Aviation History at the Henry Ford Museum Part 1

Boeing, Douglas, Ford.

Ford Motor Company was one of the major innovators and manufacturers of airplanes in the 1920s and 1930s.

Heroes of the Sky – Daring tales of early flight pioneers.

Heroes of the Sky

For those interested in aviation history, the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan has a large exhibit on early aircraft that offers a glimpse into the development of airplanes and early air travel.

Henry Ford in the 1920s attempted to bring airplanes to the masses in the way his Ford Model T automobile captured and transformed the nation.

Ford plane

1926 Ford Flivver – Model T of the Sky

Otto Koppen designed the Ford Flivver based on Henry Ford’s requirement that the plane should fit in his office. The Flivver is 15’ 4’’ in length with a wingspan 22’ 10” and constructed of ash and spruce, metal tubing and fabric. Empty weight is 350 pounds. There were only three or four Flivvers made at unknown cost. The plane shown here was the first Flivver made and only flown twice, once by Ford Motor test pilot Harry J. Brooks (who died in 1928 flying the Flivver from Michigan to Florida) and once by Charles Lindbergh. Apparently the plane was dangerous to fly. The idea of a plane for mass consumption was an idea that never came to fruition. Ford Motor Company did go on to build commercial and war aircraft in the following decades.


1903 Wright Flyer (2003 replica)

Wright Flyer 1903-1

This replica of the original 1903 Wright Flyer was built by Ken Hyde to exact specifications of the original aircraft for the 2003 centennial of the first successful motor-powered flight.

Oroville and Wilbur Wright built the 1903 Wright Flyer in their Ohio bicycle shop for about $1,000. They had tested plane designs in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina for three years before their successful flight. Kitty Hawk was chosen for its remote location (secrecy), soft sand and regular light winds. The plane is 21’ 1” in length with a wingspan of 40’ 4” and weighs 605 pounds. Charles Taylor, a mechanic and friend, built the 12 horsepower engine mounted on the wing.

The 1903 Wright Flyer’s longest flight was 852 feet at an average speed of 9.9 mph.

Wright Flyer-3


Dayton Wright Flyer 1920

There is an interesting story behind the man who flew the innovative 1920 Dayton Wright Flyer with a single wing, covered cockpit and landing gear that pulled up under the fuselage. Another feature of this aircraft is the pilot had no view in front of the plane since there are only windows on the sides of the aircraft. The plane was designed for speed, however it only raced once and did not even finish that race.

The plane was constructed with balsa wood for fuselage and wings, covered with plywood and varnished linen and powered by a 6-cylinder, 250-HP water-cooled engine. Empty weight is 1,400 pounds and maximum speed 165 mph.

Dayton Flyer 1920

Pilot Howard Rinehard fell out of a plane in 1914 plummeting 1,800 feet to the ground.  He landed in a cemetery, apparently too early in his life, having sustained only major bruises and a fractured hip. In 1920, he piloted the Dayton Wright Flyer in the Gordon-Bennett Air Race. A tension cable snapped on the aircraft ending the plane’s flight early in the race. The Dayton Wright Flyer was never flown again.


Richard Byrd 1926 Arctic North Pole Expedition in the Josephine Ford

Edsel Ford, only son of Henry Ford, and President of the Ford Motor Company financed the 1926 expedition of Richard Byrd to be the first person to fly to the North Pole. Josephine Ford was the daughter of Edsel Ford.

Byrd Flight

There is controversy whether Byrd’s flight crew actually reached the North Pole in 1926 in the Fokker airplane due to the time of the flight and the speed of the plane from Spitsbergen, Norway to the pole and back. Norway was also attempting this aviation first. Norwegian Roald Amundsen and crew  verifiably flew over the North Pole a few days later in a flight from Norway to Alaska.


The Spirit of St. Louis 1927 (and why Charles Lindbergh flew New York to Paris when London was closer)

Raymond Orteig, a French-born New York hotelier offered a $25,000 prize in 1919 to the first aviator who could successfully fly nonstop from New York to Paris or Paris to New York. Charles Lindbergh graduated as the best pilot of his class from the U.S. Army’s flight training school in 1925. He was hired as a mail carrier pilot between St. Louis and Chicago. Despite advances in aeronautics, the Orteig Prize remained unclaimed in 1927.  Charles Lindbergh persuaded St. Louis businessmen to finance the construction of a new plane for his transatlantic flight attempt. Ryan Aircraft of San Diego built the original plane to Lindbergh’s design specifications in two months between February and April 1927. Charles Lindbergh completed the first nonstop transatlantic flight from New York to Paris in May 1927 and became an international celebrity.

The original Spirit of St. Louis plane was presented to the Smithsonian Institution by Lindbergh in 1928.

That explains to me why Charles Lindbergh was hanging out at the Hotel del Coronado resort in 1927 where I saw photographs of him in the hotel displays on my visit last month.

Spirit of St. Louis

Henry Ford Museum has one of three reproductions of the Spirit of St. Louis built by Ryan Aircraft.


Be a Wingwalker


Barnstorming entertainment. Airplane deaths were common in the 1920s.


Pride of Detroit

Schlee and Brock were two aviators who took off from Detroit in 1927 in an attempt to fly around the world just a few months after Lindbergh’s New York-Paris flight. They crossed the Atlantic and made it as far as Tokyo.

Ten flyers had recently died in an air race from California to Hawaii. As their round-the-world expedition was set to fly across the Pacific, the U.S. Navy stopped aiding private flyers. Schlee and Brock’s dream to circumnavigate the world by air was unsuccessful as they chose to cross the Pacific Ocean more safely by ship.

Pride of Detroit


The Rise of Commercial Aviation

Commercial aviation picked up after Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight in 1927.

In 1927 a passenger plane ticket for a cross-country trip was about $400. The average annual income for Americans was around $1,200 at that time.

Commercial aviation in 1929 carried about 150,000 passengers. By 1936 over 1,000,000 passengers were flying around the USA.

The next post will cover the development of early commercial aviation and the Big Four airlines from the Henry Ford Museum exhibits.

Blogger Disclosure: I am in the Detroit area for the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) as a media attendee sponsored by the Ford Motor Company who paid for my flight from Monterey to Detroit. I came to Detroit three days early to sightsee before the Jan 12-14 NAIAS events. I paid for my own lodging, meals and sightseeing expenses for three days prior to the jan 12 start of the #FordNAIAS event.

My visit to the Henry Ford Museum was not connected in anyway to the #FordNAIAS event. I stayed at The Henry, Marriott Autograph Collection hotel in Dearborn using two free night certificates earned from 2013 Marriott MegaBonus promotion. The Henry Ford Museum is the top tourist attraction in Dearborn. I paid the standard $17 admission fee for the Henry Ford Museum.


Ric Garrido of Monterey, California is writer and owner of Loyalty Traveler.

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