How Henry Ford Was Involved In The Airplane Industry And What Finally Convinced Him To Fly At Age 64

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Last week, I told you the story of how fun it was to fly in a 94-year-old Ford Tri-Motor at the humongous Oshkosh air show. In that story, I mentioned a bit of Henry Ford trivia that turned out to be something bigger than I thought. While Ford had an interest in aviation, he avoided flying in an actual plane. That all changed when Charles Lindbergh came around and took him up for a flight in the Spirit Of St. Louis.

Henry Ford’s interest in aviation predates the 1926 launch of the famous Tri-Motor by nearly two decades. In 1908, the then 42-year-old Ford made history with the launch of the Model T. Ford achieved his goal of a car for the masses and a few years later, those cars would be built using a then novel moving assembly line. Ford wasn’t first to make an automobile assembly line–Ransom Olds beat him by over a decade–but it allowed the Ford Motor Company to crank out cars at an incredible rate. But while Ford was working on his cars, he was also getting interested in aviation.

An early example of Ford’s interest in aviation was in helping his son, Edsel, build a plane. As the book Beyond the Model T : the other ventures of Henry Ford, writes, Ford rented a small barn on Woodward Avenue in Detroit. In the barn, he built tractors using Model T parts. Edsel and friend Charles Van Auken wanted to build a plane, and Ford gave the pair a trio of shop employees to build it. Van Auken designed the aircraft, with Edsel assisting in research and helping to build it.

1909 Plane
The Ford-Van Auken monoplane – Public Domain

The resulting plane was powered by a Model T’s engine making 28 HP and roll control was achieved by bending the wings. It never flew any higher than ground effect and crashed both times that Van Auken tried to fly it.

In 1917, the book describes, Ford got involved with another aircraft. This one was incredible in scope for its day. Charles F. Kettering, Orville Wright, Elmer Sperry, Ford, and others embarked on a secret project to create what was more or less a flying torpedo. The Kettering Bug was an unmanned aircraft capable of delivering a bomb 75 miles away. Navigation was handled with a pneumatic and electrical system.

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Kettering Bug – United States Air Force

The National Museum of the United States Air Force describes how it worked:

[T]he Bug’s system of internal pre-set pneumatic and electrical controls stabilized and guided it toward a target. After a predetermined length of time, a control closed an electrical circuit, which shut off the engine. Then, the wings were released, causing the Bug to plunge to earth — where its 180 pounds of explosive detonated on impact.

According to a study on cruise missiles, The Evolution of the Cruise Missile, when the military tested the Kettering Bug few tests were successful and it never saw combat.

That wasn’t Ford’s only venture during World War I. His company also built Liberty aircraft engines. Ford was even interested in airships. In 1920, he offered to build airships for the U.S. government, but the deal didn’t go through. Later, Ford and his son invested in airship projects and even built a private airship mooring.

Airship
From the Collections of The Henry Ford. Gift of Ford Motor Company.

Around this time, Ford also invested in the Stout Metal Airplane Company before buying it out in 1925. As we know, this would result in the famous Ford Tri-Motor that I got to take a ride in. Ford also planned on taking the success of the Model T and replicating it in the sky. The Flivver, which made its first appearance in 1926, was supposed to be a plane that everyone can afford and everyone can fly.

Amazingly, throughout all of this time, Henry Ford had never flown in an aircraft. As the Experimental Aircraft Association notes, when Ford purchased Stout, he said:

“The first thing that must be done with aerial navigation is make it fool-proof . . . What the Ford Motor Company means to do is prove whether commercial flying can be done safely and profitably.”

Flivver
From the Collections of The Henry Ford. Designed by Otto Coppen and made by Ford Motor Company, Dearborn, Michigan.

While the Tri-Motor was an important first step towards safer flying, it would take several decades for commercial aviation to reach the levels of safety that travelers enjoy today. Perhaps the more incredible thing about it was that not only did Ford not fly in a plane, but he actively refused to.

That changed when Charles A. Lindbergh visited Ford Airport. Just a few months earlier, Lindbergh wrote history by completing the first solo, nonstop transatlantic flight..

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National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution

On May 20, 1927 his aircraft, the Spirit of St. Louis, lifted from the ground of Roosevelt Field in New York. It touched down 33 and a half hours later at Le Bourget Field in Paris.

In August 1927, Lindbergh was on a promotional tour for his historic flight and made a stop to Ford Airport. While there, history site HistoryNet notes, Lindbergh offered to take Ford up in the Spirit of St. Louis. Lindbergh expected Ford to decline, but to everyone’s surprise, he said yes. Here was the flight from Lindbergh’s perspective, from HistoryNet:

“The Ford men standing around us looked astounded,” Lindbergh wrote in Autobiography of Values, “but of course no one questioned the wisdom of Mr. Ford’s decision—at least not in words. My cockpit had been designed to fit snugly around one slender man of six feet two and a half inches of height. It was possible for another person to sit hunched up on the armrest of the pilot’s seat; but that was a most uncomfortable position, and it forced me to lean awkwardly to the left side of the fuselage to make room. In the Spirit of St. Louis, bent over, cramped, and delighted, Henry Ford made his first flight in an airplane.”

Lindbergh’s plane, the Spirit of St. Louis, was built specifically for the task of being flown as far as possible. It had just a single seat inside for Lindbergh. So for the flight, a seat was crammed inside and Ford somehow folded himself into the thing.

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National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution

And for Ford’s perspective, here’s what he said in an interview with the New York Times:

“There’s absolutely nothing to it. This is my first flight, but I wouldn’t mind taking a little spin every day. Flying is still 90 per cent. man, but we are now building planes–and I am devoting a large part of my time and energy into building them–which the younger generation will be able to fly just as they drive automobiles today.

I absolutely felt no sensation of uneasiness, with the exception of a few little air bumps which we encountered not and then, principally because we were flying over the city, the heat of which causes the air disturbances. This was the finest ride I ever had. Why, it is just like going on a picnic.”

After taking Ford for his first flight, Lindbergh later took the rest of the family into the sky in the Spirit of St. Louis. It’s not reported why Ford didn’t want to fly before this, but apparently he had so much fun that he let Lindbergh take him for a spin in a new Ford Tri-Motor.

It isn’t said what Ford’s flying life looked like after this, but it sounds like he was impressed.

Spirit1
From the Collections of The Henry Ford. Gift of Ford Motor Company.

Unfortunately, Ford’s vision of young people flying around in the Model T of planes never really materialized. Remember the Flivver from earlier? Its chief test pilot, Harry J. Brooks, died crashing a prototype Flivver in 1928. Just two were ever built, and Ford was apparently devastated enough by Brooks’ death that development was halted.

As I noted in my article about the Tri-Motor, in the 1930s Ford faced headwinds from other competent airliner designs. Sales fell during the Great Depression and eventually, production stopped after 199 were built. The Stout Metal Airplane Division of the Ford Motor Company tried its hand at a couple of more aircraft designs that never reached production. Then in 1936, Ford closed Stout and stopped designing aircraft.

The Ford name would be seen again in aviation fewer than ten years later. As part of its WWII effort, Ford produced 8,685 Consolidated B-24 Liberator bombers and 4,190 Waco CG-4 gliders. Ford doesn’t design or produce planes today, but the company is a sponsor of the EAA AirVenture Oshkosh fly-in.

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23 Responses

  1. I mean really.

    If Lindbergh asked you to go for a flight with him in the Spirit of St Louis, what would you say? What if Jordan asked if you wanted to join a pickup game? Or Tiger asked if you wanted to hit the driving range?

    No brainer.

  2. Have you ever read Lindbergh’s autobiography, The Spirit of St Louis? I think you’d really enjoy it. It covers his early flying days with the airmail, the prize offered for the 1st transatlantic flight, the other competitors, the development of the plane, and the flight itself. Fascinating history, loooong book, well worth the read.

    1. No discussion of early aviation history is complete without mention of Wrong Way Corrigan imo. You know the phrase, ‘That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it’? Guy claimed he turned the wrong way (and flew across the Atlantic instead of to the west coast), and stuck to that claim even on his deathbed!

      The History Guy has a short yt video about him. Way worth ~10 min of your life

    1. Hahaha! Was logging in to comment something along the lines of the only way to have made that flight more anti-semitic would be if the Spirit of St. Louis was towing a sign that said “We hate Jews!”

  3. In a not really related but maybe in Kevin Bacon sorta way, Walt Whitman hated cars/wouldn’t go near them until he and Ford corresponded and then met.

    The result was Whitman getting added to Ford’s summertime van-life thing (as it was back then, complete with servants) where he, Thomas Edison, and Harvey Firestone would drive around the country together, chatting up the locals and raising hell.

    Riffing on what others have already noted, Ford was a complex man for sure.

      1. You are right! And worse for me, I read that is an actual book on Ford over the past few years; I can’t believe they got that wrong in print (and I can’t recall the book offhand). Ugh.

        Color me appropriately schooled for today – thanks for setting me straight!

  4. Mercedes, I genuinely hope you can go visit the National Museum of the USAF (if you haven’t already). I was last there in 2020 and if I recall, they actually have a Kettering Bug model – Kettering himself, inventor of the automobile self-starter, being from the area. They also have lots of other cool aircraft like the absolutely insane B-36 Peacemaker.

    I’m hoping I get moved back there in a year or two and I’ll be more than happy to show you and the wife around, introduce you to some aviation geek friends we have there. One does historical aviation restoration which I think would be your speed for sure!

  5. I wonder if some of his apprehension stemmed from a fear of mechanical failure. If the engine on a car dies, you pull to the side of the road. The same situation in an aircraft is a little more urgent. He might have thought that the transatlantic flight demonstrated a sufficient Mean Time Between Failures that a short hop would be highly unlikely to result in catastrophe. Seeing as how he was one of the 1%ers, I doubt Lindberg’s star-power would have swayed him.

    Of course, he was also cantankerous, and he might have done it just to keep those lackeys around him on their toes and prove that he wasn’t timid/predictable/laughing stock/whatever boogieman feeling.

    1. It’s tough to get myself into the mindset of someone from that era, and while it’s cliche I think the closest present-day analog would be space travel. I am as big a space geek as anyone, but I have zero desire to go to space myself. Even if Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos were to invite me for a ride on one of their phallic rockets (not innuendo), I’m pretty sure I’d decline.

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