Ford had often said he would never fly, but Charles A. Lindbergh made the automotive billionaire break his vow. Lindbergh had been inspecting the Ford airport in August 1927 and invited the motor king for a ride in the legendary Spirit of St. Louis. He would be the first passenger in the Ryan monoplane. While Lindbergh flew the Ford Flivver, Ford considered the invitation. When Lindy landed, Ford walked toward the plane and whispered his startling announcement to a friend. “Lindbergh is right … adults are the ones who must be sold on flying. I am going up with him.”
- During World War I Ford mass produced Liberty aircraft engines, as well as engines for Kettering’s Bug aerial torpedo.
- Ford and others invested in the Stout Model Airplane Company in 1923 which perfected an all-metal air transport. In 1925 he purchased the company, renamed it the Ford Airplane Manufacturing Division and initiated the development of a three-motor airliner to increase passenger safety and operating revenue.
- In 1925, Ford purchased several of the air transports to establish the world’s first regularly-scheduled airline devoted to the business needs of a single company.
- Built the world’s first truly complete and modern airport at Dearborn, Michigan.
- To promote public confidence in aviation Ford sponsored an annual Ford Reliability Tour involving non-military aircraft flying a scheduled route with numerous stops.
- The Ford Trimotor was introduced in 1926 and Ford became the world’s largest manufacturer of commercial aircraft at the time.
- During World War II, Ford mass produced the B-24 Liberator.
In 1909, only six years after the Wright Brothers’ first successful flight, automotive genius Henry Ford helped his son Edsel and several friends build a monoplane powered by a Model T Ford engine. Henry also had many of the plane’s special parts made in his factory. But the whole venture ended abruptly when the plane wrecked.
After becoming briefly interested in Glenn Curtiss’s flying boat, Henry returned to his first love, the Model T. He soon set up his first mass-production assembly line that turned out cars in one-tenth of the time previously needed. By 1915, the public had purchased over a million of these cars, and Henry not only bought out his original investors, but also made 22-year old Edsel the president of the company. Henry stated that he had success for three reasons: he had no fear of the future, held no veneration for the past, and put service before profit. When America entered World War I, Ford helped to build Liberty engines for the armada of warplanes on its way to Europe to help “make the world safe for democracy”. General Henry “Hap” Arnold of the aviation section later said of this effort: “The astonishing Mr. Ford’s way of doing business was a revelation!”
Ford also built the engine for “Boss” Kettering’s Bug, a pilotless flying bomb. Though the war ended before it could be perfected, Henry Ford had clearly seen the important role that aviation would play in the future. At first, the dirigible intrigued Ford and he set up an aircraft development corporation to build one with a metal skin of duralumin, a metal which was as light as paper and as strong as steel. In 1923, Ford received an unusual letter that read: “We want to build an all-metal airplane, if you join us it will cost you one thousand dollars, and for your thousand you will get one promise: you will never get your money back.” The letter was signed: ‘William B. Stout, inventor. Fascinated by this novel approach, Ford found that Stout was indeed a competent airplane designer who had already built a “batwing” transport and a Navy torpedo plane, and that he had sent the same letter to 150 Detroit executives. When Henry and Edsel each invested a thousand dollars in the Stout Metal Airplane Company, little did they know that this investment would catapult the Ford name into aviation history.
With $128,000 donated by Detroit’s “Who’s Who”, Stout built two “air sedan” transports in 1923. But when they proved to be under-powered and Stout claimed that he needed more money for larger engines, Henry replied, “you don’t need more money, son, you need more airplane!” Ford had already foreseen the need for larger passenger planes.
With additional finances from Henry, Stout developed an all-metal “Air Pullman”. When the real plane was finished, it had a roomy cabin, sleeping berths and a galley. It was hailed as the automobile capital’s bid for commercial aviation. Henry also now realized that Detroit was in desperate need of a better flying field, and with great fanfare the $4 million Ford Airport was dedicated in 1925. It soon became the most modern passenger terminal in the world, with the first concrete runways, plus a dirigible mooring mast, a restaurant, and a hotel.
Stout now moved on to building an improved all-metal transport with which he hoped to start an airline. But this project would require a lot of money. Henry offered to buy out Stout’s stockholders at twice their original investment, so they could re-invest in the airline while he took over building airplanes. Many of the shareholders refused. At this point Bill Stout sold the new transport plane to Ford. Soon afterwards, Henry announced that he and Edsel would launch an experimental regularly-scheduled airline between their various plants to develop public confidence in commercial aviation and to prove that it was a viable business enterprise.
On April 13th, 1925, the Liberty engine powered transport sat at the Ford airport laden with Model T parts when Henry, his wife Clara, and Edsel handed the pilot packages for delivery in Chicago. Moments later, the plane was airborne. When it landed in the “Windy City”, its cargo was rushed to the Ford plant, while new cargo was loaded aboard for the return flight to Dearborn. The New York Times proclaimed, “commercial aviation on a regular schedule began in America today!” Henry said, “this is the start of a new form of transportation for the company to not only reduce costs but to also test aviation equipment that we may produce.” After establishing service between Detroit and Cleveland, Stout’s stockholders finally sold out and began the Stout Metal Airplane Division of Ford. Henry said, “I feel about airplanes as I did about autos 30 years ago!”
Meanwhile, he also began the concept of an annual air reliability tour to promote commercial aviation. The first of these tours commenced at the Ford Airport in 1925, when 16 planes took off on a l,900 mile route with stops in 10 cities. A week later, 11 planes completed the tour and their names were inscribed on a huge silver cup that Edsel donated.
When Henry’s airline inaugurated the first commercial airmail service between Detroit, Chicago and Cleveland, it was said, “To Mr. Ford goes the honor of being the first to undertake this new type of mail transport.” Henry replied, “The pioneering of plane building and operation is over. It now remains for men of business to take hold of the opportunities.”
Henry had predicted the need for greater passenger safety and he tasked Bill Stout with designing a trimotor. Soon after, Ford offered Commander Richard E. Byrd the trimotor for his expedition to the Arctic. But after the plane’s first test flight, the pilot said, “my advice is to forget this plane!” Ford was humiliated. The plane he hoped would make the first flight over the North Pole could hardly get off the ground. Later, Byrd did make the first flight over the Pole in a Fokker trimotor named the Josephine Ford in honor of Henry’s grand-daughter. Fortunately, several months later a new Wright “Whirlwind” engine powered trimotor rolled out. This time the test pilot exclaimed, “this plane’s got what it takes!” Ford’s production trimotor was luxurious, with wicker seats, cabin heating, carpeting and toilet facilities. The cockpit included the latest instruments and deluxe Model T steering wheels. Henry was so happy that he called it the “Superplane”, and among the first purchasers were Stout Air Services and Maddux Air Lines.
On his 63rd birthday, Henry really astonished the press when he unveiled a tiny plane weighing only 370 pounds that could attain the speed of 100 miles per hour. Ford stated that he planned to mass-produce the plane as soon as its engine was perfected. This plane would prove to be the “Flivver” of the air! In 1927, after Lindbergh’s epic solo flight across the Atlantic, he visited Ford. At this point Henry Ford took his first flight. It was in the renowned Spirit of St. Louis. After a flight in a tri-motor, Ford informed “Lindy”, “I wouldn’t mind taking a spin every day. It’s like going on a picnic!” But he never flew again.
In 1928, Henry donated a trimotor to Commander Byrd for his expedition to Antarctica. After it arrived at his base at “Little America,” Byrd and his crew used it on Thanksgiving Day, 1929, to conquer the South Pole by air. Meanwhile, Ford introduced a larger trimotor with powerful Pratt & Whitney engines that were able to carry more passengers and freight. Before long, it turned into the backbone of the growing airline industry and set a new standard of reliability. In 1928, Henry finally ended his company’s experimental air transport and airmail services saying, “other airlines have now developed to the point where they can take over the field in which Ford planes pioneered.”
For a while Henry focused his efforts on an experimental trimotor bomber, a single engine Ford “freighter”, and a 40-passenger trimotor. But the nation was now steeped in the Great Depression. Plummeting sales finally caused production of the beloved “Tin Goose” to end in 1932. But the useful life for many would continue for decades in yeoman service for feeder lines and in bush operations around the world. The death knell of the legendary trimotor did not end Henry’s involvement in aviation, however. When the nation plunged into World War II, Ford turned the great productive capacity of the Ford Motor Company toward building Pratt & Whitney Double Wasp engines, while the huge Willow Run Plant produced fleets of B-24 Liberator bombers to help free the world of tyranny.
Edsel’s sudden death in 1943 left a deep emotional scar on Henry, for his son has been a partner in most of his enterprises. At age 79, Henry resumed active management of the company, until his grandson, Henry II, took the reins. By the time Henry Ford died in 1947, he had left a rich legacy in many fields of human endeavor.
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