Hero of the Night Sky
When the Post Office proposed experimental
night flying in 1923, not all U.S. Air Mail Service pilots were
eager to volunteer for the new adventure. Tex Marshall
said he wanted no part of it, "... flying a DH-4, for they were
too fast when landing, for at night one had to be sure he did
not stall on coming in, and landed faster than at the same place
in daylight." Frank Yager, on the other hand, welcomed
the opportunity to elevate aviation into a thrilling new dimension.
He also saw an opportunity to hone his aeronautical skills and
increase his take-home pay; airmail pilots who flew the transcontinental
route in the dark of night doubled the mileage scale over daytime
Frank R. Yager, 1924
Yager had already shown his mettle as a
night pilot on February 22, 1921, when during the record-breaking
experiment he flew the mail from Cheyenne to North Platte,
arriving at 7:48 p.m.
Two years later, in February 1923 Yager,
along with fellow pilots Jack Knight, Dean Smith, James F. Moore,
Earl F. White, Ernest M. "Allie" Allison and Harry A. Chandler,
began experimental night flying. They flew a course, from
North Platte to an emergency field twenty-five miles away, testing
such lighting techniques as rotating beacons, routing markers,
field lighting systems.
Then on August 21 he took part in a four-day
demonstration of the transcontinental day-and-night service.
This latest exhibition was hailed by an enthusiastic public
as "the beginning of a new era in aviation."
Transcontinental day-and-night service
began on schedule on July 1, 1924, Yager flying the Cheyenne
to Omaha portion of the route.
Yager arriving from
Cheyenne at 1:40 a.m., Omaha, first night flight,
July 1, 1924.
On July 7, during the first week of the
operation, Yager, left Cheyenne, hoping to out run a storm approaching
from the northwest. By the time he got to Lodgepole, Nebraska,
he could barely see the lights of the emergency field at Chappell,
Nebraska, ten miles ahead. Deciding he'd better wait out
the thunderstorm, he approached the emergency field and was
landing normally when a gust of wind struck the plane.
His seat belt snapped and he was thrown clear of the craft,
which was totally destroyed. Yager suffered no major injuries.
By the end of 1924 Yager had flown 31,473
miles at night, the highest number of miles flown in the darkness
by any airmail pilot up to that time. From his date of
appointment, August 10, 1920, to his last flight on June 27,
1927, 1927, Yager clocked 4,009.04 hours with the U.S. Air Mail
Service over 391,616 miles.
After the Post Office, Yager signed on
with Boeing Air Transport, flying their San Francisco to Chicago
route. With BAT that he suffered another accident, crashing
into a grove of trees near Marquette, Nebraska. Strangely
enough, he failed to realize a passenger had died in the accident.
S.N. Craig of Beaver, Pennsylvania, was already in the passenger
compartment when Yager climbed into his cockpit before leaving
Omaha. Yager had no idea a passenger on on board.
The cause of the accident was a broken
propeller blade, which so unbalanced the motor that the prop
wrenched free from the plane. Yager, who had been flying
low because of head winds at higher altitudes, was thrown from
the plane and suffered cuts, bruises and a skull fracture; his
passenger died on impact.
Yager walked away
from this in 1924.
Yager contributed to the WWII effort testing
B-17 and B-29s for Boeing.
In 1950 on the occasion of the 50th anniversary
of the U.S. Air Mail Service, Yager, at the age of 77, remembered
with nostalgia the swashbuckling days he flew for the Post Office
both by day and by night. He recalled advice he received
one night when he landed at North Platte "too stiff to wiggle.
"Keefe (a North Platte attorney and aviation
buff) told me I needed some crackle to thaw out. It was
cherry-flavored North Platte moonshine. I took a stiff
belt or two and took off for Omaha. I looked down and
the Platte River was jumping all over the place. I pulled
the old ship up as high as I dared to clear my head. By
the time I got to Grand Island the river had settled down.
You know I never felt a bit cold all the way into Omaha."