Henry Ford didn't invent the automobile, but he made it a mass-market product that transformed the world. And even though his involvement in commercial aviation lasted less than a decade, he also had a profound effect on air travel.
Ford was fascinated by powered flight. He began corresponding with Orville Wright soon after the flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C. In 1909, Ford and his son, Edsel, with the help of friends, built a primitive monoplane powered by a Model T engine.
After World War I, most of the planes in service were relics of that conflict, one- or two-seaters flown either by barnstormers to entertain the citizenry or by the U.S. Post Office to deliver mail. Made of wood and fabric and kept aloft by only one engine, they were fragile and dangerous: 31 of the first 40 U.S. Air Mail pilots died in crashes from 1918 to 1925.
In 1925, Ford's foray into the field shifted into high gear. He bought Stout Metal Airplane Co., in which Edsel had invested two years earlier, and folded it into Ford Motor Co. He built the first Ford Tri-Motor transport airplane, a stunning technological advance that soon became the industry standard. Ford also dedicated Ford Airport in Dearborn, Mich., and sponsored a series of "reliability tours" to build public confidence in air transportation. The airport had the world's first concrete runway, a restaurant, a hotel and limousine service to downtown Detroit.
The retrenchment necessitated by the Great Depression led him to leave commercial aviation in 1933, but by then his ideas had wings of their own.
In 1984, Henry Ford was enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame.