Ford: shot through with aviation DNA

This week the world’s aircraft makers are gathering for the biennial Paris Air Show where firms like Boeing, Airbus and Lockheed Martin are striking multibillion dollar deals for new airliners and fighter jets. On top of that, the show will also see hundreds of other aerospace companies reveal novel technologies in fields as diverse as virtual reality based flight simulators, commercial and military drones and always-on inflight WiFi systems.

And with Silicon Valley firms like Google and Uber now quietly getting interested in “flying cars” – proposing futuristic, multirotor air vehicles that look like outsized consumer drones – the air show will also see its share of flying car concepts revealed, too.

The air show always takes place at Paris’s historic Le Bourget airport, where, in 1927, a fearless young American called Charles Lindbergh famously landed after an astonishing 33-hour solo Atlantic crossing, winning him the $25,000 Orteig prize for the first New York-to-Paris flight.

That was an important era for Ford, too: not many people know that from 1925 to 1933 the company branched out into commercial aviation. Under founder Henry Ford’s direction the company pioneered airliner technology with an aircraft called the Ford Trimotor – one of the very first airliners, of which 199 were sold and flown.

Built with a distinctive corrugated metal fuselage and air-cooled but uncowled engines, the Trimotor carried nine passengers, plus a pilot, copilot and flight attendant. Aligned with Ford’s automotive philosophy that had made the Model T such a success, Trimotors were affordable, rugged, reliable and easily serviced just about anywhere.

Ford Trimotors have a colourful history, too, having been flown not only by many airlines around the world – like PanAm - but also by some of aviation’s storied heroes, like the brave aviatrix Amelia Earhart - and by Lindbergh himself, too. Even President Roosevelt flew in one on his 1932 campaign trail.

Eagle-eyed movie watchers may recognise the Ford Trimotor from some of Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones movies, too, where it starred both as a real, flying vintage aircraft – there are eight still flying - and where necessary as CGI models. You can see one here in this clip from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Although today everyone knows Ford as the maker of the world’s most popular cars, our aviation heritage has not been cast off to the mists of time: Ford regularly applies advanced aerospace materials and aerodynamics to everything from its road cars to its supercars.

For instance, the Ford GT supercar has a patent-pending rear wing with aerodynamics that improve track performance by allowing it to change shape like an aircraft wing, increasing downforce on the car. And on the drones front, Ford is designing vehicles capable of launching unmanned air vehicles – as rapidly deployable survey aircraft for use in disaster zones and fighting forest fires, for example.

More broadly, Ford also works with the aeronautics lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, applying aviation sensors in smart cities projects. At the McKinley Climatic Lab at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, Ford works with the US Air Force extreme weather testing experts to expose cars to the widest range of weather conditions possible. And with industrial partner DowAksa, Ford is developing the same kind of strong, ultralightweight carbon fibre structures for its cars that are currently revolutionizing aviation with leaner, greener fuselages

So it’s fair to say Ford has not forgotten its aviation heritage. Indeed, it would be hard to do so: Henry Ford was such an eageraviation fan that he had the home of the pioneers of powered, manned flight – the Wright brothers - moved wholesale from Dayton, Ohio to his innovation museum in Greenfield, near Ford’s base in Dearborn, Michigan. You can take a look at it here.