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  < Back to Table Of Contents  < Back to Topic: Automotive … Planes and Trains Too

article number 569
article date 06-30-2016
copyright 2016 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Our 1920’s Airliner, the Ford Trimotor
by Joe Christy
   

From February 1962 American Modeler Magazine.

* * *

Commercial aviation in the U.S. owes its beginning to a very improbable letter. Copies of it were mailed to a hundred Detroit businessmen by William Bushnell Stout. It asked each for one thousand dollars.

Stout said the he needed capital to build a new kind of plane—and concluded with the unsettling statement that no contributor should ever expect to see his money again. Twenty-five prospects promptly sent checks.

The letter was characteristic of young Stout, a mechanical engineer of unbounded enthusiasm, the results were in tune with the country’s 1923 mood.

In the world of finance, ceiling and visibility were unlimited. Henry Ford sold more than 1 1/2 million Model T’s that year.

Some businessmen were convinced because of the Post Office Department’s successful experiment with airmail that airplanes might offer practical commercial value.

Up until this time, there had been almost no attempt to put airplanes to work. The single exception had been the barnstormers who daily risked their lives (and those of their venturesome passengers) flying war surplus “Jennies” out of the nation’s cow pastures.

Two or three efforts had been made to establish an “airline.” As early as 1914, a 22-mile route, connecting St. Petersburg and Tampa, was flown for several weeks. But the single passenger “airliner” failed to attract enough business to fill even its one drafty seat.

Another short-lived venture, spurred by Prohibition, was a route between Key West and Havana, inaugurated early in 1923. But however thirsty Americans may have been, they weren’t that thirty. After all, ninety miles over open water, in a wood-and-wire biplane, was carrying the habit a little too far.

The “new kind of plane” in which Stout asked the Detroit industrialists to invest was a small three-place monoplane conventional in every way except one—it was built from and covered entirely with metal. This was revolutionary in the United States, though Junkers, a German aircraft firm, had built such craft during WW-I.

Stout’s plane was powered (or, more accurately, underpowered) with a 90-hp OX-5 engine (obtainable as war surplus for $50 each).

Bill called this craft the Stout Air Sedan. Only one was built.

Although few people heard of it, it was one of the most successful airplanes ever conceived. True, its performance was less than sensational. In fact, it barely flew. But it succeeded fabulously in another way it interested Edsel Ford.

When Edsel came by for a visit, Bill explained the need for more horsepower—and, of course, more money. Edsel went to his father.

Within a few months the mighty Ford Motor Company had built an airplane factory and an airfield and “leased” them to the Stout Metal Plane Company.

Deliriously happy, Bill designed and built two planes during 1924. He called them the Model 2-AT (“AT” hopefully stood for Air Transport). These 2-AT’s were essentially 8-passenger versions of his first plane.

   
Daddy of famed Trimotors was single engine 2-AT “Maiden Dearborn IV”, operated by Ford Air Transport Co., first airline to fly nation’s mail.

Larger aircraft had full cantilever wings, they had no external bracing—a very advanced concept in 1924. They were all-metal, covered with corrugated aluminum, powered with 400-hp Liberty engines. Although water-cooled, heavy, and bulky the Liberty was one of the best airplane engines of its day.

These two craft were ready when, early in 1925, Congress passed the Kelly Bill, authorizing the Post Office Department to contract for air mail service with private operators. And it seems likely, in retrospect, that this pending legislation may have been what Henry Ford was thinking of when he financed Bill Stout.

Mr. Ford asked Bill if the Model 2-AT’s were capable of dependable airline service. Bill replied that that was what Mr. Ford had been betting his money on. Mr. Ford said “Fine!” they’d begin a regular schedule between Detroit and Chicago right away.

Ford meant “right away,” too. The first U.S. air freight line was in operation less than a week later on April 13, 1925. Then, as quickly as a couple more 2-AT’s could be completed (eleven were built), the line also flew regularly scheduled flights between Detroit and Cleveland.

The 2-AT’s vindicated Bill’s ideas about all-metal airplanes. Their rugged construction, okayed by Bill’s chief engineer George H. Prudden, who had been trained as a specialist in reinforced concrete structures, proved exceptionally trouble-free maintenance-wise.

The 2-AT’s never injured a passenger during their service on the Ford airlines.

   
The single engined Ford 2-AT’s never injured a passenger.

In July 1925 the Ford Motor Company “purchased” the Stout Metal Plane Company. The twenty-five original investors, who had been warned never to expect to see their money again, received back double their investment. Bill and his employees remained to work in Ford’s Aviation Division.

Now Henry Ford was officially in the airplane business. Characteristically he gave it the same all-out effort that marked his participation in the automobile business. He began carrying passengers on his freight lines.

Ford built the first concrete runways in the U.S., the first airport control tower, the first air hotel, pioneered in air-to-ground radio communications, spent huge sums to advertise air travel to the American public.

Just as important, Ford’s mere presence in aviation gave the infant industry tremendous prestige and helped to attract other needed capital. Henry Ford was regarded as a financial wizard, if he thought flying had a future, it was a thing worth looking into.

In October, the Postmaster General awarded airmail contracts to each of the routes operated by the Ford Air Transport Company. In February 1926 the Ford airline became the first to carry the nation’s mail.

Meanwhile, at Henry Ford’s direction, Bill and his engineers came up with the first Ford Trimotor. A trimotor design, long cherished by plane builders, had suddenly become possible with the introduction of the new Wright “Whirlwind” air-cooled engine.

But the first trimotor was something of a freak.

Labeled Model 3-AT, it looked as if it had been designed by the office scrub woman—with an assist from an intoxicated Zeppelin commander. Vaguely it resembled an enlarged 2-AT, with a pair of Wright “Whirlwinds” hurriedly affixed to the leading-edges of the wings.

The nose section, tall enough for passengers to stand in, with observation windows all around, featured a third engine on its “chin.” The pilots’ cockpit which appeared to be an after-thought was between the engines on top of the wing, and not enclosed.

It turned out that the 3-AT’s performance pretty much matched its looks. Test pilots reported that she “cruised at 85, landed at 85, and had a top speed of 85.” Fortunately, it was destroyed in a hangar fire after 3 hops.

   
Ford’s Model 3-AT was initial 3-motored venture by auto outfit. Short lived, performance matched its appearance.

It is not recorded what Mr. Ford had to say about the 3-AT fiasco, but even Henry’s enemies would admit that he didn’t give up easily. Bill and his engineers began work on another trimotor—and went from one extreme to the other. This one was a classic in the full sense of the word!

Designed and built in slightly over four months, it emerged for its first flight on June 11, 1926. Officially Model 4-AT, it was soon dubbed affectionately, “Tin Goose,” by those who flew her. Goose or not, she ushered in aviation’s Golden Age.

In many ways, the Tin Goose has never been equalled in performance. She would take off, fully loaded, in less than 900 feet—and “fully loaded” meant all that could be crammed inside.

Her flight characteristics were such that one pilot, Harold Johnson, repeatedly pulled her into a loop as her wheels broke ground on take-off. At least once, he performed this maneuver with the nose-engine inoperative.

There wasn’t a fighter plane in the world at that time that could do it—and the Goose was a six-ton airliner!

   
Ford 4-AT in flight.

First 4-AT’s off the production line were eight-passenger models, but the plane was soon enlarged to carry twelve (eventually, fifteen). The earlier ones, with 200-hp Whirlwinds, cruised at 95 mph and had a top speed of 115.

It wasn’t that the Goose was slow, it was just that she had her own gait. She’d do anything anyone asked of her, but she didn’t like to be hurried.

Bigger engines helped a little, though not much. Equipped with 300-hp Wright engines and 420-hp Pratt and Whitney Wasps, her cruising speed went up to 115 and 122, respectively.

   
Ford Trimotor with 9 cylinder Wright Whirlwind engine.

The Goose sold for $42,000. She had a wingspan of 77 feet and was 50 feet long. Pilots were agreed that she could not be overloaded. What you could get inside, she’d get into the air. And empty or fully loaded she handled the same—asking favors of no one.

She was built like a bridge; structural failure in flight was a physical impossibility.

Thus it was that all the ingredients necessary for profitable commercial flying finally came together in a safe and efficient plane.

Guaranteed payments for carrying the mail resulted in the attraction of new capital.

Airlines, equipped with the fabulous Goose, blossomed out all over the nation.

Then came a tremendous boost. In May 1927 Charles Lindbergh’s flight to Paris caught the public fancy. A huge passenger business was suddenly added to the new airlines’ bread-and-butter air-mail revenue.

By 1929, there were 14,000 miles of lighted airways and 1,000 airports in the United States.

   
Southwest Air Fast Express’ Ford was 25th 5-AT built; registration number NC9666 flew between Missouri and Texas according to Burrell Tibbs, pioneer pilot, who supplied 1929 photos. SAFE-way airline, started by Oklahoma oilman Erie Halliburton, was sold to TWA in 1931.

And what of the Goose? Admiral Byrd flew one over the South Pole. A fleet of them operated by TAT Airline (now TWA) began the first transcontinental service. Lindbergh (Soon a TAT official) demonstrated the possibilities of high-altitude air routes in a Goose.

When in May 1930, pretty, young Ellen Church was hired by United Air Lines as the first air hostess, aviation’s Golden Age was indeed in full bloom.

Altogether, 199 Ford Trimotors were built before production ceased in 1932. The airline market had been saturated, the country was near the low point of its Great Depression.

By the time economic conditions improved, a bigger and faster plane was available to the airlines. Called DC-3, it, too, was a pretty good job.

Between twelve and fifteen Tin Geese are still licensed and flying (Admiral Byrd’s Goose is in the Ford Museum at Dearborn, Michigan). None ever wore out. Those that are gone were flown into a cloud-full-of-rocks, or ran out of gas over rough country, or were disposed of in some manner reflecting human-failure, rather than Goose-failure.

In fact, the Goose’s unmatched abilities probably contributed to the destruction of many. Because of her willingness to lift heavy loads in and out of small, rough fields, she has been greatly prized by Latin-American bush pilots. Over the years, in the world’s remote places, unwise pilots asked things of her no airplane could or should do.

   
National Air Transport (N.A.T.) Tin Goose (above) loads mail. N.A.T., plus Varney Air Lines, Pacific Air Transport, and Boeing Air Transport, became United Air Lines.

Two are still in service in the United States. Operated by Island Air Lines out of Port Clinton, Ohio, they fly a daily schedule, as they have been doing for 25 years, between Post Clinton, Putin-Bay, Kelleys Island, North Bass, Middle Bass, and Rattlesnake Islands. This adds up to an incredible 9,000 landings or take-offs yearly.

Island Air Lines has never had a fatality. Company officials say that they have no idea how many engines their two Geese have worn out.

This line is unique in another way . . . it is the only airline in the country to have a contract with a school board. During the school year, a Goose makes like a school bus twice a day for kids living on Lake Erie islands.

Five Geese in the Northwest serve in re-forestation, forest fire control, and as general freight haulers. Others are scattered about the United States and Latin America.

A few may be flying overseas. A number were sold to China, the Netherlands, Australia, Czechoslovakia, Roumania and Spain. There have been reports of one in Russia.

One is known to have helped in the rescue of British soldiers at Dunkirk. One was destroyed by enemy fighter planes while evacuating wounded from Bataan, another met a like fate in the Philippines.

   
Home-built tucked under Goose’s wing had Model A Ford engine (note 1930 Ford radiator shell). This Trimotor flew first as S.A.F.E. transport, later bore American Airlines markings.

But all this does not mean that the Goose will soon be extinct. Although Bill Stout is gone, a West Coast company has been preparing to put the venerable old craft into production again. Henry Ford II generously supplied to Hayden Aircraft Corporation of Gardena, California, all original blueprints and design data of the plane. Hayden plans to make the same old Goose.

A preliminary market study, conducted in Australia, Canada, and Alaska, indicated more than a hundred orders for the plane; biggest market is expected to be Latin America. The young men at Hayden Aircraft speak of an overall production potential of 1,000 airplanes.

Hayden plans some minor changes to the original, things dictated by the Goose’s years of flight experience. The new Ford trimotor will be equipped with 450hp Pratt and Whitney R-985 engines. She will have a prettier rudder (we’re a’gin it!), modern instrument panel, Oleo shocks. A wide cargo opening, switched to the left side of the fuselage, will replace the original passenger door.

The prototype tested at Santa Ana Airport met all F.A.A. requirements. The test model gets off the ground easily in 850 feet, fully loaded; her top speed is in excess of 150 mph. Rate-of-climb is over 1,000 feet per minute.

Lloyd Saunders, an official of the company, says that they are going to call it the Stout Bushmaster. We imagine it will still be known as the Tin Goose.

   
National Air Transport Ford Trimotor.
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