THE FIRST aerial mail transportation may be traced back to 1870, when
in that year letters were carried out of beleaguered Paris by free
balloons, cast adrift in the winds. The first of such flights was
made on September 23, 1870, and carried 500 pounds of mail. This service,
of course, was not satisfactory, as the balloons could not be controlled
and were just as liable as not to land in enemy territory. Some of them
were carried by the winds many miles from Paris before they came down, and
some of them were never heard of after leaving Paris.
PILOT EARL OVINGTON receiving the
first pouch of air mail letters ever flown in the US, September 23,
1911 from a Post Office official.
In the year 1911 demonstrations of airplane mail
service were made in India, England and the United States. The first air
mail service in the United States, however, was conducted at the aviation
meeting at Nassau Boulevard, Long Island, N. Y., during the week of
September 23 to 30, 1911. Earle L. Ovington, with his "Queen" monoplane,
was duly appointed an air mail carrier and covered a set route between the
temporary post office established at the flying field and the post office
at Mineola, N. Y., dropping the pouches at the latter point for the
postmaster to pick up. This service, performed without expense to the
Department, was flown at regular intervals during the period, a total of
32,415 post cards, 3,993 letters and 1,062 circulars being carried. It was
quite satisfactory on the whole, and very promising.
A few other similar experiments were made during
the remainder of the year 1911, and the Post Office Department recognizing
the possibility of developing the airplane into a practicable means of
aerial transportation, made recommendation to Congress early in 1912 for
an appropriation of $50,000 with which to start an experimental service,
but Congress refused to grant the appropriation. Notwithstanding, the keen
interest of the Post Office Department in aerial transportation was kept
up and during the fiscal year 1912 a total of 31 orders, covering 16
different states, were issued permitting mail to be carried on short
exhibition and experimental flights between certain points. Such service
was merely temporary, of course, but performed in each instance by a sworn
carrier, and without expense to the Department. These experimental flights
were continued, however, request being made on Congress for an air mail
appropriation from year to year.
During the fiscal year 1916 funds were made
available for the payment of aeroplane service, out of the appropriation
for Steamboat or other Power Boat Service, and in that year advertisements
were issued inviting bids for service on one route in Massachusetts and on
several in Alaska. No bids were received under the advertisements, due to
the fact that possible bidders were unable to obtain suitably constructed
planes for the proposed service. Nevertheless, negotiations with airplane
manufacturers and other interested aviation activities were pushed
forward, looking to the earliest possible establishment of a carefully
conducted experimental air mail service.
The development of the airplane in the World War,
and the important part it was then playing as a fighting factor in that
great struggle, also served to further strengthen the belief of postal
officials that it certainly could be developed into a means of fast
commercial and mail transportation as well. A final step looking toward
this end was taken when Congress appropriated $100,000 for the fiscal year
ending June 30, 1918, to be used in the establishment of an experimental
air mail route.
INAUGURAL OF AIR MAIL SERVICE, MAY
15, 1918, WASHINGTON, D.C. Left to right: Major Reuben Fleet
(in charge of Army pilots), Sergeant Waters and George Boyle, pilot
on first flight out of Washington, D.C.
Careful preliminary study and consideration had
been given this new undertaking and on May 15, 1918, the first air mail route in
the United States was established between New York, N. Y., and Washington,
D. C., with a stop at Philadelphia, Pa., for the exchange of mails or
plane. The distance of the route was approximately 218 miles and the
frequency of service was one round trip daily, except Sunday. This service
was inaugurated with the cooperation of the War Department, which
furnished the planes and pilots and conducted the flying and maintenance
operations, the Post Office Department handling the mail and matters
The cooperation of the War Department, which was
of great value, was maintained until August 12, 1918, when the Post Office
Department took over the entire operation of the route, furnishing its own
equipment and personnel.
AIR MAIL SERVICE INAUGURAL
CEREMONY, MAY 15, 1918. Left to right: Otto Praeger, Second Assistant
Postmaster General, Merrit O. Chance, Postmaster, Washington, D.C.,
Albert S. Burleson, Postmast General, President Woodrow Wilson.
Flights on regular schedule, in all kinds of
weather, presented new and unsolved problems, but gradually difficulties
were overcome and a very reliable percentage of performance was attained
over the route. In fact, the operation of this experimental route was so
successful that the Department immediately began to lay plans for the
extension of the service, and with a view toward the possible
establishment of a transcontinental route from New York City to San
The first leg of this important route was
established on July 1 of the same year.
These two latter routes were utilized to advance
delivery of mail in connection with train service, and this was
accomplished in the following manner. Chicago and Cleveland gateway mail
was dispatched by plane from New York to Cleveland, where it was placed on
trains that left New York the evening before, thus saving about 16 hours
in time to the Middle West and 24 hours to the coast.
Eastbound flights over this route advanced
delivery of gateway mail from Cleveland to New York in the same manner. On
the Cleveland-Chicago route mail from the east was taken from the train at
Cleveland in the morning and flown to Chicago in time for the last city
delivery, saving approximately 16 hours in time. On the eastbound trips
mail was flown from Chicago to overtake the mail train at Cleveland, which
reached New York at 9:40 the following morning, thereby effecting a saving
in time of approximately 16 hours in the delivery of mail to New York City
and the New England States.
On the three routes in operation during the fiscal
year 1919, there were in the air daily eight planes, flying an aggregate
of 1,906 miles each day. The record of performance during this fiscal year
was 96.54 per cent, and this record was made with more than 30 per cent of
the trips flown in rain, fog, mist or other conditions of poor visibility.
On May 15, 1920, the third leg of the
transcontinental route, Chicago, Ill., to Omaha, Nebr., via Iowa City,
Iowa, was established, performing service similar to that performed on the
routes between New York and Chicago. On August 16, 1920, a route was
established between Chicago and St. Louis, and on December 1 of the same
year a route was also established between Chicago and Minneapolis. Both of
these latter routes expedited mail between the points named, and were
feeder lines to mail trains and the transcontinental route at Chicago.
The last leg of the transcontinental route, Omaha,
Nebr., to San Francisco, Calif., via North Platte, Nebr., Cheyenne,
Rawlins and Rock Springs, Wyo., Salt Lake City Utah, and Elko and Reno,
Nevada, was inaugurated on September 8, 1920. The initial westbound trip
was made at the rate of 80 miles per hour and was flown without a forced
landing, either for weather or mechanical trouble. The plane carried
16,000 letters, which arrived in San Francisco 22 hours ahead of the best
possible time by train, had the train made all its connections.
Due to the necessity of economizing on
expenditures, and the fact that Congress had not specifically authorized
the same, the New York-Washington route was discontinued on May 31, 1921,
and the Minneapolis-Chicago and the Chicago-St. Louis routes on June 30,
1921. Operation was then confined to the service between New York and San
Francisco, for which appropriation was specifically made.
THE FIRST AIR MAIL STAMPS. These stamps were printed in two colors requiring the sheets of
stamps to be passed through the printing presses twice. The
first sheets of stamps were printed upside down. One sheet was
sold before the error was discovered. These stamps are rare
and very valuable today.
PILOT JAMES H. "JACK" KNIGHT. Taken at Checkerboard Field, Maywood, Chicago base on February 23,
1921, after the history-making flight from Cheyenne to Chicago
through storm and darkness.
In order to further demonstrate the possibilities
of the airplane as a factor in the transportation of the mail,
arrangements were made for a through flight from San Francisco to New
York, and on February 22, 1921, an air mail plane left San Francisco at
4:30 a.m., landing at New York (Hazelhurst Field, L. I., N. Y.) at 4:50
p.m. on February 23. The total elapsed time for the trip, including all
stops, was 33 hours and 21 minutes. The actual flying time was 25 hours
and 16 minutes, and the average speed was 104 miles per hour over the
entire distance of 2629 miles.
This flight was made possible by flying at night
between Cheyenne, Wyo., and Chicago, Ill., a class of service the need of
which was seen by the Department. While the present relay service had been
brought up to a high degree of perfection, yet it was apparent to the
Department that if the route could be operated from New York to San
Francisco on a through schedule, flying both night and day, a wonderful
stride in the development of air mail transportation would be
With the development of night service in mind, the
Department on August 20, 1920, issued orders for the installation of radio
stations at each field, where this service could not be provided by Navy
Department stations. By November 1, ten of these stations were in
operation, including three belonging to the Navy Department which were to
be used in connection with the operation of the air mail service, and
later on stations were established at all the remaining fields except
Rawlins, Wyo., making a total of 17.
From this time on all plane movements were made on
information as to weather conditions obtained by radio. In addition to
service messages, it was used by other departments in lieu of telegraph
when air mail traffic permitted, and was also of great service in
transmitting weather forecasts and stock market reports for the Department
of Agriculture. In addition to the installation of radio stations, all the
fields were being developed for night flying, and plans studied for the
establishment of beacon lights between fields for the guidance of pilots.
STANDARD MAIL PLANE, CURTISS JN4H,
NEW YORK TO CHICAGO, 1918. Operator U.S. government; mail
load, 180 pounds; span, 31 feet, 4 inches, length, 26 feet, 7
inches; height, 10 feet, 10 inches; speed, 94 m.p.h.; approximate
range, 280 miles; engine, Hispano-Suiza, 8 cylinder, 170 h.p.
When the service was inaugurated in 1918, Curtiss
JN4H planes with Hispano-Suiza motors were used. Soon after the Post
Office Department took over the details of operation in August of that
year, a number of Standard Aircraft Company mail planes were purchased.
These were also equipped with Hispano-Suiza motors, and carried 200 pounds
of mail. Rebuilt DeHaviland planes with Liberty motors were largely used
as the various legs of the transcontinental route were extended.
However; at one time or another, planes of the
following types were used somewhat extensively: Curtiss JN_4_H, with
Wright engine, 150 h.p.; Standard JR-1B, with Wright engine, 150 h.p.;
Curtiss R-4-L, with Liberty-12 engine, 400 h.p.; Curtiss HA, with
Liberty-12 engine; Twin D.H. with two Liberty-6 (Hall Scott) engines, 400
h.p.; Martin mail planes, with two Liberty-12 engines, 800 h.p.; Junker
(JL-6) with B.M.W. engine, 200 h.p., and L.W.F. (type V) with Isotta
Fraschini 250 h.p. engines.
In the fiscal year 1921, the Post Office
Department paid manufacturers $476,109 for new planes and for remodeling
of planes received from the Army. This practice was discontinued beginning
with July 1, 1921, however, when the air mail service adopted the
DeHaviland plane with Liberty-12 engine as standard equipment, disposing
of all other types. A number of factors contributed to this end. Large
stocks of Liberty motors were available and could be had by transfer from
the War Department.
BOEING C-7000 SEAPLANE, SEATTLE TO
VICTORIA, B.C., 1919. Operator, Hubbard Air Transport; mail
load, 150 pounds; span, 31 feet; length, 27 feet; height, 12 feet, 7
inches; speed, 73 m.p.h.; approximate range, 150 miles; engine,
Hall-Scott, 4 cylinder, 100 h.p.
With improvements made on the Liberty motor, such
as heavy stub-tooth gears, drilled pistons and improved oil pump, it could
be considered as reliable and dependable as any motor of that time. If not
more so. A number of DeHaviland planes were also obtained from the War and
Navy Departments, and when remodeled and rebuilt into mail planes, they
were speedy, reliable, long lived and capable of carrying a mail load of
500 pounds. Experience had also proven they were a comparatively safe
plane to operate. The Air Mail Repair Depot was located at Chicago, and
was used for repairing, remodeling and rebuilding of planes, overhauling
of motors, etc.
DeHAVILLAND DH-4, NEW YORK TO SAN
FRANCISCO, 1921. Operator, U.S. government; mail load, 500
pounds; span, 42 feet, 3 inches; length, 29 feet, 7 inches; height,
10 feet, 9 inches; speed, 115 m.p.h.; approximate range, 350 miles;
engine, Liberty, 12 cylinder; 400 h.p.
It might be stated here that when the service
first began to use Liberty motors it was not an uncommon occurrence to
have delayed and uncompleted trips due to trouble. However, by developing
and perfecting rigid inspection, servicing and overhaul methods, actual
forced landings on account of motor trouble became a rare occurrence. Due
to this same system of inspection, forced landings on account of the
failure of the plane or plane parts became almost unheard of.
To Lighted Airway
Pages 1, 2,
US Postal Service