William Bushnell Stout and his achievements on the way to developing the “Ford Trimotor” passenger aircraft

With revolutionary aircraft designs and engine constructions, William Bushnell laid the groundwork for the triple-engined Ford Trimotor passenger plane. This rugged range of aircraft was very popular with pilots due to its easy to handle flying dynamics and became known as the “Tin Goose” due to its corrugated metal cladding. The engine concept, which was highly unconventional at the time, lived on in many further models in the Ford Trimotor series and bore witness to Stout’s engineering and technical achievements.

© Gregor Behling

William Bushnell Stout – inventor, engineer, and designer

Born in Quincy, Illinois in 1880, William Bushnell Stout showed an interest in technical concepts at an extremely early age. After attending Mechanic Arts High School in St. Paul, Minnesota, he began his studies – initially at Hamline University and later at the University of Minnesota, before dropping out due to a series health issue involving his eyes. However, his enthusiasm for technology, as a result of which he developed a passion for building aircraft early on in his career, meant that he did not allow himself to be defeated by this setback and, while still a young man, he founded the Model Aero Club of Illinois. In 1907, at the age of 27, Stout became the chief engineer at the Schurmeir Motor Truck Company and, in 1912, he founded the first aviation magazine to be published in the USA, Aerial Age.

Despite his passion for building aircraft, Stout’s early career was defined by the automotive industry. As chief engineer of the Scripps-Booth Automobile Company, he firstly designed his famous “Cyclecar” and was subsequently contracted to Packard Motors in Detroit. When Packard Motors moved to building aircraft in 1916, William Stout seized the opportunity and increased his involvement in aviation. However, his connections to the automotive industry remained intact, and in 1919, he even founded the Stout Engineering Company in Dearborn, later going on to build the prototype for the Stout Scarab, a vehicle made largely of aluminium that resembled the VW Beetle in more than just its name. 

Stout Scarab

1932 Stout Scarab prototype

In 1922, William Bushnell Stout created the Stout Metal Airplane Company to turn his ambitious plans to build triple-engined passenger aircraft into reality. Taking his inspiration from the German aviation pioneer, Hugo Junkers, his first project was the Stout Air Sedan, with newspapers reporting that Walter Lees completed the initial test flights in the aircraft. Just a year or so later, in 1924, the Stout Metal Airplane Company was taken over by the Ford Motor Company and merged with the automotive group.

In the new company, Stout dedicated himself to the development of a conventional high-wing aircraft design, to be made entirely from metal and bearing his name. The aircraft was powered by a 300 kW Liberty V12 Motor and had enough space for nine passengers. With a cruising speed of 161 km/h, the aircraft was able to achieve four hours of flight.

The development of the Stout 2-AT (Air Transport), its successor, the triple-engined Stout 3-AT was launched, powered by three Wright Whirlwind J-4 engines, each with a power output of 200 PS and positioned in the market by Ford as the aircraft of the future. Initial test flights with the prototype were disappointing, however, as the passenger aircraft revealed itself to be underpowered and unable to achieve the hoped-for altitude. Despite this setback, the Stout 3-AT formed the technical basis for the famous Ford Trimotor passenger aircraft, of which a total of 929 were built between 1926 and 1933.

Stout 2AT-2

Stout 2 AT – a single-engined aircraft which was rapidly replaced by the triple-engined Stout 3 AT

William Stout himself was fired after a dispute with Henry Ford and dedicated all his energy to his Stout Engineering Laboratory. He additionally founded Stout Air Services, the United States’ first ever scheduled airline, which he sold to United Airlines in 1929. Until his death in 1956, William Bushnell Stout was passionately committed to his research and also became known for a variety of innovations in the automotive sector.

The Ford Trimotor Passenger Aircraft

When William Stout founded the Stout Air Company in 1922 with startup capital of $20,000, he already had in mind a fairly complete concept of the aircraft that he wished to build. The development of the passenger aircraft was nevertheless ill-starred from the outset. Neither the 2-AT nor the 3-AT aircraft was truly convincing in the air. Only after the 4-AT model, which later became known as the Ford Trimotor, with three nine-cylinder Wright J-4 radial engines, each developing 200 PS, did he achieve the hoped-for breakthrough.

199 Ford Trimotor passenger aircraft were built until 1933 in a variety of different versions. Ford was able to live up to its reputation of low-cost, well-designed vehicles and to translate it to the aviation industry, selling the passenger aircraft to around 100 different airlines.

The 5-AT version completed its maiden flight in 1928 and differed from its predecessor with an enhanced capability to carry up to 17 passengers. With a wingspan of von 23.72 metres, a larger fuselage and powerful nine-cylinder, 420 PS Wasp SC-1 engines, this passenger aircraft was able to compensate for its greater weight and achieve a range of 820 km with a cruising speed of 185 km/h.

The Ford Trimotor passenger plane enjoyed great popularity with pilots due to its outstanding flight dynamics and was even able to fly on just two engines without any issues. Series production of the 5-AT ended in 1933 and attempts to resurrect the triple-engined concept in the 1960s were unsuccessful.

Ford 4-AT-E Trimotor

Eastern Air Transport Inc. Ford Trimotor (Ford 4-AT-E Trimotor) – © Alexf [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons

Current passenger aircraft trends

The Ford Trimotor was built so tough, with such a long lifespan, that some aircraft can still be observed flying today. However, modern passenger aircraft have very little in common with the triple-engined model that was derived from William Stout’s 3-AT aeroplane.

Current airliners are powered by powerful jet engines and have passenger capacities, power outputs, top speeds and ranges that are many times greater than those of the Ford Trimotor. For example, the largest civil aircraft that is currently produced, the Airbus A380, can hold up to 853 passengers while its four turbofan engines can achieve thrust of over 300 kN. With a top speed of 945 km/h and a range of over 15,000 km, the A380 is one of the most modern aircraft in the world.

William Bushnell Stout and his services to aviation

With the development of the first triple-engined passenger aircraft in the 1920s, the American engineer and aviation pioneer William Stout laid the technical foundations for the famous Ford Trimotor aeroplane. Despite a number of setbacks, the passionate aircraft builder never ceased his efforts to progress the state of the art in the field of passenger aircraft, and his revolutionary Trimotor engine concept was an unparalleled success story in the early days of civil engineering.


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