Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Reliability Tours Land Public Trust

August 3, 2012 Archive Insight
National Air Tours helped familiarize Americans with aircraft as commercial vehicles. Before the 1930s, planes in the United States rarely carried travelers. They served the military, provided entertainment, or carried mail.
An advertisement for a famous aerial show

By 1925, Americans could travel long distances by train or automobile. Rail lines and new numbered highways nearly spanned the country. Though air travel was an interesting suggestion, it seemed unreliable. Airplanes were incredible inventions that had crossed oceans and navigated the globe. But there had been accidents, and too many had been fatal. Americans thought it best to leave planes to the brave—soldiers who’d flown in World War I. Entrepreneurial barnstormers. A few intrepid airmail pilots.

Aside from public uncertainty about aviation, ground facilities were terrible. There were few civilian runways. Planes often had to land in farm fields or on sand. And there were no passenger terminals to speak of.

Still, airplane manufacturers hoped to develop commercial aviation. To generate potential customers, the industry needed to promote airfields with dependable runways and modern facilities, demonstrate that air travel was safe and reliable, and help people become comfortable with the idea of flight.

Pilot Charles Ames delivering U.S. Air Mail in 1925

The Detroit Board of Commerce and the Detroit Aviation Society suggested a national air tour. The spectacle would encourage the construction of commercial airports and promote airplanes as a sensible and trustworthy means of transportation. To emphasize reliability, tour guidelines required pilots to maintain a steady – albeit quick – speed between each stop along the predetermined circuit. A first-place finish did not guarantee a top score.

Spectators wander Ford Airport, starting point of the National Air Tours (and current site of Ford Motor Company’s Dearborn Development Center). Gates opened days before the event so visitors could explore exhibits, view demonstrations, and look at the tour planes. Ford #6 won this tour in 1930.

Henry and Edsel Ford were strong supporters of the Commercial Aviation Reliability Tour. In 1925, they provided $50,000, use of the new Ford Airport in Dearborn, Michigan, and this handsome silver trophy. The event soon became known as the Ford Reliability Tour.

The first Commercial Airplane Reliability Tour in 1925 was a sensational success. Seventeen planes from eleven different manufacturers drew tremendous crowds at all of the tour’s thirteen stops. Spectators waited in anticipation, erupting into cheers as the planes appeared in the sky and approached each landing field.

The tour was repeated each year through 1931, when waning public interest and a poor national economy ended the once-popular event. Over seven years, National Air Tours generated a great deal of welcome publicity for the commercial aviation industry. At tour stops, airports across the United States and Canada unveiled modern runways and pristine buildings. Airplane manufacturers paraded sleek, powerful new aircraft. And most significantly, the tours introduced millions of Americans to air travel. Today, aviation is a central facet of our national transportation network. But it may never have taken off without the promotional efforts of the National Air Tours.

You can learn more about the National Reliability Air Tours at The Henry Ford. Visit Heroes of the Sky to see the Stinson SM-1 Detroiter Monoplane, winner of the 1927 National Air Tour.

Check out the reading room at the Benson Ford Research Center for the Commercial Airplane Reliability Tour collection (1925-1927) and books on Henry and Edsel Ford’s contribution to aeronautics.

Saige Jedele is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.

Additional Readings:

Henry Ford Museum, Heroes of the Sky, 20th century, 1930s, 1920s, travel, flying, by Saige Jedele, aviators, airplanes, #THFCuratorChat

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