Henry Ford is well known for profoundly revolutionizing the automobile industry during the early 20th century, but few are aware of the significant role he played in promoting the U.S. commercial airline industry.
Just as Ford transformed the automobile from a luxury to a necessity with his Model T, he also helped to introduce almost everything we have in modern commercial air travel — airports with concrete runways and lighted airfields, airport hotels and even meals aboard planes.
According to his namesake museum, Henry Ford felt that he could build planes using assembly line production. In partnership with Bill Stout of the Stout Metal Airplane Company, the first successful all-metal passenger plane was built in the U.S in 1925.
The Ford Tri-Motor, often referred to as the “Tin Goose” because of its silver metallic fuselage, was equipped with three engines to allow the plane to fly higher and faster and to also ensure reliability. The plane carried a crew of three: a pilot, a copilot, and a stewardess, as well as eight or nine passengers. The Tin Goose was the epitome of luxury and convenience, with passengers paying between $1,200 and $1,500 per ticket.
Within a few months of its introduction, Transcontinental Air Transport was created to provide coast-to-coast operation, capitalizing on the Tri-Motor’s ability to provide reliable and, for the time, comfortable passenger service.
Between 1926 and 1933 a total of 199 Tri-Motors were built, and the plane was instrumental in bringing forth the fledging U.S. airline industry – with many companies that became major American airlines (Eastern, United) starting up with the world’s first mass-produced airliner.
In addition to the launch of the Tri-Motor in 1925, Ford also advanced the design and layout of airports by building the Ford Airport in Dearborn, Michigan. The airport saw many world and U.S. “firsts”:
- First concrete runways
- First radio control for a commercial flight
- First U.S. passenger terminal
- First U.S. scheduled passenger service
- First U.S. airport hotel (The Dearborn Inn)
In order to generate customers, Ford had to market air travel to the masses. So, in 1926 Ford helped sponsor the Air Reliability Tour, an airplane rally that encouraged reliability and safety for commercial aircraft. The tour, which ran annually from 1925-1931, involved a 1,775 mile round trip over 6 days from the Ford airport through 13 midwestern cities. During its seven-year run, the National Air Tours landed in 114 cities across the U.S. and Canada.
While groundbreaking, Ford’s aviation ventures were not profitable and he ended them in 1932 as the Great Depression forced his focus back to his automobile business.
While the Ford name is synonymous with the automotive industry, his pioneering spirit helped to put the nation on wings.