The Magical History Tour
Why are so many Golden Age airplanes traveling the country together this fall?
- By Mary Collins
- Air & Space magazine, September 2003
NASM (SI Neg. #93-16120)
(Page 3 of 10)
Ford got into the airplane business in 1922 by investing in the Stout Metal Airplane Company, created by William Stout, an engineer who introduced all-metal construction into the manufacture of U.S. aircraft. Ford soon combined Stout’s ideas with a few of his own to produce the Ford Tri-motor 4-AT. He knew he’d have to build a market for his new product, just as he had built a market for his cars. Encouraged by his son Edsel, he decided to sponsor an airplane tour that would show Americans how sturdy and reliable airplanes had become. He modeled it on the Glidden Reliability Tours, which had opened people’s minds to the possibility of car travel. (Financed by Charles Glidden, who made his fortune in the telephone industry, the tours brought automobiles into towns all over the United States between 1905 and 1913 and fostered competition among the manufacturers to build the sturdiest car.)
In 1925, the Fords commissioned a $7,000 sterling silver trophy and invited 17 pilots to fly a 1,900-mile route, with stops in over a dozen cities. Edsel himself waved the starter flag at Ford Airport in Dearborn, Michigan. There was no winner or loser in the first race. To emphasize reliability and safety, rather than speed and daring, a committee set up an elaborate equation that measured the accuracy and quickness of pilots’ takeoffs and landings and their average cruising speed between the various stops on the tour. Any pilot who sustained the required cruising speed at least 75 percent of the time and met other performance criteria could win a perfect score and get his name engraved on the imposing three-foot-tall trophy. (Things turned more competitive the following year, when only the top point-getter was honored.)
In a 1929 article in Aviation magazine, Ray Collins, a former World War I pilot who refereed or managed all seven tours, recalled the 1925 debut: “We had six days of awful weather, continual rain and storms, including a cyclone in Kansas City. Servicing for the ships was very poor too. Gas was poured into the tanks by the bucketful and gas mileage was lousy so you could only go 175 miles in a day.
“The average crowd at the various airports was about 3,000 persons. The interest at that time seemed to be more in going out to see a group of daredevils fly. The idea of the general public themselves taking a trip in the air was not brought home to them then.”
That was the attitude Ford was trying to change—not only with the air tour but with the three-engine aircraft his company would build. The Ford Tri-motor projected a look of steadiness and safety, an image necessary for commercial flights to catch on in the United States. For passengers who might doubt the safety of an aircraft that relied on a single engine, the tri-motors provided two backups. The early Ford Tri-motor, like the one Herrick coveted in the rancher’s field, and its Stout 2-AT predecessor were nicknamed “Tin Goose” for their aluminum alloy construction. (The Tri-motor also got the name “Flying Washboard” because of its corrugated skin.) One of the first all-metal, multi-engine transports, the Tri-motor underwent a number of refinements over the years and eventually became the workhorse for more than 100 airlines in a dozen countries.
In 1926, the year of its introduction, a Ford-Stout Tri-motor 4-AT-A, with a pilot and four passengers, flew in the second Commercial Airplane Reliability Tour, along with 24 other pilots, who traveled 2,600 miles to 13 cities, before huge crowds. In the 12 months since the first tour, airplane design had undergone enormous changes. Unlike the Swallows, Yackeys, and Martins on the 1925 tour, all but two of the aircraft had the new air-cooled radial engines, wheel brakes, and a much larger carrying capacity.
Charles Lindbergh’s solo Atlantic crossing in 1927 fueled a nationwide obsession with aviation. The Midwestern airmail carrier made Americans curious about airplanes the same way a great athlete can trigger the nation to embrace a previously ignored or misunderstood sport. The 1928 Ford tour rode the wave of interest to a banner year complete with 25 pilots, who flew a 6,300-mile route to the delight of millions of spectators.
Collins recalled: “The crowds at the airport had grown to 18,000 a visit and many of the visitors were eager to take their first ride.” Just three years had passed since the first tour, yet the Ford air tour brochure now carried ads from airlines announcing passenger routes. (A hop from San Francisco to Seattle took seven hours and cost $55.) Henry and Edsel’s vision of establishing a highway in the air for the average American no longer seemed like a fantasy.