delta, was piloting Boeing 767s on international flights.
''I think it will capture that era and will help to educate people on how important this era was to flying.''
In the 1920s and 1930s general aviation was in a boom cycle. Aircraft companies with names such as Waco, Stinson, Bird, Stearman, Cabinaires and Fairchild were building airplanes that contributed greatly to aviation history. Most of those companies no longer are in business, but their products are still flying, and planes from these defunct manufacturers will be participating in the National Air Tour, saved from the scrap heap by appreciative pilots like Beckwith.
The manufacturer of his biplane, Great Lakes Aircraft of Cleveland, Ohio, is among those companies that didn't last.
''They made planes from 1925 to 1933. They made a good plane, but they just couldn't make a go of it,'' the Tullahoma pilot said.
Beckwith, who has been an antique airplane enthusiast for many years, found his Great Lakes in Lubbock, Texas.
''I hauled it back on a trailer in pieces and got to work.''
The Beckwiths' plane will be the only plane from Tennessee to participate in the three-week event.
The National Air Tour will trace the route of a 1932 air tour that was started, but not completed. The planes will take off from Michigan and fly to various cities, with the finish line back at Dearborn.
Each pilot is responsible for their expenses and can recruit sponsors to help out. The Beckwiths asked their friend, country music star and fellow aviation enthusiast Aaron Tippin, to help out. He agreed to foot the fuel bill, if he could fly along on one leg of the trip. The Beckwiths and Tippin became friends a decade ago when another plane the couple owned was used as a prop for a CD cover.
''It's going to be an interesting proposition getting all these planes from one place to another,'' Beckwith said.
The National Air Tour's closest stop to Middle Tennessee will be Memphis and Birmingham on Sept. 16. However, weather conditions may change the dates. For up-to-date information see the tour's Web site: www.NationalAirTour.org.
© Copyright 2003 The Tennessean
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