Simanaitis Says

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HENRY FORD’S FIRST FLIGHT

HENRY FORD was 64 years old before he took his first airplane ride. Not that aviation was of little interest to him: Ford had already invested in an aeroplane (albeit an unsuccessful one). His legal staff had already helped Glenn Curtiss in a giant brouhaha with the Wrights. He, his son Edsel and their company had already supported development of what came to be an iconic aircraft.

And, with perhaps unintended oneupsmanship, Ford’s first flight was in the most famous aircraft of the time piloted by the world’s most famous aviator. It was August, 1927.

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The Aviation Legacy of Henry & Edsel Ford, by Timothy J. O’Callaghan, Proctor Publications, 2000.

Timothy O’Callaghan gives details of these endeavors, and a lot more, in The Aviation Legacy of Henry & Edsel Ford. I offer tidbits here.

In 1908, Ford had just launched the Model T, a car ensuring his place in automotive history. One of his employees, Charles Van Auken, persuaded Ford to finance an airplane patterned after the French Blériot Type XI.

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Henry Ford’s first venture into aviation, 1909. The craft patterned after the Blériot Type XI was powered by a Ford Model T four-cylinder engine. This and other images from The Aviation Legacy of Henry & Edsel Ford.

This Model-T-powered craft flew briefly in 1909, but never more than 6 ft. off the ground. The power-to-weight ratio of the Model T engine was inferior to that of the original Blériot’s Anzani.

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George Selden, left, and Henry Ford had a patent battle over the automobile. Ford won. Image by Jon Dahlstrom; see “George B. Selden vs Henry Ford.”

In 1911, Ford was successful in his seven-year battle with George B. Selden and the latter’s attempt to control the automobile business. A year later, Ford encouraged pioneer aviator Glenn Curtiss in a similar squabble with the Wright Bros.

In fact, Ford lawyer W. Benton Crisp counseled Curtiss in protracted lawsuits and counter lawsuits that ended only with America’s entering World War I. Curiously, a single jurist presided over both matters, automotive and aviation, Judge John R. Hazel.

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Glenn Curtiss, left, fought a protracted patent battle with Orville Wright. Neither won, but Ford and his legal staff helped Curtiss. Image by Jon Dahlstrom; see “The Wright Bros. vs Glenn Curtiss.”

In 1925, Ford teamed with William Bushnell Stout and his Stout Metal Airplane Company. Their product was a single-engine craft of all-metal construction intended for air mail duties. Ford’s first commercial sale was a Stout 2AT (Air Transport) purchased by New York’s Wanamaker department store. Other 2ATs went to Florida Airlines, co-founded by World War I ace Eddie Rickenbacker.

A major fire destroyed the Stout facility in January 1926; Ford continued with aircraft production. According to O’Callaghan, it was Ford who decreed that “Planes manufactured from now on will be of the multi-motored type with three air-cooled engines.” The resulting 4AT and 5AT Ford Trimotors became the iconic passenger airliners of aircraft’s Golden Age.

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A compelling pitch is delivered in Aviation magazine, October 19, 1928.

Henry Ford met Charles A. Lindbergh less than two months after Lindbergh’s historic solo flight from New York to Paris. They were both Michiganders (Lindbergh’s mother Evangeline was a Detroit school teacher), and they met for the first time at a dinner in nearby Mt. Clemens, Michigan, on July 1, 1927.

On August 10, Lindbergh returned to Michigan in his Spirit of St. Louis, part of a celebratory tour visiting every state. He landed at Ford Airport in Dearborn, where Henry Ford and his son Edsel were among more than 75,000 people greeting the national hero.

At a banquet that evening, upon hearing that Henry Ford had never flown, Evangeline Lindbergh hinted “it would be a fine thing for some pilot to take him up for his first air ride.”

And so it was that on August 11, 1927, Henry Ford first flew in a plane. But not just any plane, and not just any pilot.

Notes O’Callaghan, “The trip was a ten-minute flight over Detroit covering Fair Lane, Ford’s home, and the mighty Fordson plant on the Rouge River.” Lindbergh wrote in his book The Wartime Journals of Charles A. Lindbergh, “he had to sit crouched up on the arm of my seat in anything but a comfortable position.”

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Henry Ford departs the Spirit of St. Louis after his first airplane ride, August 11, 1927. His son Edsel followed, also his first flight.  Lindbergh’s mother flew the next day.

Mr. Ford’s view was reported in the Detroit Evening Times, August 12, 1927: “ ‘It was great,’ he replied, smiling and jumping 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.” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2015

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