Willow Run Plant Needs Help

The Willow Run plant, a 63-acre factory, was designed for the single purpose of producing B-24 bombers…and produce them it did, once it got going, at the rate of one per hour. The genesis of the plant lay in a 1940 visit to Consolidated Aircraft, where the planes were then being built, by Ford Motor Company production vp Charles Sorensen–Ford had originally been asked by the government to quote on building some components for the bomber. After watching Consolidated’s process for a while, Sorensen asserted that the whole thing  could be put together by assembly-line methods. (See the link, which is Sorensen’s own story about “a $200,000,000 proposition backed only by a penciled sketch.”)

Unused since 2010, the plant had been scheduled for demolition, but there is now a project to turn it into a museum that will be focused on  science education and social history as well as aviation history–the Yankee Air Museum is to be relocated there–and the history of the plant itself. Several million $ must be raised by October 1 to save the plant; astronaut Jack Lousma and auto-industry bad boy Bob Lutz are spearheading the effort.

An additional $3.4 million needs to be raised by October 1 if the plant is to be saved and the museum project is to go forward. You can contribute here.

15 thoughts on “Willow Run Plant Needs Help”

  1. Was Willow Run the plant that was briefly used to build the Tucker ? I know it was a big empty war plant.

  2. The Wikipedia article mentions that the plant was used by Kaiser-Frazer, a 1947 automotive start-up, and a succession of GM operations. No mention of the Tucker.

  3. Reminds me of a great photo collection…I’ve linked it here before, but for anyone who missed it…women building airplanes during WWII, in color.

    Again, the term “colorized” is a little misleading, since the photos were originally shot in color…they have been improved in color and contrast, but were not “colorized” in the sense of tinting a black-and-white photo.

    Apparently, Henry Ford did not like the idea of women as manufacturing workers, and only agreed to having the Rosies in the plant due to the complete unavailability of sufficient male workers.

  4. The ‘Dodge Plant’ in Chicago was used during WWII to build engines for the B-29, I believe. After the war, it was ‘allocated’ to Tucker, and he indeed built his 50 ‘production’ cars there.
    Later on, Ford somehow got the plant, and used it to build R-4360 engines for the Air Force.
    Even later, FoMoCo AED used the plant to build jet engines under license for the B-52, and perhaps the B-47, but I don’t know that for sure.
    This is as related to me by my father, an engineer who reportedly designed the ‘test cell’ where the production engines were subjected to low temperatures and simulated low density air as would be encountered at altitude.
    Even later, the plant was turned into a shopping mall.

  5. I’m originally from that general area and often drove past the Willow Run plant in the 60’s and 70’s. When I was a kid all the adults called the freeway (now I-94 and the Edsel Ford Freeway) that ran out to Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor “the Bomber Road”. It was about 25 miles of one of the first expressways built, and was for the huge number of workers who traveled daily from the city to the plant and back.

  6. Knowing the many thousands of rivets needed to complete a fuselage and wings, I wonder how they mass produced them. That is the problem plaguing general aviation – a Cessna 172 – which was affordable through the 60s (by the middle class as a recreational aircraft ) – is not pretty much unobtainable at over $300K.

    All because of the intense labor to produce a fuselage.

  7. The German fighter general Adolf Galland, in his memoirs:

    “In December, 1942, Roosevelt announced that U. S. aircraft production per month was 5500 planes.Those who knew these figures and the extent of the organization which was soon to turn these aircraftinto a realistic military power could well be worried. But the Luftwaffe Command decided that these figures were fabulous, just as they had done with the information of our secret service. This information talliied in every respect with what we heard, of course for propaganda purposes, from Roosevelt.

    Goering said in his speech at the Harvest thanksgiving on October 4, 1942: “Some astronomical figures are expected from the American war industry. Now I am the last to underrate this industry. Obviously the Americans do very well in some technical fields. We know they produce a colossal amount of fast cars. And the development of radio is one of their special achievements, and so is the razor blade. . . .But you must not forget, there is one word in their language that is written with a capital B and this wordis Bluff.”

    To which Galland commented acidly, “Propaganda may be horrible, but bombs certainly are.

    No, it was not a bluff. What Goering apparently failed to grasp–but Sorensen and other fortunately did–was that the car-making and radio-making expertise was indeed relevant to aircraft production.

  8. David – I hope something can change – I gave up flying 25 years ago because of the expense – but think about it all the time.

    I worked at Cessna for a short time – was always interesting to see their production area. I worked for the division that made the twins and Citation jets – you’d walk through the production area and the fuselage would be sitting on a stand while various workmen would do their thing. No moving assembly line.

    Thing is, they made Cessna 152s the same way – 2 place trainers – as $10 million Citations.

    I’d imagine Henry Ford could have taught Cessna, Beech and Piper a few things about manufacturing efficiencies.

  9. The two factors that are most responsible for the expense of factory new GA aircraft are the large liability cost priced into each airframe before it even heads down the production line and the utter lack of any economy of scale. GA manufacturing has been reduced to a strictly boutique industry. There was a brief period where it looked like Cirrus would be able to produce enough aircraft to reach at least the economy of scale part of the equation. Unfortunately our economic downturn sent that company nearly into bankruptcy and it ended up being sold to China as many GA companies have been the last few years.

  10. John – when I worked for Cessna (for a short time in the early 80s) they told me that a third of the plane cost was product liability – people were suing Cessna for things happening in a 140 – a 40 year old airplane at the time’ And winning huge awards.

    I think Congress passed a law that slightly changed the rules for Product Liability in aircraft – don’t know what the ratio is today.

    Take out the Product liability and produce them on a huge economy of scale (like Willow Run) and we could have a plane in every garage.

  11. Bill,
    It probably is nearly a third at least for many aircaft and possibly closer to half in a few. The number I seem to remember was for a Cirrus SR-22 a few years back of around $150k liability in a plane selling for $400-500k depending on equipment. Congress reduced the legacy liability somewhat by limiting it to aircraft 17 years old or newer. The attorneys shifted their targets in older aircraft to manufacturers of components, maintenance shops and individual A&P mechanics. This model of litigation is similar to naming anyone signing a patient’s chart in a malpractice lawsuit, the difference being names in a logbook. As I’m sure you know, not long before you joined Cessna GA was a vibrant industry that employed a lot of skilled labor and produced thousands of aircraft every year. The legal industry has pretty much destroyed GA in this country and China is picking what’s left off the bone.

  12. John – think of what the effects of uncapped product liability awards do to innovation and design – permeates throughout our society.

    Drives a lot of it overseas.

    I know that there are a lot of things Mercedes has designed never to come to the US because of potential product liability.

    Which, I was reading this quote from a link someone said and it was thought provoking in re: Our society:

    <i"In the end, more than they wanted freedom, they wanted security. They wanted a comfortable life and they lost it all – security, comfort and freedom. When the Athenians finally wanted not to give to society, but for society to give to them; when the freedom they wished for most was the freedom from responsibility, then the Athenians ceased to be free." – Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

  13. Bill…the Gibbon passage you quoted reminds me of a passage (which I’m sure I’ve quoted before) from Walter Miller’s great novel A Canticle for Leibowitz:

    To minimize suffering and to maximize security were natural and proper ends of society and Caesar. But then they became the only ends, somehow, and the only basis of law—a perversion. Inevitably, then, in seeking only them, we found only their opposites: maximum suffering and minimum security.

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