Henry Ford’s airport

As noted earlier at Mac’s Motor City Garage, Henry Ford liked to own things. In 1924 he even built his own airport in Dearborn, Michigan—and in its day, it was one of the most modern facilities in America. Here’s a brief look. 

 

As one of the richest men in the world in the 1920s, Henry Ford enjoyed exercising his vision. His many far-flung projects included a rubber plantation in South America, a shipping fleet, and a railroad. (You can read about HF I’s railroad here.) Dedicated in November of 1924, the airport remained in operation until 1947. Today the same piece of ground is the Dearborn Development Center, one of Ford’s several vehicle proving grounds.

 

This map shows the airport’s general layout, including the two runways, which were grass at first, then paved in 1928-29, becoming (then) the longest concrete runways in the world. The road running diagonally northwest/southeast is Oakwood Boulevard; the road headed almost due east is now Rotunda Drive; the curving street at the top of the map is Village Road today. Note the dirigible mast marked out on the east side of the field.

 

Here’s Ford Airport during an airshow circa 1930. The two Ford Trimotors at left are parked in front of Ford’s Stout Metal Airplane division plant, where the aircraft were built. Part of this  facility, at the northwest corner of the property, still exists today and houses Ford’s advanced powerplant and fuel cell labs. In the background is the Henry Ford Museum, constructed a few years after the airport.

 

This aerial photo shows the airport, Oakwood Boulevard side, and the Dearborn Inn (note circular driveway), which opened in 1931. The elegant hotel, another Henry Ford production, was originally constructed to service the airport but remains a popular and first-rate destination today. Looking northwest up Oakwood, we can see the aircraft buildings, then the Ford Museum, then the Ford Engineering facility, known today as the EEE building, where HF I kept (but seldom used) an office.

 

Directly across Oakwood Boulevard from the Dearborn Inn was the airport’s passenger terminal and administration building. By the late ’30s, the Detroit area and Southeast Michigan had a surplus of commercial airports and the Ford facility was now redundant. The first dedicated automotive test road was laid down on the property in around 1938.

 

In 1925, Ford had the world’s tallest commercial dirigible mast erected at the airport. It was used only twice before it was torn down in 1946.

 

By 1949 when this aerial photo was taken, the property was no longer in use as a commercial airport and its transformation into a vehicle testing facility was well under way. For a number of years the place served as both airfield and test track, which reportedly produced some interesting moments. Ford’s mammoth River Rouge plant is a mile east of the area shown here.

 

Here’s a new 1951 Ford convertible climbing the carburetor grade at the Dearborn Proving Grounds, as it was then called. Above and behind the car in the photo are the old passenger terminal, torn down in the early ’60s, and the aircraft buildings. The carburetor grade is still in use but it probably isn’t called that anymore, we bet.

 

Here’s how the facility looks today—a sea of asphalt ideal for vehicle testing, handily located just across Oakwood Boulevard from Ford’s global technical headquarters (lower left) None of the former runways are still extant. Next time you’re flying into Detroit via Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport (good old DTW), just five miles away, look out the window for Henry Ford’s old airport—you’ll probably see it.

 

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14 thoughts on “Henry Ford’s airport

  1. Never knew it was an airport. Have delivered CO2 to the wind tunnels at this facility many times in the 1995-2006 period.

  2. I’ve always found it interesting that none of Ford’s other ventures were as successful – the airplanes, rubber plantations, pulp forests, shipping companies. He had massive amounts of money and could have built an even bigger empire. I guess his eccentricities and ego were better suited for the early part of the century when a man had more autonomy. I remember that GM was very diverse at its peak in the 50s and 60s..

    • @Andy: As always, thanks for the learned response. Look forward to your take on things.

      I think it might fairly be said that Ford had one great idea in his life, the Model T Ford–and it was a truly great idea. Applied to other areas, it seldom worked nearly as well. For me, one of the funniest was the proposal for his newspaper, The Dearborn Independent. He thought the writers should work on an assembly line, with one man doing the field work, another the basic writeup, another adding jokes and humorous sayings, another writing the closing, etc. Fortunately, the staff talked him down off that one.

  3. Ford did have some other successes. The one that pops to mind is Charcoal. He invented it and the Kingsford company is a direct descendant of it.

  4. I was to the Henry Ford Museum last in 1997 and never realized the old airport and proving grounds were so close. I’ve got to get back there now and check things out more thoroughly. You learn or find things out every day.

  5. I have read that one reason the airport was not successful was that Henry would not allow it to operate on Sundays. True or false?

    • @Patrick: never heard that before, will have to look into it. The plants and the museum ran seven days a week so I don’t know why the airport wouldn’t, but perhaps there is more to the story. Thanks.

      • I heard they didn’t fly in to the airport on Sundays because Mrs. Ford didn’t like the noise of the planes flying over Fairlane on the Lord’s day.

  6. Check out http://www.HenryFord150.com for activities & organizations that will be celebrating Henry’s 150th birthday with many unique events. There are many more things that describe the man & his view of the world, besides what was mentioned above. There has been probably over 200 books alone, since the teens, about Ford, his businesses, politics, views, & family.

  7. I’ve done alot of reading about “Henry” and His Ideas, Thanks for sharing some
    info I did’t have knowledge about, Very Interesting.

  8. One of Henry Ford’s best ideas was the founding of the Henry Ford Trade School.
    I had the opportunity to be accepted and attend this fine academic and trade school in 1950. There were 3 sections, M,T & W, each alternating between classes at the Academic Bldg and learning a trade in the “B” building at the Rouge Plant. The Academic Bldg. was behind what is now World Hdqtrs.
    The students were paid twice a month with the ninth graders receiving $12, in two dollar bills, and as you progressed to graduation your amount was increased also.
    It was the best education available, in my opinion, at the time. Unfortunately the school was closed in 1952 and many of us returned to public schools.

  9. I have had the distinct pleasure and experience to work at this facility since 1978 and have enjoyed the incredible rich history and also lived, ate and breathed the design, build and operation of the latest iteration of this wonderful piece of property and history. Ford is a great company to work for proudly. God Bless America and such fantastic creative innovation moving forward.

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