Flying the U.S. Mail
Randall "AeroDillo" Whiddon | Posted On April 6th, 2007
On May 15 of 1918, a U.S. Army pilot fresh from training took off from Washington, D.C. Flying a JN-6H Curtiss Jenny trainer the pilot, one Lt. Leroy Boyle, was to carry 140 pounds of letters to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and complete the first-ever delivery of the U.S. Air Mail. At least that was the plan.
As luck would have it, the idea held together only slightly longer than the time it took for Boyle and the mail to become airborne. Circling over the airport for the gathered official spectators—including Franklin D. Roosevelt, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy—Boyle climbed to a suitable altitude before setting off – in the wrong direction. Having unknowingly taken an errant course, Boyle later landed in a field near Waldorf, Maryland, a scant twenty-four miles from his starting point. Hopelessly disoriented and without a means of find his way, Boyle sat helplessly by as the mail was removed and transported to Philadelphia by train.
This concept of moving mail by air was not a new one. First proposed and fiercely championed by Texas Senator Sam Sheppard 1910, the idea gained the support of U.S. Postmaster General Albert Burleson. The first approved route between New York City and the nation’s capital was established in 1916, through sufficient funding was initially unavailable, and would remain so until 1918, at which point Boyle and the Air Mail made an inauspicious debut.
Happily, several other Air Mail pilots also flew that day, and with greater success than the luckless Boyle. Starting in Long Island, pilots flew to Philadelphia, then on to the District of Columbia. The second pilot in the chain, after waiting in Philadelphia for Boyle’s mail delivery, gave up and continued on to New York, carrying a relatively light load and reaching his destination without difficulty.
Despite the failure of the first flight, the new organization persisted under the guidance of the U.S. Army, which managed to complete more than twelve hundred flights in their first year of operation. By the middle of 1918 the service was up and running more or less as intended. At this juncture, operations were transferred to the control of the Postal Service, which quickly dropped the price of stamps and began recruiting pilots from the civilian population. August 12, 1918 marked the first Air Mail flight as carried out by civilian pilots under Post Office contract.
But while the new service was revolutionizing the moving of mail, others were feeling the pressure from the newfound competition. Chief among the critics were the men who managed the railroads which—up until the Air Mail—had more or less cornered the market on the long-distance transportation of parcel and package. With profits of shipping becoming ever more lucrative, these same men complained loudly of having to compete with a government-sponsored monopoly.
A solution of sorts came in 1925 in the form of House Resolution 7064. Better known as the Air Mail Act the bill was the pet project of Pennsylvania Representative Clyde Kelly, a favorite of the railroad industry. However questionable his motives (or those of his associates) Kelly’s agenda was not without a basis in fact. For every dollar earned by flying the mail, the government paid three. Thus, the moving of the Air Mail was opened to public bidding.
To fill the gap and perhaps reverse the monetary hemorrhage, private companies were allowed to try their hand at making the system pay. This flew in the face of all that had come before as, in true government fashion, the U.S. Postal Service had never given a second thought to the business aspect. Moving letters was the be-all and end-all of the system, and the matter of revenue was something left to other minds.
For the sake of accuracy, it should also be noted that the term ‘Air Mail’ was not entirely accurate between 1918 and 1925. Because pilots lacked the skills to fly after dark, mail would be delivered to an airport, trucked to the nearest train station, and moved by rail to the next airport, where the bags would be loaded onto a waiting airplane the following morning for the next leg of the journey.
As for the aircraft flown by Post Office and later private firms, many were war-surplus acquired from the U.S. Army at little or no cost and extensively reconditioned and in some cases rebuilt altogether. Engines in particular proved troublesome, and eventually most were replaced or upgraded for the sake of reliability.
First to take a crack at the new market was none other than Henry Ford, the automobile tycoon. Ford’s air transport line offered service between Chicago and Detroit. Ford was not alone, however, and the government found no shortage of interested companies willing to try their hand at moving mail. From these private agencies ultimately came the move that would change the freight business and bring about the next phase in aviation history.
As individuals who invest their own money are apt to do, the new management of the various routes soon found new methods to bump up their returns. For example, the cost of postage to send a parcel was based on 3;x,fdweight. To use this to its full advantage, private carriers sought to carry a greater number of smaller and heavier cargos over shorter distances, ultimately increasing shipping revenue while shaving down the operating costs.
Thef process eventually led to the carrying of passengers, who were themselves treated like mail for the duration. Upon arriving at the airfield, a passenger was weighed, figured for postage, and charged the fee for shipping themselves. As passengers were generally heavier than parcels, this became a lucrative new market. The seeds for an airline industry were planted. Starting in 1925, the federal government openly recognized the new practice and began offering fatter contracts to operators that purchased larger aircraft. By 1926, several were making 0greater profits hauling passengers, with mail relegated to second priority.
Despite the notable drawbacks with the advent of passenger service, the Air Mail retained the support of the Congress. The U.S. Government, starting to take a growing interest in what had once been a miniscule operation of little consequence, began actively moving to regulate the business of commercial flight. As a consequence, federal money once again funded aviation. The results manifested as a newer, safer transcontinental system. Airfields were upgraded, lighting and radio equipment added and standardized. Flight became safer during daylight hours and possible after dark.
With the improvements, a pilot could now follow a series of electric beacons across the breadth of the country. No longer was he forced to search out local landmarks to keep his bearings – maintaining a course was as simple as following the lights. He could also reasonably expect to find reports of weather further along the route. Once completed, these new facilities were handed off to local government. The municipal airfield was born.
Still, flying remained a dangerous business. The only instruments available to aid in what we now know as IFR conditions were the turn-and-bank indicator, which only became reliable in 1924 when gyroscopes were integrated into the indicator, an altimeter, and a simple magnetic compass.
Once in poor weather and flying blind, options for pilots dwindled. Dangerous at best, the preferred maneuver was to stall the aircraft, hold the right rudder, and knowingly enter a spin. This allowed fliers to rapidly decrease altitude without putting an excessive strain on the airframe. Sadly, there was not always enough altitude left to recover when they broke through the bottom of the clouds.
The only other option, available after 1919, was the parachute. Though probably safer than initiating a spin, most pilots were hesitant to leave the familiarity and relative safety of their cockpits and jump into a cloud or fog bank with only a thin layer of silk between themselves and the ground.
Out of necessity, a great many pilots developed tendencies to stray from what was safe or advisable in order to deliver their mail. Flying into a growing storm or trying to beat a front to the next airport—dangerous even with the advances in aircraft today—bordered on a suicidal if common practice. Foolish as it may have been, it was their determination that made the Air Mail system work.
Of course any profession as dangerous and chancy will undoubtedly have its heroes, and flying the mail was no exception. Among the most notable of these is Jack Knight. Knight came along at a time before the coast-to-coast lighted route was operational, but when the top management believed the mail could be moved from one coast to the other without need of trucks or rail transport in the interim. Doing so would greatly improve the public image and prop up support from the Congress, and so a system was devised and put to the test.
Starting roughly at daylight February 22, 1921 two pilots took off to put the concept to the test. One flew east from San Francisco, the other west from Long Island. At the scheduled stops along the route, two relay aircraft waited to carry the mail onward.
Despite a crash on the first leg heading east, the mail continued on for New York. The transfer at Salt Lake City passed without incident, plane, pilot, and mailbags setting down intact in Cheyenne at twilight. From Cheyenne the next pilot continued along, following the Union Pacific rail line into North Platte, where Knight was waiting.
Westbound flights weren’t as lucky, going only as far as Chicago before all air traffic was grounded by a massive snowstorm. Unbeknownst to Knight, the westbound mail was loaded on a train with the expectation for eastbound to do likewise. Additionally, no planes were waiting at Omaha, as the plane and pilot assigned there was also stuck in Chicago.
Prior to departing North Platte, an inspection of Knight’s deHavilland DH-4 revealed severe damage to the tail section, a dilemma that delayed him until 10:44 p.m. Fortunately, the clear weather prevailed over Nebraska and Knight was able to depart, however late. Along the way, large bonfires were lit to aid him in navigating; a gesture not lost on the pilot.
Landing in Omaha at 1:10 a.m. on February 23rd, Knight turned over his cargo and sought out the nearest stove and a cup of coffee. During the break he learned of the storm over Chicago and the impending failure of the effort. Having never flown further east than Omaha, Knight volunteered to continue on Chicago.
Fifty minutes after arriving, he climbed out of the Omaha airport with the planned refueling stop at Des Moines. By the time he was over the Des Moines airport, however, weather conditions and worsened and Knight was unable to locate the airfield. With no clear picture of the situation and hesitant to land, he changed his plans and opted for a diversion to Iowa City in lieu of waiting for the scud to clear.
Halfway through the 120-mile detour Knight ventured into a snowstorm. Accompanied by a hefty crosswind, he climbed out over the storm in time to reach Iowa City. Like Des Moines, the airport proved elusive. Fortunately, after making a low pass, the deHavilland’s engine noise roused a nearby worker, who placed a flare in the runway to guide the incoming aircraft.
By 6:30 a.m. the snow had stopped and Knight was aloft. Though the snow was now less an issue, he was forced to deal with heavy fog and little light. Sunup helped the situation, though the land below remained largely hidden. By chance, he followed factory smoke into Chicago, and landed at 8:40 a.m., 830 miles from the origin of his flight.
Two more pilots carried the mail to the final stop in New York All told, seven pilots had flown 2660 miles in slightly over 33 hours. In comparison, mail taking the transcontinental route by rail required more than 108 hours. The achievement so impressed future president Warren Harding that he threw his full support behind the system, abandoning an earlier position against the flying of the mail. Public opinion likewise surged behind the idea.
July 1, 1924 saw the coast-to-coast airway fully lit. A thirty-day test was arranged, and after the promising conclusion, mail flights were scheduled for operations after dark. The final development came in the form of dividing the country into three zones: New York to Chicago, Chicago to Rock Springs, and Rock Springs to San Francisco. The transcontinental mail route was open.
From the humble beginnings of Boyle’s aborted flight to the iron resolve of men like Jack Knight, the air mail was to become the first breakthrough of aviation into the practical civilian world.
About The Author. Randall "AeroDillo" Whiddon:
AeroDillo (more formally known as Randall Whiddon) has been writing and following aviation since the age of fourteen, a product of entirely too many air shows, history books, and John Wayne movies. He is currently a student pilot currently working through his Instrument rating at Texas State Technical College in Waco, Texas, with the intent of moving on to bush flying after graduation.
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