Ford's flight of fancy
Auto baron will be recognized for helping aviation industry earn its wings
By Gregg Krupa / The Detroit News
File photos by The Detroit News
DEARBORN --Three months after he flew epically to Paris in May of 1927, Charles A. Lindbergh traveled to Detroit on a worldwide tour. It was a special stop. Lindbergh could visit his mother, Evangeline, who taught chemistry at Cass Technical High School, and give Henry Ford his first plane ride.
As Lindbergh flew Ford over his home at Fair Lane and his massive plant at River Rouge, the 64-year-old industrialist, who was said to dislike flying, was less than comfortable. A temporary seat in the Spirit of St. Louis forced Ford to bend awkwardly to keep his head from bouncing on the ceiling. He spent much of the flight perched on the right arm of Lindbergh's chair. But he feigned not to care.
"It was great!" Ford said to reporters, smiling, as he unfolded his lanky frame from the cockpit and hopped to the ground. "There was absolutely nothing to it. You see how easy it looks. Well, when you are riding in a plane, it's just that easy."
That was just what America was waiting to hear. If Henry Ford were interested, there must be something for everyman in those flying machines.
Ford was an aviation pioneer 20 years before Lindbergh gave him a ride on Aug. 11, 1927, and his achievements would drive the nascent industry for much of the next 20 years.
Although Ford's contributions were seminal, they are nearly eclipsed by his automotive accomplishments. But now, 2003 events commemorating the coincidence of the Ford Motor Company's 100th anniversary and the centennial of the Wright Brothers' first flight are about to illuminate all that Henry Ford, his son Edsel, and their company did for aviation early in the 20th century.
Ford will be among a group of pioneers -- along with Lindbergh, the Wrights, John Glenn, Neil Armstrong and others -- to be recognized Tuesday by the U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
From wheels to wings
"With his image among the common man, they thought he could do no wrong," says Timothy J. O'Callaghan, a former Ford employee and author of "The Aviation Legacy of Henry & Edsel Ford," which is available through Wayne State Press. "He had put the common man on wheels, and they thought if he was considering giving them wings, it was something they should take.
"When Lindbergh flew the Atlantic, Ford's comment was: If one man can fly the Atlantic, one man can take others across in a bigger plane.'"
As it turned out, the auto pioneer wound up helping make the first all-metal plane, developing early air-cooled aircraft engines, building the first paved runway, mass-producing the first true commercial airliner (the Ford Tri-Motor) and introducing radio signals as a navigation aid.
Back in 1908, Henry Ford was making few assertions about flight. But he was more than passingly interested in the summer activities of his 15-year-old son, Edsel B. Ford, and the 20-year-old Charles Van Auken, whom Henry had hired to sweep the floors of his early auto plant at Piquette and Beaubien streets in Detroit.
Van Auken, with Edsel in tow and making himself useful, had fashioned a wood-and-cloth plane in a garage at 1302 Woodward Ave. in Detroit. With the help of other Ford workers, they set a "pepped-up" 28-horse power Model T engine into the frame and attached a propeller to the drive shaft.
Five years after Orville and Wilbur Wright had managed to get aloft at Kitty Hawk, N.C., Van Auken and the young Ford got their plane into the air at the Ford family farm in Dearborn. It was the first airplane built in Detroit.
Four feet off the ground, briefly, was enough to encourage the young man and the teen to try to make the plane lighter. A few weeks later, at the Fort Wayne parade grounds, the contraption managed a short series of thrusts 6-8 feet high. But after a few hops, the crankshaft broke while the plane was in the air. Van Auken, piloting, was caught by a side wind, lost control and crashed into a tree.
He emerged largely unscathed. Henry Ford had a talk with Edsel and Van Auken, and it would be a while before father and son would involve themselves further with aviation.
Making their move
But when they did focus on it, they would change everything.
During World War I, Ford was fascinated by the German Zeppelins and their ability to fly great distances and haul material. Before the Navy could assess his offer to produce them, the war ended. Ford did erect the first privately owned dirigible mooring mast, in Dearborn, when only three airships in the United States -- all military -- could possibly use it.
By 1924, Edsel had been in the older man's ear quite a bit about this newfangled aviation.
"This interest in aviation is largely Edsel's idea, and he deserves the credit," the elder Ford once commented. "Airplanes belong to another generation."
In 1925, the Fords made their move.
First, they dedicated an airport they had developed in Dearborn on the site of what is now the Ford Proving Grounds, near Greenfield Village. The first airport hotel, the Dearborn Inn, was built there and, eventually, the first assembly-line factory for planes.
Henry and Edsel Ford had long been interested in the all-metal planes that Detroiter Bill Stout was constructing, with varying degrees of success, on Beaubien Street on the east side. Stout built them one at a time and hauled them out to Ford Airport to fly.
Even the redoubtable Stout said he did not imagine anyone wanting to sink a lot of money into a bigger, more efficient operation. But, on Aug. 1, 1925, Ford shocked the business world by buying the Stout Metal Airplane Co. He moved it to a new plant at Ford Airport.
"What the Ford Motor Co. means to do is to prove whether commercial flying can be done safely and profitably," Ford told reporters.
Within months, Ford's planes were participating in air rallies around the country. Then he secured a contract to ferry mail. Newspapers began proclaiming the Fords' full entry into aviation as the thing that saved the wobbly kneed industry.
But the Stout Metal Airplane Co. was an unwieldy enterprise. Cost overruns were perpetual, and Stout's planes were poor products. Ford began hemorrhaging money.
Stout was sent on an international speaking tour, and a fire at the plant in January 1926 destroyed the construction program.
There was immediate speculation that Ford set the fire.
"For the first time in my life," he was quoted as saying, "I have bought a lemon, and I don't want the world to know about it."
For an oral history marking the 50th anniversary of the Ford Motor Co. in 1953, Stout recalled a conversation with Ford shortly after the fire. "Stout, don't look so sad. It is the best thing that ever happened to you," the inventor quoted Ford as saying. "It is such an advantage that I wouldn't be surprised if you set it yourself."
When the plant was rebuilt, the Fords fashioned a new model of plane with three air-cooled engines. The Ford Tri-Motor, in its various models, would dominate American aviation until the late 1930s.
Faith in Ford name
The many thousands of Americans who took their first flight on the Tri-Motor often remarked that the plane looked safe with its three engines, its all-metal fuselage and wings, and with the word "Ford" on its side in Henry Ford's script. They had grown to trust his cars, and it was hard to imagine any more welcoming name on the side of a fuselage.
With mass production of the machines finally rooted, the Fords set out on a massive, national ad campaign touting the safety of flight. To make it seem even safer, they built a concrete runway at Ford Airport.
"Henry Ford's greatest contribution to aviation was in building the first airport in the world with concrete runways," the Smithsonian said in its 1991 book "Aviation Milestones."
As always with Ford and the early years of his company, innovation followed innovation.
By 1932, Ford held 35 patents, including one on a revolutionary radio beacon that saved pilots from having to visually inspect the ground beneath them to decipher their location. Recalling early legal battles that stymied his development of the automobile, Ford never enforced his aviation patents.
"Patents are silly things when they are used to hinder an industry," Ford said. "We take patents on our own developments or discoveries only to prevent others from freezing us out when they may chance to make the same discovery."
Although the Depression would force the Fords to focus on their prime business, by 1934 Henry Ford was well on his way to his goal of proving commercial aviation was both affordable and safe.
"The fact is, he lost money on the whole airplane venture," says Bob Casey, curator for transportation for Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Museum. "They'd made their contribution, he and Edsel, and they decided to get out of it."
But in World War II, his country called upon the pacifist Ford again, and he retrofitted an auto plant at Willow Run to turn out B-24 bombers, the flying fortresses that helped carry the day for the allies in Europe and Asia. By 1944, the plant was making one B-24 per hour.
A year after the war, the last known public photograph was taken of Henry Ford as he and his wife Clara appeared at the Proving Grounds for the demolition of the old dirigible mast, 30 years after it was erected.
The photo captures the face of an elderly man immersed in recollection.
"He was from the farm," O'Callaghan says in an interview. "And he viewed the car and the tractor as liberating the farmer. He simply saw the airplane as a way of extending that reach."
(Photo)Henry Ford watches as aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh readies for a flight at Ford Airport in 1927.
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