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Air Mail - History

Air Mail - History

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Five private companies won air mail contracts in the United States. The contracts awarded were for the routes from New York to Boston; Chicago- St Louis Chicago - Dallas and Salt Lake City Los Angeles. The contracts were awarded subsequent to the passage of the Air Mail Act. Under its terms all airmail that had been transported by the US government would soon be transported by the private companies.

100 Years of Airmail

At approximately 11:30 a.m. on May 15, 1918, the U.S. Post Office inaugurated regular airmail service, using Curtiss JN-4H biplanes to fly between Washington, D.C. and New York City, with a stop in Philadelphia. It took two more years of dogged effort and experimentation, marred by dozens of crashes and 16 fatalities, for the service to fly the mail all the way across the country.

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By 1927, the Post Office had nursed the airmail service through its infancy and was ready to hand it off to private companies, like Boeing Air Transport and National Air Transport, which eventually developed into United Airlines. With aircraft like the Boeing 40C and Stearman Speedmail, and with pilots like Charles Lindbergh, contract mail carriers laid the foundation for the most expansive national air transportation system in the world.​

As the U.S. Postal Service celebrates the centennial with a new Forever stamp, we dug into our archive to showcase stories on the dramatic early days of airmail service, which transformed aviation almost as much as it did communications.

Photo: Loading mail sacks onto an airplane near Omaha, Nebraska, in the mid-1920s. (Smithsonian Institution)

Airmail Letter

If you happened to be a child in the New York City of 1859, awaiting a birthday letter from, say, Aunt Isabel in Lafayette, Indiana—containing, perhaps, a shiny silver dollar—you were going to be disappointed. The mail that your aunt had expected to be unusually timely was going to be late. And what earns this delayed delivery a place in the annals of postal irony is that the letter you were anticipating was aboard America's first airmail flight.

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More accurately, we should call the delivery lighter-than-air mail, since this imagined letter would have been one of 123 handed over to John Wise, aeronaut and pilot of the balloon Jupiter.

The postmaster of Lafayette had entrusted the 51-year-old Wise, a former builder of pianos, with a locked bag containing letters and a few circulars. Although Lafayette lay in the path of the prevailing westerlies, in the 90-degree heat of August 17, the air was still. Wise had to ascend to 14,000 feet—an astonishing altitude at the time—before he found any wind at all.

The wind was light, however, and carried Jupiter south, not east. After more than five hours aloft and with only 30 miles traveled, Wise had to descend near the town of Crawfordsville, Indiana. The Lafayette Daily Courier wryly dubbed the flight "trans-county-nental." After landing, Wise gave the bag of mail to a railroad postal agent, who put it on a New York-bound train.

The high hopes for this newfangled idea still resonate in the one piece of mail known to exist from that day's attempt. Today held in the collections of the Smithsonian National Postal Museum, in Washington, D.C., the letter was sent in an ornately embossed envelope, bearing a three-cent stamp, to one W H Munn, No. 24 West 26 St., N York City. To the left of the address are written the words "Via Balloon Jupiter, 1858." According to Ted Wilson, registrar of the Postal Museum, the post office required this phrase in order to place letters aboard the balloon. That the date is a year too early, and the handwriting appears different from that of the address, lend an aura of mystery.

Wilson notes that the museum purchased the letter in 1964 from a stamp dealer, adding that "It had only come to light a few years earlier." This rare find, consisting of a single page written in sepia-colored ink and signed by Mary A. Wells, is devoted mainly to the method of delivery: "Dear Sir, Thinking you would be pleased to hear of my improved health I embrace the opportunity of sending you a line in this new and novel way of sending letters in a balloon."

Wise's pluck exceeded his luck. A few weeks before his shortfall delivery of New York mail, he had made another attempt, taking off in a different balloon from St. Louis for New York City. On that flight, Wise covered 809 miles, the longest balloon journey ever made at the time, but a storm caused him to crash in Henderson, New York. Since the mail he was carrying was lost in the crash, his 30-mile August flight is the one counted as history's first airmail.

Despite the unpredictability and danger, Wise never lost his enthusiasm for balloon flight, or his belief that it was the wave of the future. During the Civil War, he flew observation balloons for the Union Army. Twenty years after his Lafayette takeoff, at the age of 71, he died in a crash into Lake Michigan.

Jupiter on a practice ascent in 1859. (National Postal Museum)

About Owen Edwards

Owen Edwards is a freelance writer who previously wrote the "Object at Hand" column in Smithsonian magazine.

Airmail Today

With the growth of eCommerce businesses, international shipping is at an all time high. The USPS has partnered with FedEx with the Global Express Guaranteed® which relies on FedEx Express® transportation to deliver packages worldwide.

Although the transportation service known as Airmail is gone (it’s been replaced with services like International Priority Airmail ™), the United States Postal Service trademarked the name Air Mail in In June 2006. This classic Airmail style of stationary is now sold for decorative use rather than practical use. You can relive a little piece of postal history by opting to use these decorative red and blue bordered envelopes and paper.

Airmail Service

From left to right: Pilots Jack Knight, Clarence Lange, Lawrence Garrison, “Wild” Bill Hopson and Andrew Dunphy, head of the Omaha-Salt Lake City Division posed in front of an airmail hangar in Omaha.

At the end of the First World War, aviation pioneer William Boeing was on the verge of abandoning his fledgling and failing aviation business to return full time to the more profitable furniture business. In 1927 Boeing won one of a handful of US Post Office Department airmail contracts. At a time when few were willing to risk their lives as passengers in the developing commercial aviation industry, airmail contracts provided companies like Boeing with the financial cushion that allowed them to develop stronger, more reliable aircraft.

Not only did America’s Post Office Department fund the nation’s commercial aviation industry, but from 1918-1927, the Department operated the nation’s airmail service. Postal officials hired pilots and mechanics, purchased airplanes and equipment, established aviation routes and led the nation into the commercial aviation age.

In 1921, army navigational beacons between Columbus and Dayton, Ohio, guided pilots at night. The Post Office took over the system in 1922 and by the end of 1923, had constructed similar beacons between Chicago, Illinois and Cheyenne, Wyoming.

In the 1920s and 1930s, funds from airmail contracts breathed life into the nation's fledgling commercial aviation industry.

Airmail Service flag -->

On May 15, 1918, the Post Office Department began the nation's first regularly scheduled airmail service. The first three months of the service were directed by the Department using Army Air Corp pilots and borrowed airplanes. On August 12, the army pilots were replaced by post office pilots.

Though difficult to believe, the beginnings of the modern civil aviation industry lie within the Post Office. Indeed, it was airmail that started the United States on its way to the system of airports and airways that millions of Americans travel on a daily basis.

Contract Air Mail (CAM)


The fifty-three year Contract Air Mail period (1926-1978) was the most significant era of development of commercial air service in the United States. The Contract Air Mail period began and ended with government legislation: The Air Mail Act of 1925 (also known as the Kelly Act) authorized the United States Post Office Department to contract with commercial airlines to transport air mail and the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 ended the Contract Air Mail period.

The first commercial flights to carry air mail under contract occurred on February 15, 1926 when Henry Ford’s Ford Motor Company, using Ford TriMotor aircraft, carried air mail between Detroit/Dearborn (served through Ford Field in Dearborn), Cleveland, and Chicago.

During the first eight years of Contract Air Mail, the network expanded to 34 different routes, providing air mail service to many American cities. Two famous aviators, Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh, piloted Contract Air Mail flights before 1930. All of the Air Mail Contracts were cancelled during February 1934 and the United States Army Air Corps was pressed into service to provide domestic air mail service. Multiple fatal airplane crashes compelled the Post Office Department to restore air mail service by commercial airlines. New air mail contracts were inaugurated during May 1934 and Contract Air Mail service continued to expand until the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978.

Unlike the treatment that Contract Air Mail history between 1934 and 1978 received in prior editions of the American Air Mail Catalogue, the Seventh Edition treats each Air Mail Route inaugurated during 1934 or later as a new air mail route. The listing policy in this section was simplified to better document the development of each air mail route. These changes were made to allow collectors and historians to better understand the expansion of the domestic air mail network.

Air Mail - History

There are any number of precise and intimidating definitions of postal history. While these are all technically correct, in many ways they miss the wider aspects of hobby.

In a word, postal history is about mail. All over the world almost everyone receives mail. This mail, where it is from, where it is going, how it is paid, how it got to its destination and tribulations it faced in its journey is postal history. It speaks of the time and place it was mailed, the way it traveled and the scars it picked up along the way.

Since mail toches almost every person, postal history touches almost every interest. If your interest is in a place, perhaps your home town, the country of your ancestors or your favorite vacation spot, postal history will enhance that interest. If transportation is a passion, the movement of mail encompassed most modes of transport. Mail was the first mover in the development of some air travel and significant in utilizing rail network. Most every significant event of the last 250 years can be traced in the mail. Since every army provides mail for its soldiers, if the military is important to you, then postal history is intertwined.

Mail is a window to the past and a mirror of the present. Postal history opens that window wide and focuses the mirror. It tells us about ourselves, our ancestors, our nation and our world. The simple journey of a letter can be the start of a personal journey to wonders of the world.

New This Week

There are over 1400 new Iowa covers on the site this week. These encompass postmarks from all over the state. They range from 19th Century to modern, with emphasis on doanes, view cards, rural stations and military and patriotics. Please click here to see the new Iowa. You might find it easier to browse by county, by franking, by usage or some other way. Please click here to view Iowa covers in a way that works best for you.

The next auction will be world military postal history. It will be posted in the next two or so weeks and close one month after that.

Last week brought another 100 new world covers from Asia and Africa. There is a nice range of covers from Egypt, French West Africa and Palestine and Israel. Please note markings, postal stationery, airmail and some military related. Please click here to see the covers.

Stamps Plus offers a wide range of material, both basic stamps and specialty items. Expect to see used and unused, sets and singles as well as unused stationery, first days, revenues, and the gamut of philatelic items not listed in the catalog. This week we have a nice range of Austria, Canada, Ghana, Switzerland, worldwide postal stationery and worldwide stamps. Please click here to visit the site.

Browse This Site

Cover Notification Service - Receive an e-mail notification every time a new cover that fits your interests is added to this site. You can set up the notifications yourself or have me set them up for you. If your interests are fairly general, for example a single country, you can set them yourself . If your interests are more specific, like a particular issue, you might find it easier to ask me to set them up. If you choose to set up your interests yourself, I'll review them to make sure they will work the way you intend.

Worldwide Postal History - Browse here for the country of your interest. Covers begin in the 18th Century and continue to the modern era. The emphasis is on 20th century up to about 1960 for larger countries and to about 1970 for smaller countries, You will find International Airmail, Town Cancels, Auxiliary Markings, Stampless, Registered, Advertising, Censors, Special Delivery and just about anything else you can imagine.

U.S. Postal History - Explore thousands of U.S. covers arranged to be browsed by issue. The stock is strongest in foreign destinations after 1920, but you'll find a bit of everything including 19th century.

U.S. Postal History By State - Use this section to browse for covers based upon the place where they were used. Explore local postal history in hundreds of covers for each state, a bibliography of literature available for each state, and market analysis.

United States Post Offices - This is a reference that list s the name and dates of operation of every post office in the U.S. The list is the best reference ever published in one place. A far better representation of both Alabama and Georgia is now online. Despite constant additions and corrections, it is still a work in progress.

Military Postal History - Browse here for war covers I have a strong stock of military covers of all types, with an emphasis on U.S. World War II material. Look for U.S. A.P.O. covers, U.S. Ship covers, Worldwide Civil Censors, U.S. Naval Shore Stations, Field Posts from most parts of the world and Prisoner of War and Internee mail. . You're welcome to use on-line copy of my book A Price Guide to U.S. A.P.O. Covers of the Second World War.

Airmail Postal History - Browse for first flights, catapults, zeppelins, crash covers, trans pacific and all range of international airmail.

Save Your Cart - You may now save your shopping cart for up to 90 days. Simply click on Save Cart on the menu bar at the left or bottom link bar and log into your account. Come back any time within the next three months to review and purchase your selections by clicking Retrieve Cart. to check out the cart. Do please understand that saving items does not remove them from inventory or place them on hold for you.

Airmail Odyssey

One chapter of American history has everything you could ask for in a national epic: visionary leaders, triumph over technological hurdles, exploration of the unknown, heroes skillfully battling an implacable foe. The action wasn’t directed by the military or by NASA, however, but by the U.S. Post Office. The establishment of airmail service in the United States, 90 years ago last May, is a whopper of a story, yet it hasn’t had the attention that historians and filmmakers have paid to the U.S. space program, say, or the expansion of the West, or World War II. Somebody call Ken Burns.

From This Story

A.jpg" /> Airmail pilot William “Wild Bill” Hopson (seen here circa 1921) submitted a photograph of himself to the Air Mail Service along with the note: “Enclosed please find photo of bum pilot…. When finished with picture just post in cellar, it’s guaranteed to keep away all rats, mice and other vermin.” He would eventually log more than 4,000 hours of flight time, and cover some 413,000 miles. (NASM (SI 75-7024))

A.jpg" /> On August 6, 1918, pioneers of the airmail came together at the Standard Aero Corporation factory in Elizabeth, New Jersey, where the six JR-1B aircraft that would begin the service were manufactured. Otto Praeger (second from left), the second assistant postmaster general, has been called “the father of airmail.” He hired engineer Benjamin Lipsner (fourth from right) to run the operations. Lipsner in turn hired four pilots and one reserve pilot. From right, the first four civilian pilots: Robert Shank, Max Miller (killed in a crash in September 1920), Maurice Newton, and Edward Gardner (to Lipsner’s right). (NASM SI-83-8168)

A.jpg" /> U.S. Airmail flights begin. On May 15, 1918, Army Lieutenant James C. Edgerton, having received a parcel of mail flown from New York, takes off from Bustleton Field in Philadelphia toward Washington, D.C. (NASM (SI-A-38903-4))

A.jpg" /> Second Lieutenant George Boyle (right) thought he’d scored a coup when he learned he was assigned to fly the mail out of Washington, D.C. on the first day of service. Unfortunately, the rookie got lost twice during his attempt to fly from Washington, D.C. to Philadelphia, the route’s halfway point. “The Atlantic Ocean and lack of gas prevent him going further,” noted Major Reuben Fleet (left), who was assigned the task of setting up the first regularly scheduled airmail service. Here, Major Fleet and Lieutenant Boyle review a map of their flight route on the Polo Grounds in Washington, May 15, 1918. (NASM (00138840))

A.jpg" /> When de Havilland DH-4s first flew mail across the country, the mail sacks would have to be transferred to a train to keep the mail moving at night. By 1923, mail was transferred to another DH-4, which could follow a lighted airway from Chicago to Omaha, Nebraska, where this photograph was taken. (NASM (SI-75-7026))

A.jpg" /> An unidentified clerk at the Fort Crook landing field in Omaha, Nebraska, poses with a dispatch board listing the stops on the Chicago, Illinois to Cheyenne, Wyoming, airmail run. Airmail movements were tracked by moving cardboard disks with pilots’ names and airplane’s numbers. (NASM (SI-91-7061))

A.jpg" /> Mechanics who serviced the DH-4s (one in the hangar in background) were sometimes blamed for the inadequacies of the Liberty engines that powered them. This group worked at the Fort Crook airfield, in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1928, after the Post Office had handed off the mail to contract carriers. (NASM (SI-91-7029))

A.jpg" /> Between January 1922 and June 1927, airmail pilots flew more than 14 million miles, delivering more than 250 million letters. National Air Transport flew Boeing 40s, and was one of the first companies to form in 1925 after legislation authorized the government to award contracts for airmail delivery. (NASM (SI-89-12166))

A.jpg" /> Charles Lindbergh was one of three pilots who flew for the St. Louis-based Robertson Aircraft Corporation, which won the contract to fly mail between St. Louis and Chicago in 1926. Possibly because Lindbergh crashed two of the company’s four airplanes—bailing out once because his engine quit and a second time after a snowstorm kept him from landing and he ran out of gas—Robertson sold its operations to a company that eventually became American Airlines. (NASM (SI-78-12207))

A.jpg" /> James “Jack” Knight (left) was one of the best-known airmail pilots, making a heroic night flight from Omaha, Nebraska, to Chicago, Illinois, on February 23, 1921. At the conclusion of his epic journey, Knight told the New York Times “I feel fine, except that I need some eats and some sleep.” Other pilots weren’t so sanguine. Clarence Lange would briefly quit the Air Mail Service, reporting shattered nerves due to the strain of night flying. Knight and Lange are shown here modeling winter flying clothing issued by the government in January 1922. (NASM (SI-83-8165))

A.jpg" /> Pilot Eugene Johnson lands in Hazelhurst, New York, carrying mail from the West Coast, in the first transcontinental air mail flight on August 22, 1923. Coast-to-coast flying was made possible only with the advent of night flying. As the Los Angeles Times breathlessly reported in 1923, “The line of lights by which the night transit of the airplanes between Chicago and Cheyenne is guided appeals to the imagination as well as to practical instincts…. This chain of glittering points seems to have a mystical significance. It may be regarded as typical of the light of science, showing the way to mankind in his flight against time and distance.” (NASM (SI-A-32904-M))

Photo Gallery

Addison Pemberton's Boeing 40C (background) and Larry Tobin's 1927 Stearman C3B biplane are two of the three airplanes that will retrace the 1920s cross-country airmail route in September 2008. (George Perks) The planned route for the 2008 transcontinental mail flight:
Sept. 10 – Depart New York Republic field (FRG) 9:30AM. Arrive Belafonte, PA. (N96) late morning. Depart and arrive Cleveland (BKL) late afternoon, early evening. Overnight stop.
Sept. 11 – Depart Cleveland (BKL) 9:30AM. Arrive late morning Bryan, Ohio (OG6). Depart and arrive Chicago Lansing Airport (IGQ) late afternoon. Arrive early evening Iowa City (IOW) Overnight stop.
Sept. 12 – Depart Iowa City 9:30AM. Arrive Omaha, NB (OMA) late morning. Depart and arrive North Platt NB(LBF) late afternoon. Overnight stop.
Sept.13 – Depart North Platt, NB 9:30AM. Arrive late morning Cheyenne, WY (CYS) Depart and arrive mid afternoon Rawlins, WY (RWL). Depart and arrive Rock Springs, WY (RKS) early evening. Overnight stop.
Sept.14 – Arrive late morning Salt Lake # 2 (U42). Depart and arrive Elko, NV (EKO) late afternoon. Depart and arrive Reno, NV (RNO) early evening. Overnight stop.
Sept. 15 – Depart Reno, NV 9:30AM. Depart and arrive Hayward, CA (HWD) late morning. Depart Hayward, CA mid day for SFO or Chrissy Field to be determined and return to Hayward, CA. (R. Davies) Working on the Boeing 40C in Pemberton's shop in Spokane, Washington. (Ryan Pemberton) The Boeing 40C as it looked during construction in April 2007. (Ryan Pemberton) Left: Pilot Grant Donaldson shakes Bill Boeing's hand while standing on the wheel of his Boeing 40C in 1928. Right: Same airplane, 80 years later, with pilot Addison Pemberton shaking Bill Boeing, Jr.'s hand. (George Perks) Pemberton takes the Boeing 40C on a test flight in February 20008. (George Perks)

Photo Gallery

Video: The First Day of Airmail, 1918

Video: Build a Mailplane in 37 Seconds

Video: Air Mail Service ca. 1923

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In a way, that’s what Addison Pemberton is doing this week as he retraces the first U.S. coast-to-coast airmail route, flying a mailplane built only 10 years after the first mail flights of 1918. Pemberton will carry 700 envelopes that will receive special cancellations from postal representatives to commemorate the flight. With a daily blog and historical features drawing from Smithsonian archives, this Web site will follow his group’s progress—from the first stop in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, on September 10, to the last stop in San Francisco on September 15.

Pemberton, owner of a Spokane-based manufacturing company, has been flying since he was 15 and is a collector of vintage aircraft. (He has restored 19.) He likes all open-cockpit, round-engine varieties, but his favorites have always been the machines that carried the U.S. Mail. On the reenactment, he’ll fly his Boeing Air Transport, one of the early companies awarded a government contract to deliver mail. It is the great grandaddy of today’s 747s, one of the first aircraft to carry paying passengers along with a load of letters, and key to the Boeing Company’s eventual success. Pemberton’s is the only one flying today.

Two other pilots will fly mailplanes on the cross-country trip: Larry Tobin of Colbert, Washington, will fly the oldest airworthy Stearman biplane, a 1927 Stearman C3B, and Ben Scott will fly a 1930 Stearman 4E Speedmail. (Scott and Pemberton, who also owns a Speedmail, flew the pair on a reenactment flight in 1993 to celebrate the 75th anniversary of airmail.)

Pemberton inherited his enthusiasm for mailplanes from his dad. “My father grew up in Greenfield, Iowa,” he says, “a town between Omaha and Iowa City”—two stops on the transcontinental route the early mailplanes flew. “Every bedtime story I heard had something to do with the airmail.”

There could hardly be a more colorful crew than the pilots who flew for the Post Office during the first years of airmail. There was Frank Yager, who once flew in fog so heavy that he landed and taxied for 35 miles across the prairie, getting airborne only to hop fences Slim Lewis, who was said to have been able to fly better drunk than most pilots could sober and Homer Berry, who, until he got caught, ran an unauthorized taxi business from Laramie to Rawlins, Wyoming by charging passengers $50 to ride in the mail pit.

To get a good idea of the personality types attracted to the job, look at Nathaniel Dewell’s photograph of pilot William “Wild Bill” Hopson, one of the most iconic portraits in American art, or read Dean Smith’s memoir By the Seat of My Pants . Of a two-ship mission he once flew with William Hopson he wrote:

Not long out we noticed a film of ice forming on the struts, wires, and entering edges of the wings but it built up slowly…. I saw Bill signal that he was going to land, and I followed him into a large pasture.

Since it had taken over half an hour to accumulate that much ice, if we could get the ice off we ought to be able to go another half hour and land again. We found some clubs along the fence row and beat off the ice as well as we could, organized a team to crank our propellers from the inevitable spectators, and took off. It went as planned.  Ice slowly formed…, Bill pointed to a pasture we landed we hacked off the ice, and soon we were again in the air.

Pemberton’s childhood hero was mail pilot Jack Knight. Of the many courageous fliers, why Knight?

A shaky start

The agency initially had no headquarters. It had bases spread out across old, disused war buildings as well as the original Flight Service stations. Finally, a new, central office was set up at 800, Independence Avenue, Washington. However, on the day the agency planned to move and start transforming the industry, they heard the news: President Kennedy had been assassinated.

After a less than ideal start, the newly formed FAA went from strength to strength. The agency introduced new regulations to avoid mid-air crashes, deregulated the industry for new airlines, performed checks on new technology, and, in July 1970, it established the Air Traffic Control Systems Command Center. This integrated multiple services into one central hub, minimizing communication issues and allowing for greater collaboration for the benefit of pilots and airlines.

That’s not to say there weren’t issues. Labor strikes in the early 1970s lead to a huge walkout. This, in turn, led to the National Association of Air Traffic Specialists (NAATS) union representing all Flight Service specialists. There were many other issues such as hijackings, growing environmental concerns, noise pollution, and stowaways, but the most significant event which shaped the FAA happened on September 11 th , 2001.

Airmail’s First Day

New York City Postmaster Thomas G. Patten hands off the mail to Lieutenant Torrey Webb. Webb flew his Curtiss "Jenny" JN-4H from New York City to Philadelphia, where it would be picked up for the next leg to Washington, D.C. (Library of Congress)

The Post Office called on Army Air Service pilots to carry the first airmail. Despite numerous hardships, the first flying postmen usually made their appointed rounds.

In 1834, Postmaster General William T. Barry remarked that “the celerity of the mail should always be equal to the most rapid transition of the traveler.” Little did he realize that “the transition of the traveler” would one day reach supersonic speeds.

The development of airmail began long before the invention of the airplane, the dirigible or even the balloon. It began with the pigeon post, which was used by armies many years before the birth of Christ to send messages long distances. Since then, all the man-made vehicles of the air have been used to carry letters from one place to another. Lighter-than-air craft carried mail. Then came the airplane. In the Space Age, experiments have been conducted with missile mail, and messages have been carried on spacecraft and deposited on the planets and the moon for future explorers to discover.

The story of airmail really begins on May 15, 1918, when the world’s first regularly scheduled airmail route was inaugurated under U.S. government auspices between New York and Washington, D.C., with a stop at Philadelphia. The distance of the route was 218 miles, and one round trip per day was made, six days a week. Army Air Service pilots flew the route until August 10, 1918, when the Post Office Department took over the entire operation with its own planes and pilots.

Attempts to start airmail service had begun as early as 1912, when it seemed that the airplane might developinto a practicable means of transportation. Recommendations were made to Congress that year to appropriate $50,000 to start an experimental service. Many government permits were issued to make short exhibition flights with mail, but it was not until 1916 that sufficient funds were made available to begin scheduled operations. Advertisements for bids were issued but not one was received. However, the war in Europe caused improvements in aircraft to be made rapidly, and in the fiscal year ending June 30, 1918, Congress appropriated $100,000 for development of an experimental route between Washington and New York. Bids were to be delivered within 10 days.

Much to the surprise of the Post Office Department, Colonel E.A. Deeds, head of the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps (later the Army Air Service), offered to operate the postal route with military planes and pilots. The offer had developed because of a request from Europe that pilots be given more cross-country experience before being sent overseas. Flying the mail over a fixed route system would give pilots valuable experience.

On March 1, 1918, the Post Office Department made an agreement with the War Department “to inaugurate an Aerial Mail Service between Washington, D.C., and New York beginning May 15th.” Major Reuben H. Fleet, the executive officer to Colonel Henry H. “Hap” Arnold in charge of planning instruction at Army Air Service schools, was concerned about training pilots at 34 fields in the United States setting up an experimental airmail service was far from his mind. Consequently, when he saw the War Department order dated May 3, 1918, he paid little attention to it. Fleet, a tall, broad-shouldered man who would one day be president of his own aircraft company, had enough problems without worrying about what he considered unrelated responsibilities.

Major Reuben H. Fleet talks with one of the Army mechanics in front of a Jenny after flying from Philadelphia, to the Polo Field at Potomac Park in Washington, D.C. (Library of Congress)

On May 6, Fleet received a summons from Secretary of War Newton D. Baker and was told that Arnold had recommended him for the job of getting the airmail route started. Baker said, “The first plane will leave Washington for Philadelphia at precisely 11 a.m. on May 15th. President Wilson will be there.”

Fleet was dumbfounded. “Mr. Secretary,” he said, “we don’t have any planes that can fly from Washington to Philadelphia and New York. The best plane we have is the Curtiss JN-4D Jenny, and it will fly only an hour and twenty minutes. Its maximum range is 88 miles at a cruising speed of 66 miles per hour.”

Baker listened patiently while Fleet explained that the range of a plane was dependent upon its fuel supply, that the Jennies had dual controls and were designed to carry only an instructor and a student, and that they had no baggage compartment where mail could be stowed. He told of the shortage of pilots, of how very few Air Service pilots had any experience flying cross-country, of how there were no adequate maps available, and of how there was a lack of good, experienced aircraft mechanics. He said he would need much more than eight days to modify some planes, test them and train some pilots.

Baker was adamant. Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson had already issued a national press release announcing that the airmail route was going to be inaugurated at 11 a.m. on May 15th, and he was not going to back down. The schedule, already announced, called for daily flights five days a week between Washington, Philadelphia and New York.

Fleet was furious, but he knew he could not waste a minute. He made arrangements with the Curtiss Aeroplane Corporation on Long Island, N.Y., to convert six JN-4Ds to JN-4Hs, which involved replacing the standard 90-hp OX-5 engines with 150-hp Hispano-Suizas.

The Army’s Curtiss JN-4Ds, with a range of only 88 miles, had their standard 90hp OX-5 engines replaced with 150-hp Hispano-Suizas. (Library of Congress)

“And leave out the front seat and the front set of controls and make a hopper to carry mailbags up there,” Fleet ordered. He also asked that the gas capacity be doubled by hooking two 19-gallon gas tanks and two 21/2-gallon oil tanks in tandem for longer range operation. A total of 12 modified Jennies would eventually be required.

Next, he made arrangements with the owner of Belmont Park, a racetrack on Long Island, to use the infield as a terminus so that the training of Army pilots would not have to be interrupted on Hazelhurst Field at nearby Mineola. Bustleton Field, located near the railroad station in north Philadelphia, was designated for the midpoint station. The Washington, D.C., field would be Potomac Park’s old Polo Grounds, a 900-by-300-foot grassy area surrounded by trees between the Tidal Basin and the Potomac River. Fleet wanted to use the airport at College Park, Md., but postal officials objected because it was nine miles outside the city, too far from the main post office.

Mechanics were hurriedly located and ordered to report to the three fields. Fleet asked for six Army Air Service pilots and was told to choose four the Post Office Department would choose the other two. Fleet selected Lieutenants Howard P. Culver, Torrey H. Webb, Walter Miller and Stephen Bonsal. They were the most experienced pilots available who had not yet been committed to go to France however, only Culver had more than four months of flying experience.

Post Office Department officials selected Lieutenants James C. Edgerton and George L. Boyle, two recent flight-training graduates. Fleet understood why these two were chosen when he learned that Edgerton’s father was purchasing agent for the Post Office Department and Boyle’s future father-in-law, Judge Charles C. McChord, was an Interstate Commerce commissioner who was credited with saving the parcel post for the Post Office Department at a time when private express companies were fighting the government in court for the business. This victory gave Judge McChord enough political power to persuade postal officials to let his soon-to-be son-in-law go down in the history books.

Edgerton and Boyle had graduated only a few days before from flying school at Ellington Field, Texas. During their training they had flown briefly on one cross-country training flight, a short hop from Ellington to another field about 10 or 14 miles away. Both had only about 60 hours of student pilot time in their log books.

Fleet was furious over the two assignments made solely on the basis of political contacts, but he had no choice. On May 13, he took the train to New York with five of the six pilots, leaving Boyle in Washington to take the first flight north to Philadelphia. The modified JN-4Hs had arrived at Hazelhurst Field by the time he arrived, but they were still in crates. Fleet had only 72 hours to get them assembled and into position to begin operations.

Mechanics and pilots worked around the clock to get the planes ready. By the afternoon of the 14th, only two were ready to go. Leaving Webb in charge of getting the other planes ready, Fleet commandeered a Jenny from Hazelhurst Field that had the smaller engine and no extra fuel and oil tanks. The plan was for Edgerton, Culver and Fleet to fly to Bustleton Field and stay overnight. Early on the 15th, Fleet planned to fly one of the modified Jennies on to Washington so that Boyle would have the honor that Judge McChord so keenly wanted him to have.

Webb would leave Belmont Park at 11:30 a.m. on the 15th and fly the New York mail to Philadelphia Edgerton would then fly Webb’s mail pouch and the Philadelphia mail from there to Washington. When Boyle arrived at Bustleton from Washington, Culver would take the Philadelphia mail, along with the pouches that Boyle would bring from Washington, to Belmont. From then on, these four pilots, plus Bonsal and Miller, would make all the trips during the experiment.

Fleet’s best-laid plans went askew from the start. He took off from Belmont in the late afternoon of May 14 for the 90-mile flight to Philadelphia in thick haze and fog, followed by Edgerton and Culver in their faster JN-4Hs. Fleet soon lagged behind in his lighter powered Jenny, and he lost sight of the others.

Fleet described the flight: “I climbed through the fog and came out at 11,000 feet, almost the ceiling of the plane. I flew south guided only by magnetic compass and the sun until I ran out of gas and the engine quit. Since we didn’t have ‘chutes in those days, there was nothing I could do but ride the Jenny down. I broke out of the clouds at about 3,000 feet over lush farmland, so I just picked out a nice pasture and landed. A surprised farmer sold me a five-gallon can of tractor gas but I had trouble getting it in the tank without a funnel. Perhaps three gallons got in the tank and the rest all over me, but darkness was coming and I couldn’t wait to get more from town. I asked him to point out the direction Philadelphia was and took off. Two miles from Bustleton Field I ran out of gas again and landed in a meadow. Since no telephone was available, I persuaded a farmer to drive me to Bustleton Field. Culver and Edgerton had just arrived after similar experiences, so I sent Culver with aviation gasoline to get my plane and fly it in.

“There were so many things wrong with our planes and their engines that we worked all night to get them in safe flying condition. For example, one gas tank had a hole in it and we had to plug it up with an ordinary lead pencil. Next morning, one machine was flyable, so at 8:40 a.m. I took off for Washington, where I landed at 10:35 at the [Polo Grounds] in Potomac Park. The mail was due to start twenty-five minutes later.”

One of the airmail Jennys lands on the makeshift airfield on the Polo Grounds of Potomac Park. (Library of Congress)

While Fleet had been worrying about the technical flying details, Captain Benjamin B. Lipsner had been detailed to take care of administrative matters. He was waiting nervously at Potomac Park, wondering if he had taken care of all the necessary details. Although not a pilot himself, he knew he would be criticized if anything went wrong with the arrangements, especially since President and Mrs. Woodrow Wilson and many other VIPs, such as members of Congress, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels and his assistant, Franklin D. Roosevelt, had been invited to witness the takeoff of “the first plane in history to carry mail at an announced time to and from designated places on a regular schedule irrespective of weather.”

The Polo Grounds had never been intended to be a flying field, but it was the only open flat space available in the city at the time. Towering trees stood like sentinels around the field. On earlier demonstration flights, Jennies had barely cleared the trees.

Lipsner was greatly relieved when Fleet circled the field, squeaked his way among the trees and landed. Lipsner asked him if Boyle did not show up, would he take the first run. Fleet said he would, but Boyle–accompanied by his fiancée, who was holding an armful of roses–arrived at that moment.

Producing a road map he had strapped to his thigh, Fleet instructed Boyle to follow the railroad tracks northward out of Washington’s Union Station all the way to Philadephia. As they were talking, a long line of shiny black cars chugged into the entrance to the Polo Grounds while Army guards held back a cheering crowd. Secret Service agents surrounded President and Mrs. Wilson as they stepped down from the lead car, smiling. The president’s left hand was bandaged because of a burn he had suffered from having inadvertently touched a hot cannon the day before at a military ceremony.

On hand for delivery at the Polo Grounds in Potomac Park, Washington D.C., were Postmaster General Albert Burleson and President Woodrow Wilson. (Library of Congress)

As the president shook hands with the two pilots, a siren blared across the field and a motorcycle escort sped ahead of a mail truck. The truck parked nearby, and four mail bags were unloaded that contained 3,300 letters and weighed 140 pounds. Merrill Chance, the Washington postmaster, held one of the bags open and President Wilson dropped in a letter addressed to Postmaster Thomas G. Patten in New York City. The president had written his name at the top of the envelope above the fresh cancellation of a new airmail stamp that had just been released. Six ranking Post Office officials also placed their initials on the white selvage attached to the stamp. Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson called this the “first aeroplane stamp to be sold by [his] department.”

Burleson presented Boyle with a bouquet of flowers and presented Fleet with engraved watches for himself and the six pilots. When the bags were placed in the plane, Boyle climbed into the cockpit. “Switch off!” he shouted to Sergeant E. F. Waters. Waters turned the propeller three times.

“Contact!” Waters yelled, and Boyle replied, “Contact!” Boyle turned the switch on and Waters used all his strength to spin the propeller. The engine coughed once and died. Waters tried again. And again. And again.

Fleet, standing nearby, thought the problem might be the spark plugs. While Sergeant Waters tried to find the problem, Fleet heard the president, visibly annoyed, whisper to Mrs. Wilson, “We’re losing a lot of time here.”

“Sergeant, check the gas tank,” Fleet ordered. Waters climbed up on the plane’s wing with a dip stick. It came out dry. In the excitement, the formalities and picture taking, everything had been checked but the gas tank!

Fleet ordered that the tanks of three aircraft parked nearby should be drained of fuel for Boyle’s plane. He also sent a truck to the Navy yard to borrow replacement gasoline. Several more cans were filled, and the engine was finally started. Everyone, including the president, smiled with relief.

Lieutenant Boyle taxied out and began the takeoff run. Bumping stiffly on its tail skid at first, the frail machine slowly gathered speed–but it was heading for the trees!

The crowd gasped and fell silent. At the last second, Boyle eased back on the stick, missing the treetops by about three feet. The crowd breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Except for the fact that Boyle was 45 minutes late getting off, everything seemed to have gone just as the Post Office Department press releases said it would. While Fleet remained to greet Edgerton on his arrival from Philadelphia, Lipsner returned to his office to find a telephone call waiting from New York. After appropriate ceremonies there, Lieutenant Webb had departed Belmont on schedule, carrying mail from New York. An hour later, another phone call came in from Bustleton Field. Webb had arrived there and turned the mail over to Edgerton, who loaded it aboard, along with the southbound Philadelphia mail.

Major Fleet attaches an aerial map to the leg of Lt. George L. Boyle, who flew one of the the first mail planes from Washington to New York City. (Library of Congress)

Culver loaded his northbound Philadelphia mail and waited for Boyle. When Boyle did not arrive in a reasonable time, Culver took off anyway at 2:15 p.m. and arrived at Belmont to a rousing welcome–even though he carried no mail from Washington.

Meanwhile, a call came to Colonel Arnold from Boyle about an hour after he had departed the Polo Grounds. Lost and nearly out of gas, he had landed in a farmer’s field at Waldorf, Md., 20 miles southeast of his takeoff point. The plane had flipped over on its back and the prop was splintered, but he was unhurt. Ironically, he had crashed on property next to that owned by Otto Praeger, second assistant postmaster general, who was in charge of the airmail operation. His mail was quietly trucked back to Washington.

Instead of following the railroad tracks northward, Boyle had followed a branch line out of the Washington rail yard that took him southeast instead of north. His unreliable compass was no help. The young lieutenant had become not only the first official, scheduled-airmail pilot to depart with mail from Washington but, unhappily, had also become the first airmail pilot to get lost and the first to have an accident.

Meanwhile, Lieutenant Edgerton had landed on schedule at the Polo Grounds that afternoon to be greeted by a relieved Fleet and a small but enthusiastic crowd. He carried 150 pounds of letters and copies of The New York Times.

Boyle’s mail bags were sent by air next day on the scheduled northbound flight. That flight carried 600 letters, including the one President Wilson had autographed. (This letter was later auctioned off for the benefit of the Red Cross in New York City for $1,000.)

The first day of the airmail service was termed a complete success by Post Office Department officials, although Fleet, Lipsner and a few other government personnel felt differently.

While no one else seemed to worry about Boyle’s flying skill, Fleet was very concerned. He wanted a replacement pilot assigned immediately, but Postmaster General Burleson asked Colonel Arnold to “give the young man a chance.”

Two days after his forced landing, Boyle took off again, this time with Edgerton flying ahead following the four-track Pennsylvania Railroad in a training Jenny to make sure Boyle was headed in the right direction. About 50 miles north of Washington where the railroad crossed the Susuehanna, Edgerton waved Boyle ahead, confident that he could not get lost going the rest of the distance to Philadelphia, and returned to Washington.

But Boyle did get lost again. Completely disoriented after Edgerton turned back, he edged southward again in the area’s typical spring haze and followed the shoreline of Chesapeake Bay in a semicircle. After three hours and 15 minutes, he landed in a pasture at Cape Charles at the tip of the Virginia Peninsula. As Fleet commented in his report of the first day’s operation, “[Only] the Atlantic Ocean and lack of gas prevent[ed] him going farther.”

Boyle bought tractor gas and oilfrom a farmer, asked for directionsand took off again. He found Philadelphia this time and flew around the city looking for Bustleton Field untilhe ran out of gas. He crash-landed between two birch trees on the golf course of the Philadelphia Country Club, onlya few miles from his intended destination on the north side of Philadel-phia. Although both wings had been sheared off and the landing gear and fuselage were badly smashed, Boyle escaped unhurt. Once more, his mail was trucked to a take-off point.

To Fleet’s dismay, postal officials again requested that “Lieutenant Boyle be given a third chance and, if he fails, the Department will take the responsibility for his failure.” Fleet protested and denied the request, saying with uncharacteristic restraint, “The conclusion has been reached that the best interests of the service require that Lieutenant Boyle be relieved from this duty.” He was backed up in his decision by Secretary of War Baker. Boyle was replaced by Lieutenant E.W. Killgore, who served successfully during the three-month experiment but was involved in five forced landings due to mechanical failure.

In a mid-1960s interview, Reuben Fleet told the author that Boyle’s performance was understandable: “There were no maps of much value to airmen in those days. Major E. Lester Jones, chief of the Geodetic Survey Office, made up maps for the airmail pilots. The official state maps of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland were all of different scales and they showed only political divisions with nothing of a physical nature except cities, towns, rivers, harbors, etc. We had to fold large maps of the United States in a strip in order to have everything on a uniform scale. Naturally, they contained little detail.

“In addition to poor maps, the magnetic compass in any airplane was highly inaccurate and was affected by everything metal on the airplane. Pilots almost had to have a sixth sense about navigating and many didn’t acquire this until they had flown a long time. Lieutenant Boyle simply didn’t have enough training to do the job and should not be criticized too severely for his mistakes.”

Lieutenant Edgerton, the other Post Office Department selectee, served during the entire three-month experiment without accident and flew more trips and had more flying time (106 hours) than any of the other five pilots he had only one forced landing, which was caused by mechanical difficulties. Postmaster General Burleson gave him a special commendation for his “judgment and courage as well in storms as in fair weather.”

Army Air Service pilots continued to fly the New York­Washington route between May 15 and August 10, 1918, without much more public notice beyond the first two or three days. Although few people knew it, the pilots still had their difficulties. The pledge to keep on a regular schedule six days a week “irrespective of weather” drove the pilots to take exceptional risks. However, unplanned landings due to mechanical malfunctions were relatively infrequent considering the times. The airmail pilot’s greatest threat–then, as always–was the weather.

At the end of the first month of operations, the Post Office Department published a press release noting that 10,800 pounds of mail had been flown over 1,000 miles at an average speed of 70 mph. Edgerton was mentioned as having made 20 perfect flights without “a stop en route, and without damaging a plane.”

Army pilots flew a total of 421.5 hours covering thousands of miles without a fatality or serious injury, but 53 were forced down because of bad weather and 16 had ended in forced landings due to mechanical difficulties. (National Archives)

On June 3, the first airmail flight was scheduled to be made between New York and Boston on a single round-trip basis. For public relations and goodwill purposes, Lieutenant Gustave Vannelle, a French aviator, was chosen to make the first flight, along with a mechanic. He crashed on takeoff, and both men suffered minor injuries. On June 6, Lieutenant Torrey Webb was assigned a Curtiss R-4 for the trip Robert Heck, a mechanic, was to accompany him. Webb got lost en route in a severe rainstorm, landed in a pasture to ask for directions and finally landed at the Franklin Park Aviation Field in Saugas, Mass., where the plane hit a mudhole and flipped over on its back. Neither Webb nor Heck was hurt.

After his plane was repaired, Webb returned to New York in bad weather on June 11 with 64 pounds of mail and Boston Postmaster William Murray as a passenger. As Webb recalled later, “Visibility was zero-zero and I just skimmed over the telephone poles all the way.”

Although postal officials bragged about the new postal service, the public did not want to pay the extra charge for airmail stamps. Planeloads of mail averaged less than 50 pounds daily. However, when the airmail experiment with the Army Air Service ended after three months, the operational statistics were impressive for the time period, despite the mishaps and interrupted schedules.

The Army pilots had successfully completed 270 flights and had carried 40,500 pounds of mail. They had flown a total of 421:30 hours without a fatality or serious injury. Of the trips flown, 53 were forced down because of bad weather en route and 16 had ended in forced landings due to mechanical difficulties. Lieutenant James Edgerton had the best record, with 52 trips covering 7,155 miles and only one forced landing.

The Army Air Service pilots had proved they could maintain a fair semblance of regular schedules if a suitable system was set up, the airplanes were properly maintained and the pilots were trained. These pioneers had set an enviable standard of performance for those who followed as civilian employees of the Post Office Department.

The last flight by the Army Air Service pilots took place on Saturday, August 10, 1918. The Post Office Department took over the airmail operation officially the following Monday and continued until September 1, 1927. By the time the Air Mail Service of the Post Office Department was fully replaced by commercial operators flying the mail under government contract, a transcontinental route had been established, radio aids to navigation and “blind flying” instruments were being developed, and planes were flying day and night. Today’s modern airline industry is the direct outgrowth of those pioneering efforts.

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