The gleaming Ford Trimotor at EAA’s AirVenture 2009 show was an airplane that revolutionized expectations for passenger comfort and airline safety when started rolling out of Ford’s Dearborn plant in 1925. Compared to the single-engine, dope-and-fabric airplanes of the period, the Trimotor was sturdy and commodious. Its three 1,260 hp engines provided higher cruise speed and multi-engine redundancy. Before it was eclipsed by the Douglas DC-3, Ford built 196 units. Some of those aircraft, albeit with extensive modifications, remain in service today.
“Henry Ford put the world on wheels. We want people to know he also put the world on wings,” said Kevin Keling, Ford Motor Company's corporate events manager.
But, Ford’s fascination with aviation began more than two decades before the Trimotor. Ford Motor Company was founded in 1903, the same year Orville Wright made his historic first flight. Ford was smitten when he heard the new and his life-long love affair with aviation began. His enthusiasm permeated his entire company. One of his employees even built his own airplane and powered it with a Model T engine.
Ford’s infatuation with aviation became a family affair, one that has endured three-plus generations. His son Edsel became an aviation enthusiast and invested in a small first called the Stout Metal Airplane Company. Edsel’s involvement with Stout interested Henry Ford in applying automotive production line efficiencies to aircraft manufacturing. Ford bought Stout and built the world’s purpose-built aircraft plant in Dearborn, MI, the facility that would build the Trimotor.
Ford went on to build the first paved runway in the US and develop the first radio range navigation system for airplanes, according to Bob Kreipke, Ford’s corporate historian.
At about the same time the Trimotor was in production, Ford also dreamt of creating an everyman airplane that would give average folks affordable air transportation. The concept eventually became the tiny Ford Sky Flivver, such as the replica built by EAA Chapter 159 that's on display at the EAA Museum in Oshkosh. Ford's personal pilot Harry Brooks suffered a fatal crash in the Flivver, so Ford scrapped the program. But, the Flivver’s legacy of providing an affordable, personal aircraft is embodied in today's light sport aircraft pioneered by EAA members.
After production of the Trimotor stopped, Ford took a short break from the aviation business that was cut short at the outbreak of World War II. Germany’s blitz through Europe, North Africa and western Russia threatened to alter the course of history and Fortress America had to stop its advance. Reuben Fleet’s Consolidated Aircraft had designed the four-engine B-24 heavy bomber, an aircraft that could penetrate deep into Germany and destroy much of its ability to wage war.
Consolidated only could build 20 aircraft per month, so the US Department of War asked America’s industrial titans to lend a hand. In September 1941, Ford won the contract to build the B-24 in massive numbers. To ramp up production, Ford built a 3.5-million square foot manufacturing plant at Willow Run with a mile-plus line assembly line split between two counties.The first Ford built Liberator was completed in May 1942. By the end of the year, Ford was building 20 aircraft per day. The following year, one Liberator per hour was rolling off the line. By August 1945, Ford built 8,685 Liberators. FDR said that the Willow Run plant was a key element in America’s Arsenal of Democracy and a prime reason why Germany was defeated.
After World War II, Ford Aerospace built missile systems and weather satellites. It also built and mainly staffed NASA’s Houston Space Center, participating in the Gemini and Apollo space shot programs.
Ford later sold off its aerospace business, electing to concentrate on auto making. Times got tougher and Ford needed new blood to turn around the company. In a fitting tribute to the legacy of Henry Ford, the board of directors turned to the aircraft industry for help. They brought in Boeing veteran Alan Mulally who applied aircraft industry best practices to heal the company. Now Ford is the only remaining US automaker not dependent upon government handouts. It may no longer built B-24 bombers in massive numbers, but it now has the strength to win in tough economic times. That also means it has the resources to be one of EAA AirVenture’s biggest corporate sponsors.