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The Ford Trimotor and Douglas M-2 Mail Planes

Ford Trimotor being loaded with mail bags
Ford Trimotor being loaded with mail bags. 

The Ford Trimotor Airmail Plane

In 1925, automobile giant Henry Ford won a contract to fly mail between Chicago and Detroit and Cleveland. At first, Ford used airplanes his company had been using to transport automobile parts between assembly plants. In 1927, his company produced the Ford Trimotor aircraft. Made of a new material, duralumin, the Trimotor was one of the first all metal airplanes. 

Designed to carry passengers as well as mail, the Trimotor could carry 12 passengers along with a cargo of mail. As with other contract carriers in the 1920s and 1930s, Ford's airmail contract paid enabled the company to grow and expand. Passenger service took a few more years to catch on.

Douglas M-2 airmail plane and mannequins as displayed at the National Air and Space Museum
Douglas M-2 airmail plane and mannequins as displayed at the National Air and Space Museum. This airplane can currently be seen at the Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center.

The Douglas M-2 Mail Plane

On April 17, 1926, Western Air Service, Inc., commenced operation on Contract Air Mail Route 4 (CAM-4) between Los Angeles and Salt Lake City. via Las Vegas. For service over this route, a distance of about 660 miles, Western selected the Douglas M-2 aircraft, a mailplane version of the 0-2 observation plane produced by the Douglas Company to replace the U.S. Army DH-4 aircraft. 

The M-2 performed remarkably well during the early years on the CAM-4 route. Its load-carrying capability, remarkable stability, and rugged construction contributed to a perfect safety record and profitable operation. Government and airline experiences with the Douglas mailplanes and the 0-2 led to modifications of the basic design. Relatively minor changes in cockpit layout, engine accessories, and airframe construction led to the M-3 mailplane, which differed little in physical appearance from the M-2 version. A subsequent addition of five feet to the wingspan resulted in the final version, the M-4, which realized considerable gain in payload at a negligible loss in performance.

While Western eventually added two M-4s to its fleet of six M-2s, the M-4 saw more extensive service with National Air Transport (later United Air Lines) from 1927 to 1930 on the Chicago-New York route. National Air Transport modified all of its M-3s into the M-4 configuration and eventually had 24 Douglas mailplanes on its roster, to become the largest operator of this type in commercial service.

Additional Imagery

  • Screen mail truck on the tarmac, ready to load the Ford Trimotor with mailbags
    Screen mail truck on the tarmac, ready to load the Ford Trimotor with mailbags.
  • mail carrier loading mail onto a Ford Trimotor
    NAT (National Air Transport) also used Trimotors to carry the mail. 
  • Douglas M-2 airmail plane
    Douglas M-2 airmail plane