I recently found myself in Detroit for three days thanks to one of Spirit Airlines’ ridiculous airfare sales combined with my favorite Spirit tip: Actually going to the airport to buy tickets. At $38.41 round trip, how could we resist? While I can honestly say DTW was not anywhere near the top of my to-do list, I go where the sales are. All literature regarding tourism in Detroit pointed to one definite venue: The Henry Ford. I knew Ford was influential in many early forms of transportation besides the obvious one, so I gave it a shot. For AvGeek appeal I expected an exhibit on the Tri-Motor. What we got was so much more.
AvGeek tip: Go for the planes, stay for a diverse and well-curated collection of Americana.
This museum is unique in that it is strongly associated with a brand, yet it doesn’t cling to it. Go to the Delta Flight Museum and you’ll hear all about Delta, but not much else. Same applies to just about every other branded museum. The Henry Ford instead focuses on Americana from all corners of the country, competing brands, and items from all different industries. Planes, trains, automobiles? Sure, but also exhibits on the civil rights era, agriculture, and even chairs. We are AirlineReporter, so we’ll try to stick to the aviation aspect, but know that we’ll likely throw in other items of note just because.
The first thing visitors to The Henry Ford are likely to notice when walking into the main exhibit hall is a preserved Northwest DC-3 on stilts. If this doesn’t set the tone for AvGeek excitement, I don’t know what does. The Henry Ford has two sections next to one another which have AvGeek relevance. Both focus on early aviation and are full of planes, facts, and artifacts.
The Henry Ford: Heros of the Sky / Adventures in Early Flight
While The Henry Ford does well to take an all-inclusive approach to their curation, they (rightfully so) place a lot of emphasis on the Ford Tri-Motor. This was the first all-metal plane, which was a revolution for its day. Prior planes were made of wood and doped canvas. As one might imagine, these didn’t fare well in bad weather or even in high humidity. After a number accidents, as well as the loss of sports hero Knute Rockne, the fledgling commercial aviation industry was in trouble and in need of a trustworthy sponsor: Enter Henry Ford.
Without regard for brand loyalty, Henry Ford was a trusted name in every American household. As the New York Times wrote, “People said that if Ford had faith in aircraft then flying must be practical.” With Ford’s entrance into the industry, followed by his paradigm-changing Tri-Motor “tin goose”, aviation found new life. But why aren’t we obsessed over the new Ford 787?
While Ford’s involvement helped to keep U.S. aviation airborne, this venture proved a business failure. The man who revolutionized one form of transportation through the genius of the assembly line simply couldn’t turn a profit in aviation. In yet another act of genius, Ford exited in time to save his fortune. But the experiment wasn’t cheap. In just eight years, Ford lost $5.5 million dollars ($101 million in 2015 dollars) on his aviation division which never once turned a profit. The Ford Motor Company did return to aviation to help in the war effort, building about half of the B-24 Liberators at their Willow Run plant.
While the original Wright Flyer is on display at the National Air and Space Museum, The Henry Ford hosts an impressive replica. The museum does an excellent job of walking patrons through the history of flight. Everything from how the Wright flyer started it all, to how Air Mail was the initial life blood for the airline industry. There are exhibits on radio-controlled flight, arctic flights, and they even threw in an early Sikorsky helicopter.
The Henry Ford has a copy of Boeing’s famous Model 40. The plane was a real hit. This particular bird managed to crash four times, each with no injuries to the passengers or crew. Now that’s resilience or skill… Or maybe just darned good luck! I find it interesting that the museum mentions their particular example of a plane made by a competing brand had crashed so many times. Also interesting to note no injuries to passengers or crew. Is there something they aren’t telling us?
The Henry Ford: Non-AvGeek Photo Highlights
The Henry Ford: Conclusion
It took a little over an hour to fully absorb the aviation sections but one could easily spend a solid morning or afternoon taking in all the museum has to offer. As an impulse trip and uninformed visit, we didn’t know exactly what to expect from The Henry Ford Museum. Once we got over the sticker shock of the tickets we were pleasantly surprised and delighted by the variety. Sadly for these vegetarians, food options were severely limited and we had to leave earlier than we would have preferred. If there’s anything I would really complain about it’s that. We’ll know to pack a lunch next time.
The Henry Ford: Planning Your Own Visit
Admission is a bit steep at $22 per non-senior adult. Tickets for children aged 3-11 come in at $16.50, and seniors $18. The Henry Ford doesn’t offer discounts for students but AAA members are eligible to score 10% off. Or, if your plans are solid, they do offer non-refundable tickets online at a 10% discount. Parking is an extra $6.