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Schatzberg, Eric, 1956- / Wings of wood, wings of metal : culture and technical choice in American airplane materials, 1914-1945

5. Metal and commercial aviation i: Henry Ford takes flight,   pp. [96]-113

Page 110

110                                                    CHAPTER FIVE
his rhetorical skills. Yet rhetorical skills alone do not explain Stout's suc-
cess; his promotional letters are reminiscent of advertising copy, not the
sort of language that ordinarily sways experienced engineers and hard-
nosed businessmen. Stout's greatest strength lay not in his mastery of rheto-
ric, but rather in his recognition of the powerful symbolic link between
metal airplanes and aviation progress, a link he reinforced and shamelessly
Henry Ford was not going to let Stout's incompetence drive him from the
airplane business. Hicks assembled a talented group of young airplane engi-
neers and set them to work completely redesigning a new trimotor with no
interference from Stout. In January a fire destroyed Stout's prototype tri-
motor along with the entire Stout factory building, giving Ford a clean slate
for the new trimotor. Many insiders were convinced that someone close
to Henry Ford set the fire to erase all evidence of Stout's bungling. Ford
soon had the factory rebuilt, and the new trimotor, named the 4-AT, had its
first flight on June 11, 1926. The 4-AT followed the same general layout as
the Air Pullman, retaining the corrugated duralumin covering and dural
framework, and provided room for eight passengers and a crew of two (fig-
ure 5.4). The 4-AT proved quite successful as a passenger and mail transport
and was bought by numerous airlines. Ford sold a total of seventy-eight
4-ATs, making it the first commercial metal airplane produced in quantity
in the United States. In 1928 Ford's aircraft division enlarged the 4-AT and
installed more powerful engines. This new model was designated the 5-AT,
of which 116 were produced through 1932. The Ford trimotors were among
the most common large transports of the late 1920s and early 1930s.38
The success of the 4-AT and 5-AT seemed to vindicate Henry Ford's faith
in metal airplanes. Yet the Ford Motor Company's venture into airplane
production did not last. Ford's airplane activities peaked in 1929, when the
company sold a record eighty-six trimotors. Production reached a pace of
four planes per week over the summer of 1929, and the workforce totaled
1,850 men. At the same time, Ford launched a major expansion in factory
space, with a planned production capacity of one plane per day Even before
the October stock market crash, however, aviation journalist John T. Nevill
noted the limited growth potential in the market for large transport planes,
which were more analogous to railroad coaches or buses than to automo-
biles. Under normal circumstances, Ford would have had trouble keeping
his expanded factory busy producing trimotors. But with the onset of the
Depression, sales plummeted to only twenty-six planes in 1930 and twenty-
one in 1931. Meanwhile, Junkers had initiated patent litigation against the
Ford trimotors, which limited Ford's access to foreign markets. By 1932
Henry Ford faced rapidly mounting losses, weak domestic demand, restric-
tions on exports, and few prospects for military sales. In addition, his auto-
mobile business was losing tens of millions of dollars, and development of

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