Past Contact! Mechanics in Aviation History

William Bushnell Stout (1880-1956) Aircraft designer, artist, and poet

Henry Ford bought several 2-ATs and formed Ford Air Transportation Service. Next to his Detroit plant in 1925, Ford built an airport, factory, and hangar for ongoing aircraft development by the Stout Metal Airplane Company, which he soon purchased to become the Stout Metal Airplane Division of Ford Motor Company. Stout Air Services flew regular routes to Minnesota, Illinois, and Ohio, and in the early 1930s sold out to United Airlines.

Stout’s next aircraft project failed, prompting Ford engineers to assume the redesign of a three-engine passenger plane. Nevertheless, Stout’s all-metal aircraft led to the successful Ford Tri-Motor. Author Henry Holden has often written about Ford Tri-Motors. “The impact of [the] Tri-Motor,” says Holden, “is one of the milestones in the history of American commercial aviation.” 

Between 1927 and 1929, Stout invested in Scenic Airways Inc., a company with the far-reaching goal to fly passengers on an aerial tour over every national park in the United States, setting up its first airport 15 miles south of the Grand Canyon. In 1930 Scenic’s airport was taken over by Grand Canyon Air Lines, which flew several types of aircraft including the Ford Tri-Motor. 

Between 1932 and 1934,Stout Engineering built the round-bodied Stout Scarab car with a rear engine and a luxurious interior. It was too different for the public to buy. Among Stout’s other unusual designs were the Aerocar, which had detachable wings and could be parked in an automobile garage when not flying. He designed a rear-engine bus, and built the Railplane, a gasoline-driven Pullman train car. He invented a conveyor for a brick factory, and movable movie theater seats, as well as an air-cooled bed. “Stout,” says Holden, “was regarded by many as eccentric but by all as brilliant.”  

Our first military A&Ps and the folding roadhouse
As the United States entered WWI, Stout volunteered assistance for the hastily formed maintenance division of the Signal Corps (later the Air Service). “A group of [45] motorcar mechanics were leaving the next night for France to do airplane repair work,” recalls Stout, “but none of them knew anything about an airplane.” In less than 24 hours Stout produced an illustrated text as a manual and handed a copy to each man which was later published as a textbook in the “aviation war effort.”

During WWII Stout was unimpressed with the quality of travel trailers and built one of his own for his family. It had folding walls which made a 16-square-foot room that could be put up quickly by two people. He began manufacturing the Stout House and soon sold them to the military. Stout wrote that during the war, “These houses went all over the world. They could be knocked down and put inside a B-24. Many were equipped as engine repair stations with bunks in the wall on one side and workbenches on the other. They were complete with a heating system which would use anything, but worked particularly well with 100-octane aviation gasoline.”

In 1943, a columnist for Mechanix Illustrated described Stout as “characteristically Midwestern and homespun.” He experienced successes and failures, but was known as a fair and ethical businessman. During financial difficulties Stout recognized that the hardships of one are the hardships of all. His words are timeless. “We have proved ... that you cannot get wealthy by taking it away from someone else. It melts away like snow in your hands.”

Stout retired to the warm climate of Arizona and died in 1956 at the age of 76. Late in life the man that had invented and loved everything on wheels wrote these final words:

“They say you have made a good landing if you can walk away afterward. Long habit has made me prefer to ride, but if necessary, I’m prepared to walk.” 

Giacinta Bradley Koontz is an aviation historian and author. She was the founder and director of the Portal of the Folded Wings Shrine to Aviation and Museum from 1995-2001 (the site of Charles Taylor’s grave in North Hollywood, CA). Giacinta holds a bachelor of arts degree in anthropology with a minor in U.S. history and has given presentations on pioneer aviation since 1995. Most recently she has been awarded a partial grant from the Wolf Aviation Fund to write her second book, highlighting the life of Amelia Earhart’s mechanic, Ernest Eugene Tissot Sr.

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