Henry Ford and the Early American Airline Industry

Automobile and tractor pioneer was a player to be reckoned with in the American airline industry.

tri-motor plane

A great shot of the Experimental Aircraft Assn.-owned Ford Tri-Motor in flight.

Photo by Sam Moore

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Does anyone want to guess who was an early player in the infant American airline industry during the 1920s? No? Well I’ll tell you: It’s none other than our old friend Henry Ford, who, while cranking out his crude Model T cars and Fordson tractors, also built some of the most modern aircraft of the day.

In these days of supersonic air travel, it’s hard to believe that Orville and Wilbur Wright’s Kitty Hawk flight took place just a little more than 100 years ago. And the commercial airline industry, which today carries more than 3 billion people and $6 or $7 trillion worth of cargo yearly, had its shaky beginnings 10 years later in 1914. In that year, young pilot Tony Jannus (who died in 1916, when he crashed into the Black Sea while teaching Russian pilots to fly) flew a man from St. Petersburg, Florida, across the bay to Tampa, beginning a short-lived, regularly scheduled run that transported one passenger each trip.

Army pilots helped launch Air Mail

In 1918, the U.S. Post Office established its Air Mail service with U.S. Army pilots carrying the mail. In 1925, Congress, hoping to stimulate commercial air service, took Air Mail from the Army and gave it to private contract carriers. One of these contracts, serving Detroit, Chicago and Cleveland, was awarded to Henry Ford.

In 1922, the first all-metal airplane was built in the U.S. of Duralumin (the commercial name of an alloy of aluminum and copper that had been developed in Germany) instead of the customary wooden frames covered with fabric. The plane was designed by William B. Stout for the U.S. Navy. In 1923, Stout Metal Airplane Co. of Detroit built the Stout Air Sedan, another all-metal design officially called the 1-AS. In 1924 Stout introduced an eight-passenger, all-metal plane with a 150 hp V-12 Liberty engine, the 2-AT Pullman, that performed well. Called the “Maiden Detroit,” the 2-AT and others like it were bought by Ford for Ford Air Transportation Service, and were used to carry freight between Ford factories in Chicago and Detroit and on Ford’s mail route when it began in February 1926.

Ford built one of the first modern airports in the country near Dearborn in 1924. He provided a building at the airport for the Stout firm, in which he had invested money. By 1925, Ford had bought the Stout company, which became a division of Ford Motor Co., although Stout himself also established an air service that used the 2-AT machines to carry passengers and freight. Chicago-based National Air Transport, later to become United Airlines, bought out Stout Air Service in 1928.

Early development moved fast

Ford and Stout recognized that larger planes were needed and Stout set about redesigning the 2-AT. At about that time, Wright Aeronautical was building the J4, a 200 hp, 9-cylinder radial engine, and Anthony Fokker, a Dutch aircraft manufacturer, had built a high-winged, steel-framed monoplane with plywood skin on the wings and fabric on the fuselage powered by three Wright J4 engines. Fokker flew his plane to Detroit in 1925 to compete in a reliability tour sponsored by Ford, and Stout’s men spent a night surreptitiously measuring it. Fokker won the tour that year, but later claimed that Ford had stolen the idea for the Ford Tri-Motor from him, an accusation that Stout (stoutly?) denied.

In Stout’s own words, “We revised our Liberty-engine plane by widening the wing 10 feet in the center section, rounding off the fuselage up front, and putting one engine in front and a side engine in the leading edge of each wing.” Every outside surface was covered with corrugated aluminum, leading to the plane’s nickname, “The Tin Goose.” Inside the passenger cabin, a single row of six leather and cane seats ran along each side of the fuselage, and open luggage racks ran the length of the interior above each row of seats. The seats could be easily removed if freight was to be carried.

Called the 3-AT, the new plane was powered by Wright 200 hp Whirlwind J4 engines. It failed miserably in testing, causing Henry Ford to lose faith in Stout, who was “promoted” to a marketing position. Ford’s own engineers then came out with the 4-AT with more powerful Wright 300 hp engines that performed well. These first aircraft all had the traditional open cockpit, as most pilots of the day believed they couldn’t successfully fly a plane unless they could feel the wind in their faces and hear the sounds of the wind and the engines. Soon after production began, however, the cockpits were enclosed, along with those of the already existing planes.

Birth of the Ford Tri-Motor

In 1928 came the larger 5-AT, allowing even more payload. Powered by three 420 hp Pratt & Whitney engines, and with a longer wingspan (extended by 3 feet, 10 inches) and a larger fuselage, the 5-AT could carry almost a 2-ton payload and cruise at 122 mph over a 560-mile range, reaching altitudes of 18,500 feet.

A total of just 199 Ford Tri-Motor aircraft were built between 1926 and 1933, 117 of which were the improved 5-AT models, but the plane was arguably the first successful commercial airliner, although Ford reportedly never made a penny from the venture. In 1932 Ford developed a 40-passenger Tri-Motor, known as the 14-AT, but nothing seems to have come of it.

Something over 100 airlines all over the world got their start with the workhorse Ford Tri-Motor. They were also used by the U.S. Army. One, named the Floyd Bennett, accompanied Admiral Richard Byrd on his 1928-29 Antarctic expedition, and on Nov. 29, 1929, had the distinction of being the first airplane to fly over the South Pole.

No early retirement for Tri-Motor

In 1933, Boeing (and then, a year later, Douglas Aircraft) both introduced larger twin-engine aircraft, and in 1935, the famous Douglas DC-3 came out. Most larger airlines replaced their Fords with these, but smaller lines, many in foreign countries, continued to fly Tri-Motors into the 1960s.

Today, the Tin Goose is still alive and well and the Experimental Aircraft Assn. tours a totally refurbished example each summer, giving rides to the public. FC


Flying Back in Time

Columnist relishes flight on 1929 4-AT

How would you feel about climbing into a vehicle that was built in 1929 (that’s 4 years older than I am, folks, and I’m OLD) and not only traveling at more than 90 mph, but nearly 2,500 feet in the air to boot? Well, I did just that last May at the Beaver County, Pennsylvania, Airport.

The 4-AT that I flew on made its first flight on Aug. 21, 1929. It then belonged to Eastern Air Transport, a small company that later became Eastern Airlines, and that then had a contract to carry mail between New York and Florida, connecting many cities along the East Coast.

It flew for Cubana Airlines in 1930 and then, for many years, operated in the Dominican Republic. Returned to the U.S. in 1949, the plane did some barnstorming and crop-dusting before being modified for aerial firefighting. In 1973, while at an air show, the Ford was ripped loose from its ground moorings by a bad storm and wrecked.

The Experimental Aircraft Assn. (EAA) acquired the wreck and spent 12 years restoring it to first class flying condition. Today it flies all over the country, giving rides. On Memorial Day weekend of 2016, EAA brought the 4-AT to the Beaver County Airport, just a few miles east of here across the Pennsylvania state line. The event was sponsored by the Air Heritage Museum, whose combined aircraft restoration shop and air museum is located in its own hanger at the airport and where rides on the Tri-Motor were offered to the public.

Thanks to Donna Kelly of Air Heritage, I was invited to fly on the Ford on Thursday and I jumped at the chance. I was on the second flight that day and was lucky enough to be assigned to the copilot’s seat, where I was able to watch the pilot, Bill Thacker, put the craft through its paces. Both Bill’s and my side windows were open, letting in the roar of the engines, which were right outside, and a warm breeze.

We flew at less than 2,500 feet at about 90 mph, and it was easy to see the ground below and pick out landmarks. We were in the air about half an hour and circled south to the Ohio River, east to Beaver, then back northwest to the airport, where Bill sat her down with scarcely a bump. Really a fun ride and a unique experience. – Sam Moore


Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by email at letstalkrustyiron@att.net.