In the first decade of the 20th century the Wright Brothers introduced the world to the modern airplane. With a three-axis control system, an internal combustion engine, and wind tunnel-designed wing and propeller airfoils, the Wright Flyers possessed the same key components used by 21st century air transports. Within a few years the Wrights and others designed, built, and flew airplanes in a bewildering assortment of shapes and sizes, but the successful ones retained the same core features.
To the casual observer, however, a state-of-the-art airplane from 1910 bears more resemblance to a modern box kite than a modern airliner. The materials used were primarily wire-braced wood and fabric. Safety was also quite poor. The Hiller Aviation Museum’s early flight collection is filled with examples of aircraft flown by such noteworthy aviators as Montgomery, Ely, Rodgers, Beachey and Kearns—all of whom perished in accidents.
Despite more powerful engines and larger airframes, the basic design of airplanes remained essentially unchanged through the First World War. Shortly after the armistice brought an end to the fighting, an aircraft designer named William Stout proposed another way. Stout, who had worked before and during the war with a variety of nascent aircraft manufacturers, realized that the wire-braced biplane airplanes so common during World War I suffered severe limitations from parasitic drag. Experiments with an internally-braced monoplane constructed of laminated plywood combined with advances in aluminum alloys convinced Stout that a single, all-metal wing would offer dramatic performance advantages over a traditional wood-and-fabric biplane.
Stout first designed and built the Stout ST, a torpedo bomber built under contract for the United States Navy. Its aluminum construction was corrugated, or wrinkled, to increase strength and decrease weight—though with the penalty of increasing the very drag that Stout originally sought to minimize. This technique was originally developed by German aircraft designer Hugo Junkers a decade earlier.
Gifted with a talent for self-promotion, Stout solicited $1,000 investments from a range of corporate financers in the Detroit area—including one Edsel Ford and his father, Henry. Edsel saw an opportunity for his father’s company to enter the new field of aviation. With Edsel as his advocate, Stout tapped Ford for increasing levels of support—including the construction of Ford Airport in Dearborn, Michigan, which opened in 1925. Featuring concrete runways and, later, a terminal building, Ford Airport in itself represented a giant leap forward for commercial air travel.
Intrigued with the potential of commercial air service, Ford sought to operate a small, internal airline to demonstrate the concept. Using the new single-engine Stout 2-AT, Ford initiated the Ford Air Transport Service. Carrying mail, auto parts and passengers on a regular schedule between Ford facilities in Detroit, Chicago and Cleveland, this aerial shuttle introduced many innovations—ranging from scheduled service to uniformed flight attendants—used by commercial airlines ever since.
Before the end of 1925, Stout sold his operation to Ford entirely, creating the Stout Metal Airplane Division of the Ford Motor Company. Production of the Stout 2-AT had continued, but at a modest pace—scarcely a dozen of the planes had been built when construction ended. Stout continued working for Ford and designed a new aircraft with three engines instead of one in an effort to boost safety. Aircraft engine failures were common in the 1920s, and contributed mightily to the high accident and fatality rates experienced in commercial air service—particularly air mail delivery. Many accidents occurred with single-engine airplanes, but at the time even twin-engine craft were incapable of maintaining altitude should one of the engines stop working. The solution, grasped by Stout and others, was the inclusion of a third engine. In Europe, Anthony Fokker introduced his first Fokker Trimotor in 1924. Stout, meanwhile, directed development of a three-engine airplane of his own—though not the one that would famously carry the Ford name.
The 3-AT rolled out at the end of 1925. It held none of the grace of its single-engine predecessor, bearing instead a faint resemblance to a collision between three 2-ATs and a railroad boxcar. The aircraft’s test flight performance was as homely as its appearance: the arrangement of engines on the wing reduced the wing’s ability to create lift. After only a handful of test flights the 3-AT was destroyed in a mysterious hangar fire, and William Stout was eased out of engineering by Henry and Edsel Ford.
A small band of Stout’s engineers under the leadership of Thomas Towle were commissioned by Henry Ford to design a new aircraft. The 4-AT took shape quickly, combining the best characteristics of the earlier Stout designs and avoiding the engine/wing problem of the hideous 3-AT by placing the left and right engines beneath, instead of on, their respective wings. The resulting aircraft took flight in mid-1926, and the aircraft known today as the Ford Trimotor was born.
Just under 200 Trimotors—4-ATs and, later, 5-ATs—were built between 1926 and 1933. These aircraft were operated in scheduled airline operations and on missions of exploration to the far ends of the world. When introduced, the public viewed them as a marvel of aeronautical technology compared to the wood-and-fabric aircraft of the past, and air transportation began to be accepted as a reasonable option. By the time the last 5-AT was delivered in 1933, however, technology had in fact passed Ford by. That same year, Boeing introduced its Model 247—a high performance twin-engine airliner with cowled engines and retractable landing hear. By 1934, the Douglas DC-2 appeared—the immediate predecessor of the legendary DC-3. In less than a decade, the Trimotor had gone from the cutting edge of aeronautics to obsolescence. Yet during its time the Ford Motor Company transformed commercial aviation, advancing a new airline industry and fostering its acceptance to travelers worldwide.
Today, a handful of the sturdy Ford Trimotors continue to ply the skies. On October 20th, the Hiller Aviation Museum welcomes a 5-AT operated by the Experimental Aircraft Association. From October 20th-23rd EAA will operate this aircraft from the Museum’s ramp, with scenic rides available to the public. Come out to the Museum to see aviation history take flight on the wings of a Ford.
The Fabulous Ford Tri-Motors, Henry Holden, 1992
Ford Trimotor Instruction Manual, Michael Rice, 1973