Business

Detroit's first commercial airplane builder

GAC’s second airplane in November 1916, a two place pusher float plane designed for the military. Designer Alfred Verville sits in the front observer/gunner seat, test pilot J. D. Smith in the rear.

As early as 1910 the city of Detroit sought to be a leader in the development and production of airplanes. A number of aircraft had been built by and for individual “sportsmen,” including William E. Scripps, son of the founder of The Detroit News, James Scripps, but it was not until Feb. 10, 1915, with the incorporation of the General Aeroplane Company (GAC), that airplane building in Detroit moved from a hobby into the business arena.

The prime mover in the enterprise was 18-year-old Corwin Van Husen, who was supported by his guardian W. Howie Muir and other pillars of Detroit and Grosse Pointe society. Included among the major investors were Fred and Russell Alger (who were also investors in the Wright Airplane Co. and had demonstrated the Wright craft at the Grosse Pointe Country Club four years earlier), Herbert B. and Frank P. Book, Wm. Hendrie, and Jerome H. Remick.

In November of 1915, the GAC hired 24-year-old Alfred V. Verville, an experienced airplane designer who would be a part of Detroit’s aviation activities for years to come. Design of the company’s first airplane, a general purpose, two-passenger, bi-plane flying boat, was completed in December and construction of the hull was begun by the Meyea boat company.

The General Aeroplane Co. hangar at the Detroit Motor Boat Club. The location was south of Riverside St. just west of Alter Road on the Detroit River. This picture was taken after successful flight testing, in May of 1916. The altered lighthouse still stands, the barn, hangar and house area is now a trailer park.

The General Aeroplane Co. hangar at the Detroit Motor Boat Club. The location was south of Riverside St. just west of Alter Road on the Detroit River. This picture was taken after successful flight testing, in May of 1916. The altered lighthouse still stands, the barn, hangar and house area is now a trailer park.


Final assembly took place in a building at 1507 E. Jefferson and the completed craft was taken to a riverside hangar on the grounds of the Detroit Motor Boat Club where Scripps housed his Burgess-Wright hydroplane

.

The flying boat was tested during spring and summer of 1916 and was advertised nationally for sale in September. There was no government-required testing, certification or licensing of airplanes but World War I was engulfing Europe and, while the U.S. was not yet in the war, there were strong pressures on the Government to get ready. The U.S. Navy purchased the plane as a trainer, the first built-in-Detroit airplane sold for profit.

General Aeroplane Company's first plane in flight just off Windmill Point at the mouth of the Detroit River.

General Aeroplane Company’s first plane in flight just off Windmill Point at the mouth of the Detroit River.


Encouraged by the first sale and anticipating U.S. involvement in the war, Verville began designing a military airplane. By November of 1916, the prototype, a “pusher” type plane with the engine and propeller behind the crew, was fitted with seaplane floats and test flown from its base on the Detroit River In the meantime, the leading industry magazine Aviation gave the GAC plane a boost by running a two-page story about the yet-unproved craft.

Corrections dictated by the tests were made to the plane, but by this time the river was full of ice and unusable for take-offs or landings. The plane, as yet unnamed and without any alpha-numeric designation, had its floats removed and wheels installed so that testing could continue, using the ice on Lake St. Clair for takeoffs and landings. But in January of 1917, on the very first flight with wheels, the pilot overshot the landing area and crashed into open water. The airplane was a total loss.

GAC's only ad appeared in the Sept. 1, 1916, issue of Aviation Magazine. Note the copy aimed at

GAC’s only ad appeared in the Sept. 1, 1916, issue of Aviation Magazine. Note the copy aimed at “Virile” aspiring men. Also note the then-buzz word “Preparedness” stuck in between the pictures indicating an appeal to military buyers as they readied for U.S. entry into the war in Europe.


With U.S. entry into the war looming, Verville quickly designed another “pusher” airplane, a conventional “tractor” (engine and propeller in the front) and a twin engine seaplane. Van Husan and Verville took these designs to Washington where the Army and Navy were frantically, and belatedly, readying for war.

According to Van Husan, the company received orders for two pusher and two twin-engine airplanes in March of 1917. On April 6, 1917, the U.S. went to war and in an attempt to coordinate and rationalize the chaotic procurement of airplanes, an Aircraft Production Board was created. There is no record that the planes ordered from GAC were ever supplied or even built.

A head-on view of the prototype with J. D. Smith in the rear seat. Note the lack of any windshield on the plane and the hangar doors now painted with the General Aeroplane Co. sign.


Two definitive books by Swanborough and Bowers, US Navy Aircraft since 1911 and US Military Aircraft Since 1909, fail to mention any aircraft supplied by the General Aeroplane Company. It is quite possible that the GAC’s orders could have been canceled by the Production before the GAC planes could be built.

Verville left the GAC to become executive engineer of the Fisher Body plant on Fort St., overseeing the building of hundreds of Production Board’-approved de Havilland DH-4 airplanes.

There is no record of any additional airplanes being built by the General Aeroplane Company; and on Aug. 28, 1918, it ceased operations. In spite of its short life, the General Aeroplane Company still has the distinction of being Detroit’s first commercial airplane-building enterprise.

This full-page in The Detroit News Sunday, January 10, 1910, is a spoof purporting to show how in the year 2000 Detroit had been the aviation center for the past 50 years. Russell A. Alger and Henry B. Joy are shown as early founders of the Detroit Aero Club.


(This story was compiled using clip and photo files of the Detroit News. To view images available for sale from our photo collection please visit our Photostore of historic galleries. )

By John A. Bluth / Special to The Detroit News Online