Encyclopedia Of Detroit

Willow Run

Willow Run is an Albert Kahn-designed World War II bomber plant near Ypsilanti, Michigan. It was constructed in 1941 by the Ford Motor Company for the mass production of the B-24 Liberator military aircraft. The U.S. government contributed $200 million to the project.

Originally 975 acres of farmland owned by Henry Ford, the site was developed by the Ford Motor Company into what was described as the largest war factory in the world. An adjoining airfield was used by Charles Lindbergh, hired by Henry Ford as a test pilot.

Initially, the Ford Motor Company struggled to transfer automotive assembly practices into aircraft production. The use of steel cast dyes hindered design changes to the bomber. And it was difficult to attract workers away from Detroit auto factories due to the distance and lack of local housing. Many women were hired to replace men drafted into the war, leading to the creation of the “Rosie the Riveter” character.

Despite these issues, Willow Run was able to achieve remarkable production rates. At its peak in 1944, it produced a B-24 every hour. By 1945, it was able to produce 70 percent of its B-24s in two nine-hour shifts, with pilots and crew members sleeping on 1,300 cots as they waited for the B-24s to roll off the assembly line. The Ford Motor Company eventually produced half of their 18,000 total B-24s at Willow Run.

Once aircraft production for World War II ended, Willow Run was used by the Kaiser-Frazer Corporation which produced both Kaiser and Frazer automobiles from 1947 to 1953. Kaiser also used the facility to assemble 71 Fairchild C-119 “Flying Boxcar” cargo planes from 1952 to 1953.

In 1947 the University of Michigan bought the airport facility for $1 for its Michigan Aeronautical Research Center. The Center at Willow Run participated in the Bomarc Missile Program and had a supersonic wind tunnel. In 1977 the facility was sold to Wayne County, again for $1.

The Willow Run Airport ended commercial airline traffic in 1966 when it was transferred to nearby Detroit Metropolitan Airport. It continues today to operate as a cargo airport, accommodating general and executive aviation as well.

The Willow Run plant was first leased, and eventually sold, to General Motors after a fire in August 1953 destroyed their Detroit transmission factory in Livonia, Michigan. The five-million square foot Willow Run plant was closed in 2010 as part of GM’s bankruptcy proceedings. Most of the plant was demolished in 2014 but a 175,000 foot portion was offered to the Yankee Air Museum, housed in a hangar until a 2004 fire. After successful fundraising, the Museum reopened in 2017 in the historic building.

The American Center for Mobility claimed the remainder of the massive site and in 2018 opened a proving ground and research facility for self-driving cars, the only one in Michigan and one of ten in the U.S., as designated by the U.S. Dept. of Transportation.

Willow Run was made a Michigan State Historic Site August 24, 1978.



Aerial view of Willow Run, 1965 - 2012.022.240

B-24s being built at Willow Run, 1944 - 2013.045.381

View all items related to Willow Run