TBT: Ford Helps Get Aviation off the Ground in the 1920s

Mar 09, 2023
A black and white photo of airplanes at the Ford Airport. Click to Enlarge

Ford is well known for putting the world on wheels with the Model T, but in the 1920s Henry and Edsel Ford also helped further the nascent aviation industry with production of the company’s own commercial aircraft, but those ambitions were grounded 90 years ago.

Both Ford Motor Company and its airport in Dearborn were instrumental in the early years of the American aviation industry which, at the time, was reserved for stunt flying. Called “the Tin Goose” or “the Model T of the Air,” the company’s Tri-Motor planes helped persuade the public of the safety and reliability of air travel, as well as serving as the go-to model for the early commercial airlines, which flew the sturdy planes across the country in and out of the Ford Airport, now part of the Dearborn Proving Grounds.

The same mass production techniques that helped Ford churn out the popular Model T, as well as aircraft and engines for the World War II-era Arsenal of Democracy, had been employed in the company’s production of its Tri-Motor planes – named for its three 1,260-horsepower Pratt & Whitney engines, according to “The Ford Century,” a commemorative book created to mark the company’s Centennial in 2003.

Henry Ford began experimenting with planes as early as 1909 when he and Edsel Ford helped build a primitive monoplane powered by a Model T engine. Then during World War I, Ford Motor Company mass produced the American-designed “Liberty” aircraft engine and developed engines for America's first guided missile called the Kettering “Bug.” Edsel Ford, by this time president of Ford Motor Company, in 1923 invested in Stout Metal Airplane Company, which had been established to design and build the first commercial all-metal airplane in the United States. Ford would buy the company two years later to create an Airplane Development Division and go on to build the first of nearly 200 Tri-Motor Airplanes.

Ford Airport, considered the world’s first modem airport with its purpose-built airplane manufacturing facility and a concrete runway that would be added in 1928, opened in 1925. Ford’s Air Transport Service would become the world’s first regularly scheduled commercial airline, and began freight service from Detroit to Chicago, with runs to Cleveland and Buffalo added later.

In 1926, the first of Ford’s Wright “Whirlwind” engine-equipped 4-AT Tri-Motor planes came onto the market. It was a significant technological advance over existing aircraft that made Ford the world’s largest manufacturer of commercial planes. Navy Commander Richard Byrd, who had previously flown a Tri-Motor over the north pole, flew a 4AT-B over the South Pole, making him the first to accomplish the feat. (Both planes are on exhibit at the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in Dearborn.)

Also, in the mid-1920s, Henry Ford was pursuing a small, affordable airplane called the Flivver. Although at least three prototypes were built, the project was scrapped after the company’s test pilot died in a crash in 1928.

Despite increasing interest in flying, Ford had lost nearly $6 million in aviation, and the Great Depression also quickly took its toll, as Ford Tri-Motor sales slid to just three planes in 1932. It was discontinued a year later, and the company’s venture into aviation was over. The company wasn’t quite done with aircraft entirely, though, as the Korean Conflict led Ford to build more than 6,000 jet aircraft engines through 1959.

While Ford’s foray into flying was short-lived, its impact can be seen in the company’s iconic product names such as Thunderbird, and Mustang, the name of which is said to be inspired by the World War II-era fighter plane. Many of Ford’s products are also tested on the very grounds where Fords and others took flight. Ford also pioneered the aircraft directional radio beam, allowing planes to navigate through all types of weather, and allowed the rest of the industry to make use of this innovation royalty-free, as it had with the rest of the company’s more than 30 patents related to the Tri-Motor. Also, the company’s former Philco-Ford subsidiary made products and services for the space and defense industries.

Ford revisited its history of flight during its Centennial in 2003, which included a 24,000-square-foot display featuring the Ford airplanes that established the commercial aviation industry, as well as an exact reproduction of the 1903 Wright Brothers Flyer that started it all. The event also saw the proving grounds test track used as an airport for the first time in more than 50 years.

While the airport got new life as part of the company’s Dearborn Proving Grounds, including a miles-long vehicle test track, so did several of the airport buildings, which were repurposed as garages for experimental vehicles when the airport closed in 1947. The company’s progress in air travel also led to the building of the Dearborn Inn. Located adjacent to the airport, it was one of the first U.S. hotels built specifically for air travelers when it opened in 1931.

The company’s efforts were also considered influential by the Smithsonian Institution, which in 1985 called Ford’s entry into airplane manufacturing “one of the most important events in the selling of aviation to the general public,” according to “The Ford Century.”

Henry Ford has also been recognized for his pioneering efforts in aviation. He was enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1984, and in 2002, he was among a group recognized by the U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Attendees of the ceremony, emceed by actor and aviation enthusiast John Travolta, included former astronauts John Glenn and Neil Armstrong, family members of the Wright brothers, Amelia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh and others.

“Not many people are aware of how much Henry Ford did to develop the early aviation industry – he was inspired by the potential of flight,” said Edsel Ford II. “Not only did my great-grandfather recognize the Wright brothers’ genius, he shared their vision of greater mobility for all.”

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