Henry Ford and the Early American Airline Industry

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


| April 2017



tri-motor plane

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

Photo by Sam Moore

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.