The Ford Trimotor- the world's first passenger airliner
By Willie Bodenstein
Say Ford and one immediately think of automobiles, Model T's, Mustangs and all the other iconic cars made by what must be one of the most recognisable brands in the world.
The Trimotor was then a ground breaking aircraft that is generally recognised as the world's first passenger airliner and when it was introduced in 1926 Ford became the world's largest manufacturer of commercial aircraft. The Trimotor was however not Henry Ford's first foray into aviation. In 1909, only six years after the Wright Brothers first flew from Kitty Hawk he helped his son Edsel who with several friends were building a monoplane powered by a Model T engine. The project came to grief when it crashed and the venture came to an abrupt end. That may be the reason why, according to legend, Henry only ever once flew in an aircraft.
During World War I Ford with his knowledge of mass production produced hundreds of Liberty aircraft engines for the armada of aircraft that then had started to become an indispensable weapon of war. Ford was also involved in the design and production of the engine of Kettering's Bug, a pilotless flying bomb, the forerunner of today's cruise missiles. The end of the war however stopped all development work but Ford no doubt saw the important role that aviation would play in the transportation sectors.
An inventor of the time, one William B Stout, who has built a Navy torpedo plane amongst others wanted to start a venture to construct an all metal aircraft using principles similar to those of Professor Hugo Junkers, the noted German aircraft designer. Lacking the funds Stout decided on a rather novel way of attracting the interest of investors. He wrote a letter to 150 of Detroit's most wealthy executives stating his intentions and promising: "If you join us it will cost you USD1000 and for your thousand you will get one promise, you will never get your money back." It worked, Ford and his son Edsel each invested USD1000 each and so did numerous others.
Finances now secured Stout in 1923 started production on two "air sedans." Although viable they however proofed to be totally under-powered and knocking on the doors of the investors he asked for more money for more powerful engines. Legend has it that Ford said: "You don't need more money son, you need more airplanes." Ford however came to his rescue and Stout's next project was an all metal aircraft with spacious interior and in the fashion of the time sleeping berths and a galley. Ford, ever the visionary, invested in the construction of an airfield at Detroit City. The USD4 million Ford Airport was opened in 1925 and was the first to have concrete runways and a passenger terminal that had its own restaurant. Next up was an airline which son Edsel started using an improved version of the "Air Sedans." The initial service started in April 1925 was scheduled to fly between the various Ford plants transporting urgently needed parts. It however introduced the world's first scheduled airline service.
Henry by then had required a majority shareholding in Stouts' operation and renamed it the Ford Airplane Manufacturing Division. Stout was instructed to design an aircraft more suitable and powerful and in the interest of safety it was decided that it should have three engines and so the Trimotor was born. The initial model that was completed in 1926 however hopelessly underpowered so much so that the test pilot told him to forget about it. The Wright Whirlwind engine that became a few months later however saved the fate of the Trimotor.
The Timoter was not a revolutionary concept but fitted with the latest instruments of the time, some mounted outside on the engine nacelles, comfortable wicker seats in two rows and a heated cabin the Trimotor introduced a new standard in passengers comfort. It did resemble the Fokker F.VII but was of all metal corrugated construction. The original 4-AT was powered by three Wright Radial engines, had a crew of three, pilot, co-pilot and stewardess and could carry eight or nine passengers. The 5-AT was fitted with more powerful Pratt & Whitney engines.
Well over 100 airlines of the world flew the Ford Trimotor and the type also saw service in a large number of air forces throughout the world. The Trimotor's reign was however short lived as more modern aircraft arrived on the scene. The old workhorse however soldiered on in various guises until well into the 1960's A total of 199 were built in a production run stretching into 1933. Fords involvement with aircraft manufacturing ceased after WWII. During the War Ford's manufacturing plants produced the Liberator in vast numbers.