Henry Ford's Flying Flivver: The Model T of the Air
Following the success of the Ford Trimotor, one of the first successful commercial passenger and cargo airplanes, which was introduced in 1925, Henry Ford got the aviation bug and decided to build what he called a “Model T of the air”, a small, affordable single seat airplane. He first proposed the idea to the men running his aircraft division, Trimotor designer William Bushnell Stout and William Benson Mayo but based on Henry’s design brief, neither experienced aeronautical man wanted anything to do with project. By then Henry Ford had bought out all of his investors and partners. All of Ford Motor Company stock was owned by Henry, Clara, and Edsel Ford, with Henry having the greatest share (49/3/48) so the firm was effectively Henry’s private feudal empire. Mr. Ford simply moved the project to a building in the Ford Laboratories complex.
To design the new plane, named the Ford Flivver, after one of the Model T’s nicknames, Ford turned to Otto Koppen. Koppen, a young MIT trained aeronautical engineer. After graduating from college, Koppen enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps where he served for four years under Jimmy Doolittle. After he had a harrowing emergency landing he discovered that his parachute was faulty – had he bailed out he would have fallen to his death. Koppen left the Army and got a job in Dearborn at the Ford owned Stout Metal Airplane Company. His first job there was to design the tail wheel on the Ford Trimotor. Henry Ford had complained that the tail-dragging skid originally fitted to the plane tore up the sod at his airfield, Ford Airport.
After Stout and Mayo turned their boss down, happy with the young engineer’s work on the Trimotor, Henry turned to Otto Koppen. Now some may think that because Ford’s attempt to build an everyman’s airplane ended up not being a successful venture that Koppen didn’t know what he was doing, but after working for Ford the aviation engineer returned to MIT where he had a long and distinguished career as an aeronautical engineering professor. Koppen would go on to develop the world’s first short take off and and landing (STOL) airplane, the Helio Courier. Some of the confusion may be due to the fact that two different versions and five total prototypes of the Flivver were built, with some of the planes being modified as many as three times.
Koppen would later say Ford’s instructions to him were that it had to be a single seat plane that was small enough that it could “fit in his [Ford’s] office”. Ford apparently liked the idea of a plane in every garage to go with the Model T that likely was there. The target price was $500.
What Koppen came up with had a fuselage made of welded steel tubing and the wings were made of wood. The surfaces were made of fabric stretched over the frame. Since Ford didn’t like tail-draggers, the Flivver featured a tailwheel mounted to the rudder, making the plane steerable in the ground. That wheel also carried the planes only brake. A custom exhaust manifold connected the cylinders to a stock Model T muffler. Suspension function was achieved by using rubber doughnuts to mount the wheel struts to the wing. At least two different engines were used in Flivvers. The plane was 15 feet long, with a wingspan of 22 feet and it weighed just 350 lbs.
Three additional prototypes were built. Some sources say there were only three Flivvers made, some sources say four and one source says there were two prototypes of the initial design and then three prototypes of a second design, apparently because the first design wasn’t so great. The second design had a bigger wingspan, a sleeker, lower profile and this time the entire plane’s frame was made of steel tubing, covered with coated fabric. Perhaps because the wings were heavier, Flivver 2A had supportive wing struts. As there were plans to use this prototype to set distance records, a 55 gallon fuel tank was installed. Replacing the Anzani triple was a custom horizontally opposed twin made from a FoMoCo design of 143 cubic inches displacement, using Wright Whirlwind internal components, that put out 40 hp. The remaining two prototypes featured this engine. Flying magazine said in 1978 that it was the only Ford designed engine that ever flew.
The first prototype was introduced to the public on Henry Ford’s 63rd birthday, at what was billed as the 1926 Ford National Reliability Air Tour. Crowds flocked to see what some called “Ford’s Flying Car” and celebrities like political humorist Will Rogers posed with the Flivver, though Rogers, a pilot himself, never flew it.
Humorist Will Rogers posing with the Flivver, though he never flew it.
In fact only two people ever flew any of the Flivvers, Lindbergh and Harry J. Brooks, Ford’s chief test pilot for the Trimotor. The young Brooks, who may have also acted as Henry Ford’s personal pilot, became a favorite of the aging industrialist, who let him fly the first Flivver prototype regularly home from work, storing the plane in his garage as Henry planned. Brooks would then commute to work in the morning via air. The pilot used the second prototype to travel between Ford properties and he once raced the plane against Miss America V, piloted by Gar Wood, during the Harmsworth Trophy Races on the Detroit River.
Harry J. Brooks, Ford test pilot, one of two people who flew the Flivver. Brooks died when his prototype Flivver crashed into the ocean due to fuel starvation.
Brooks loved the tiny plane, telling reporters, “Flying a plane like this is no more difficult than flying a large plane, except in this plane the pilot has to think a little faster.” For the next year and a half, Brooks performed test flights and a some publicity barnstorming with the Flivver, including flying the Flivver into Washington D.C.
The reaction from the press to “Ford’s Flying Car” was ecstatic. If you think the term flying car is inappropriate, that steerable back wheel was intended to allow pilots to drive from their garage to the nearest runway. Popular Science said it was feasible for the “average Joe” to fly, small enough to fit in a garage, with flaps designed for maximum lift for short take offs. A columnist for the New York Evening Sun waxed poetic looking into the future:
I dreamed I was an angel
And with the angels soared
But I was simply touring
The heavens in a Ford
After Charles Lindbergh’s popularity exploded following his transatlantic flight, Henry Ford invited him to visit Ford Airport and fly the Flivver in August of 1927. Lucky Lindy didn’t share Brooks’ enthusiasm for the litte plane, later describing it as ” one of the worst aircraft he ever flew”. I guess that one man’s “think a little faster” is another man’s uncontrollably dangerous.
The long wingspan planes were built to set the long distance record for planes in the 200 to 400 kilogram class. Two attempts were made in early 1928 to fly non-stop from Detroit to Miami, Florida. The first attempt, using the third prototype ended early when Brooks had to set down in Asheville, North Carolina. A month later, flying the second prototype, Brooks landed 200 miles short in Titusville, bending the propeller but he still managed to set a record of 972 miles non-stop on just 55 gallons of fuel.
While in Titusville for the night, Brooks managed to repair the plane with the propeller from the third prototype that had made the forced landing in North Carolina. To prevent the moist oceanside air from condensing water into the fuel, Brooks stopped up the fuel cap’s vent holes with wooden toothpicks (some versions of the story say matchsticks). On February 25th, Brooks took off for Miami, circled out over the Atlantic ocean off the coast near Melbourne, Florida, where his engine died. The wrecked Flivver washed up on shore but Brooks’ body was never found. When the wreckage was examined, they found the wooden plugs still in the vent holes. In his haste, Brooks had forgotten to remove them before taking off With the gas tank unable to vent, a vacuum was formed, starving the carburetors, killing the engine, and Brooks.
Following the death of his friend and employee, Henry Ford is reported to have been distraught and for a while he stopped further development of light aircraft. Wikipedia says that in 1931 Ford’s Stout division marketed the Stout Sky Car, the first of four one-off light planes that William Stout designed to be as easy to operate and as comfortable as a car, but by 1931 William Stout had left the company he founded, and as mentioned it was a one-off so I don’t know the extent of FoMoCo’s involvement. In 1936, Ford’s Stout division did develop a two-seat flying wing named the Model 15-P. It was powered by a flathead Ford V8 mounted in the back of the plane, driving a tractor propeller through a driveshaft. The fuselage was steel tubing with an aluminum skin, while the wings were covered with fabric. Fully faired landing gear featured large landing lights in the fairings.
Ford 15-P experimental airplane.
After several test flights ended in crashes, however, the 15-P never went into production. Think of it as the Tatra 87 of airplanes, though while the Tatra had a rear mounted V8 and was prone to crashing, it actually made it to production. The Ford Model 15-P was the last airplane designed by Ford Motor Company. The B-24s that Ford build during WWII were made under license from Continental.
Despite his setbacks with small planes, Henry Ford likely never gave up the dream of a flying Flivver in every garage. In 1940, he said,”Mark my words: a combination airplane and motorcar is coming. You may smile, but it will come.”
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS
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The term "taildragger" is used by pilots to describe any airplane that is supported under the tail while on the ground, regardless of whether it is equipped with a skid or a wheel. Tailskids do work on grass runways but no paved ones so they became extinct by the 30's. The primary alternative is to have a wheel or wheels under the front of the airplane, which is known as tricycle gear or trigear. As bunkie and jhefner have noted, flying requires vastly more skill than does driving, and is more sensitive to weather as well. It also requires vastly more separation from vehicle to vehicle than does ground based transportation, and so is unlikely to ever be practical for the masses.
The matchstick plugging the gas vent was from a contemporary newspaper story. There is another explanation. If you go into the Ford Archives and read the notes Harold Hicks left upon retiring, you will find that he designed the two cylinder engine that powered the last, ill fated Flivver with the semi-cantilevered wings. He blamed the crash on a broken and frayed rudder cable. He reports cautioning Koppen that the 1/16" cable was too small to absorb the landing loads that the tail wheel, directly mounted in the rudder, would likely encounter. His examination of the wreckage also showed that both blades of the prop were sheared off during impact indicating that the engine was still running. An observer saw Brooks flying along the coast and suddenly turn out to sea. Hicks contended that with out the rudder control, the engine torque eventually caused the plane to roll into the ocean. Some early observers saw the deformed gas tank in the wreckage and concluded that the engine vacuum sucked the tank into the contorted shape. They put this information and the matchstick together and came up with the fuel starvation theory. Examination of one of the remaining two cylinder engines in the Ford Museum revealed that like all Ford engines of the day, the Flivver engine did not have a fuel pump. The engine could not have developed a high vacuum in the fuel tank. It is reasonable to conclude that the fuel tank damage occurred at impact. Both Koppen and Hicks were respected designers. Koppen designed more airplanes and Hicks designed the engine for the Model A. You can understand how the air frame designer would want to blame the crash on an engine failure and the engine designer would want to find blame elsewhere.