In search of the $700 airplane

Image 3 : Funk Model  B


The Funk Model B certified in 1939 was the last of the Ford powered production aircraft to be produced and the most popular.

Source: Dennis Parks

Obtaining an engine for a lightplane was the greatest challenge facing amateur builders in the 1930s.

The prices for light airplane engines were prohibitive for most builders. The powerplant of the average small plane amounted to 60% of the cost of the complete plane.

That led builders to look to other sources of power. Auto engines, being cheap and plentiful compared to certified aircraft engines, proved tempting — so tempting, in fact, that in the 1930s there were 200 aircraft registered using Ford engines.

This widespread use caught the attention of the Bureau of Air Commerce, which was trying to foster the development of low-priced airplanes. By 1939 three aircraft using converted Ford engines would be successfully certificated for production.


In November 1933, Gene Vidal unveiled the Bureau of Air Commerce’s plan to make owning a personal aircraft as commonplace as owning a medium priced car.

The bureau invited aircraft manufacturers to design a simple, safe vehicle that would sell for a target price of $700 and invested money in developing Ford auto engine conversions for aircraft use. The use of converted auto engines was supposed to drop the cost of an airplane’s powerplant to 25% of the total cost.

Out of this program two Ford powered aircraft would be put into production: The Arrow Sport and the Funk Model B.

But an independent effort would beat these two aircraft to the market — the Wiley Post.


At a time when interest was centered on the development of a low-cost plane, a new aircraft of this class appeared in Wichita. It was a small biplane produced by the Straughan Airplane Co., built around a converted Ford Model A four-cylinder engine rated at 40 hp.

This plane was later produced by the Wiley Post Aircraft Corp. The Wiley Post Model A was the first aircraft powered by a converted auto engine to receive a type certificate.

The plane was financed by Frank Straughan, a Ford auto dealer in Marshall, Okla. It was designed by and built by Ross Holmes, who had previously built a parasol monoplane powered with a Ford Model A engine.

The lightweight Wiley Post was advertised as an ideal training plane. Source: Aero Digest April 1935

The construction was typical for the time period, with a steel tube fuselage and an all-wood fabric-covered wing. The aircraft was devoid of some basic equipment, such as brakes and a tailwheel, which helped keep the original advertised price down to $990, which was the cheapest approved, factory built airplane one could buy at the time. Later the plane’s price would go up to $1,438.

The factory claimed a rate of climb of 400 feet per minute and a landing speed of 28 mph. The service ceiling was listed as 10,000 feet. Fuel capacity was seven gallons, which allowed a range of 140 miles.

The Wiley Post Corp. advertised the plane in 1935 as “The Training Ship for American Youth” and noted that engine parts were available at all Ford dealers.

The open cockpit featured side-by-side seating with dual stick controls. One flight instructor offered instruction in this Wiley Post for $1 a lesson and said that 40 lessons would be needed to be ready for solo.

The registration records show that 13 were built.


New in 1932, the Ford V-8 engine came into consideration by the Bureau of Air Commerce for its effort to secure a low-priced powerplant for lightplanes. The Ford V8 was the first that made an 8-cylinder affordable for the emerging mass consumer auto market. The Bureau worked with the Arrow Aircraft & Motor Corp. of Lincoln, Neb., to develop the engine for aircraft use.

The only part of the engine that had been changed from the automobile powerplant was the cooling system. The radiator was streamlined to fit under the engine cowling and one large water pump replaced the two regular ones. The motor was mounted backwards in the plane and gears built to turn the propeller at 1,000 rpm at cruising speed. It was rated at 82 hp at 3,000 rpm.

The Arrow Sport was certified in 1936 with a converted Ford V-8 engine. Photo courtesy Dennis Parks

The Arrow was a strut-braced low-wing monoplane with side-by-side seating. The plane had dual wheel controls and dual brakes and a tailwheel instead of a tail skid.

The plane was initially priced at $1,500. Developers had originally planned to use the popular Kinner K5 aero engine, but that would have upped the selling price to $3,495.

The plane was listed with a rate of climb of 400 fpm and a landing speed of 48 mph. The service ceiling was listed as 12,000 feet. Fuel capacity was 20 gallons, which allowed a range of 300 miles.

The Arrow Sport proved itself to be a popular seller, with more than 100 built.


The last Ford-powered aircraft to receive a production certificate was the Funk Model A. It was produced by the Akron Aircraft Co., which was formed in 1937 to produce the aircraft designed by Joe and Howard Funk.

First developed in 1934, the plane developed interest with its appearance at the 1937 Miami Air Races.

The Civil Aeronautics Administration purchased one for evaluation. A more substantial aircraft than the Wiley Post or Arrow Sport, it was an enclosed cabin, high-wing monoplane designed for the $700 aircraft program.

Image 3 : Funk Model  B Caption: The Funk Model B certified in 1939 was the last of the Ford powered production aircraft to be produced and the most popular. Source: Dennis Parks

Certified in 1939, the Funk Model B was the last of the Ford powered production aircraft to be produced and the most popular. Photo courtesy Dennis Parks

The construction used a welded steel-tube fuselage with fabric-covered wooden wings and fabric covered. The cabin provided side-by-side seating for two.

The original aircraft built by the Funk brothers was powered by a Szekely three-cylinder radial engine of 45 hp, an engine they found to be unreliable. They looked at other engines, including the 40 hp Continental, which they felt didn’t have enough power, and the LeBlond 70-hp radial, which had sufficient power but was too costly at $1,000.

Impressed by the performance obtained by amateur builders with Ford Model B engines, the brothers decided to do their own conversion. The Bureau of Air Commerce became interested in the development work and helped finance the project.

To lighten the engine they used aluminum for the cylinder head, valve cover, coolant pump and end housing. The final weight of the powerplant, including the radiator and and coolant, was 300 pounds compared to the 350 pounds of the original Ford.

The Funk engine produced 80 hp compared to the original 40 hp of the Ford. The cost of the engine was $400, much more reasonable than most aircraft powerplants.

To improve aerodynamics, the engine was inverted and used a novel tunneled radiator installation. In production in 1939 and 1940, the Funk became the most produced of certified converted auto engine powered aircraft, delivering more than 100.


The era of Ford-powered production aircraft was short lived, with only the three aircraft receiving type certificates in 1935 and 1939. The Ford conversions were not offering any real advantages over the engines designed for aircraft use.

Aside from a fair amount of improved reliability and lowered manufacturing costs resulting from mass production, the converted automobile engines remained relatively heavy and bulky, weighing five to six pounds per horsepower, even more than the old OX-5 V-8 of 1915 design. The liquid cooling systems, radiators and plumbing, of the converted engines also added weight and complexity to the installation.

The new lightweight air-cooled engines from Lycoming, Continetal and Franklin coming on the market in 1935, weighing in the two to three pound per horsepower range, showed the auto engine conversions didn’t make engineering sense.

The great migration of 1940

In the winter of 1940 over 600 light planes flew from around the United States to Florida. This image from the June 1938 cover of Air Trails shows the variety of new aircraft being offered for sale. (Source: Air Trails June 1938)

January 1940 saw a mass migration of light planes from throughout the United States to Florida. Held in conjunction with the Miami All-American Air Maneuver Air Races, the group flights of personal planes was known as the Light Airplane Cavalcade. [Read more…]

1929’s record-setting endurance flights

The Curtiss-Robertson St. Louis Robin being refueled during its flight to a new
world’s endurance record of 420 hours greatly surpassing the
record of 150 hours set by the Army’s Question Mark at the beginning of the year.
Aircraft Yearbook for 1930

The 1920s saw many records set for altitude, speed, endurance and range, but they were destined to be only fleeting. The records fell quickly due to the development of better aircraft and engines.

January 1929 began the year with an achievement that many thought would never be exceeded anytime in the near future — the epic six day flight of the Question Mark.

The Question Mark was a modified Fokker transport aircraft that was flown to a refueled endurance record by US Army aviators. The flight established new world records for sustained flight, refueled flight, and distance. [Read more…]

The beginning of the light airplane movement

Moth2 copy

In the 1920s Great Britain saw a great growth in civil aviation, which was an outgrowth of its light aircraft movement.

This movement originated with light plane trials held in Lympne, England. These competitions led to the development of new light aircraft for private ownership and flying clubs. The flying clubs saw thousands of pilots learn to fly in the light planes, creating a market for these aircraft. This, in turn, led to the development of one of the most iconic of light planes, the de Havilland Moth. [Read more…]

Flight training the Wright way

The Wright Flyer

The Wright brothers are well known as scientists, inventors, builders and flyers — and they became international celebrities in 1909 with record-setting flights in Europe and America.

Less well known were their efforts as flight instructors and flight school creators. They began flight instruction in Europe. Later back home, they trained aviators for their exhibition team, for the military and, as interest in aviation grew, they opened flight schools for civilian pilots. [Read more…]

Rules of the road

Figure 1

At the close of 1927, 1,572 pilots had been licensed and 2,573 others had applied for licenses. Additionally, 681 aircraft had been licensed for interstate commerce, and 908 aircraft had been assigned identification numbers. There were also 2,218 applications for license and identification of aircraft awaiting action.

It was at this time that the Department of Commerce issued its first Air Traffic Rules, as required under the Air Commerce Act of 1926. [Read more…]

Pilot reports: The beginnings

the 1938 Luscombe 8 (N22013) is courtesy of Ty Sundstrom and was taken at Tehachapi, CA.

“After running the motor a few minutes to heat it up, I released the wire that held the machine to the track, and the machine started forward into the wind,” reported Orville Wright in the December 1913 issue of Flying magazine.

Though possibly not the first pilot report in an aviation journal, it sure is a pilot report about the oldest aircraft.

Though flight test articles became a common feature of general aviation magazines in the 1960s and on, these pilot reports on performance and handling of aircraft were rare before World War II. The emergence of flight test articles on new private aircraft owe their origins to two magazines: The Sportsman Pilot and Air Facts. [Read more…]

The advent of the light twin

Photos by Meg Godlewski

With the end of the war in Europe in May 1945, the prohibition on the production of civil aircraft was rescinded. Many articles published that year were harbingers of the post-war boom expected for the general aviation industry. Indeed there was a huge boom in production — general aircraft production went from 1,946 in 1945 to an unbelievable 33,254 in 1946.

This was truly the golden era of light aircraft production. But it was a short-lived one as the market rapidly went sour as returning GIs and the public were struggling with other demands. Sales in 1947 fell to around 15,515 airplanes, and by 1949 had plunged to 3,500.

But out of this post-war bust would come a boom in a new category of general aviation aircraft — the light twin. [Read more…]

Air boating


Many non-aviation magazines were swept up in the growing interest in aviation that was accented by the exploits of World War l military aviation. These included COUNTRY LIFE, LITERARY DIGEST and MOTOR BOATING.

In fact, Motor Boating took aviation as its own and christened it “Air Boating” in a monthly series starting in February 1918.

“Air Boating has passed the experimental stage,” the magazine’s editors stated. [Read more…]

Max Conrad: The early years

Conrad with his Piper Aztec prior to takeoff
from Winona, Minnesota on November 30, 1969 on his historic
34,000 mile Round-the-World, over both poles flight.

When he died in 1979, Max Conrad was known the world over as the “Flying Grandfather.”

A long-distance record breaker in light aircraft, most notably the Piper Comanche, Max was generally credited with more flying time than any other pilot — more than 50,000 hours. In 1954 he flew solo, non-stop from New York to Paris to deliver a Piper Apache, the first such flight since before World War II.

[Read more…]