by Nancy Allison Wright
When I asked Slim Lewis what he thought of fellow airmail pilot and author
Dean C. Smithís description of him in "By the Seat of My Pants,"
Smithís popular autobiography, as some who "...could drink more and fly
better than anyone else I knew" he just looked down at me from his
six-foot-four-inch height and didnít say a word.
But thatís the way it was with the man my father, AMP Ernest M.
"Allie" Allison, chose to be my godfather, laconic as a Wyoming fence
post. It wasnít until I became an adult that I realized that this tall, silent
man whoíd stood by me in case my parents crash landed, had lead a life you
only read about in adventure stories. As far as Smithís description of him, I
could tell from the glint in his steely eyes he didnít think much of it,
though the stories Slim tells of his own early antics created a legend all its
Slim launched his aviation career in 1916 at age 22. Taking flying lesson in
Curtiss pushers, he became one of the first half dozen licensed pilots in the
United States. "That first plane I soloed didnít even have a
tachometer," he said. "We simply hooked an ordinary set of scales to
the tail of my Curtiss pusher. If the motor was good enough to pull 320 pounds
on the scales, we figured it had enough power to fly."
During WWI, he was a civilian instructor and test pilot for de Havilland-4s
built in Dayton and Detroit. In 1919, he signed on with the U.S. Air Mail
Service. On July 1, 1924, he flew the first regular night mail flight between
Omaha and Cheyenne.
Commenting on the DH-4 flight schedules he said, "We had quite a system
worked out to make sure we got away on schedule. We had a dozen DHs lined up and
we went down the line trying each ship. When we found one that would start we
threw our mail in the cockpit and were off."
And "An instrument panel was just something to clutter up the cockpit
and distract your attention from the railroad or river bed you were
Flying the mail by the seat of his pants resulted in many a forced landing in
cow pastures. One time he rammed his plane into the kitchen of a farmhouse. On
another occasion he collided with a bull. Once flying from Scottsbluff,
Nebraska, to Cheyenne, a distance of only 80 miles, he had to land in fields
four times because it was so cold that the carburetor kept icing. Finally he
gave up, took the mail sack to a farmhouse, borrowed a team and wagon and drove
the last four miles to the Cheyenne airport.
In 1927 when the Post Office contracted airmail to private carriers, Slim
signed on with Boeing Air Transport (later United Air Lines). By 1929 he was
chief pilot of Unitedís western division. During this time the following story
dogged Slim like a rogue tail wind. He noticed that a certain pilot frequently
reported that he was detained at a back country ranch because of weather.
Checking the schedule, Slim noticed that the pilotís calls coincided with
another pilotís frequency in the same area. Lewis hopped into a plane to
check. He spotted two Boeing 40s in a pasture under a clear blue sky, and two
pilots holed up in a cabin playing poker with the rancher. The story goes that
he gave them a royal what-for, then poured himself a drink and bought a stack of
In 1937 Slim and his good friend Philip G. Johnson left Boeing to form
Trans-Canada Airlines. Slim was stationed at Winnipeg in charge of flight
personnel. By 1939 Slim returned to Boeing as chief pilot, testing B-17 and B-29
Slim retired from aviation in 1947 on his 27,000 acre cattle ranch 25 miles
north of Cheyenne. Friends say he felt that all those instruments and dials in
the cockpit had made the seat of his pants just a piece of cloth; all the fun
had gone out of flying.
Slim made his Last Flight on July 25, 1965, in Cheyenne.
Slim Lewis flying over the Bellefonte, PA, courthouse.
Photo of Limited Edition Print courtesy of artist Michael R. Newcomer
ďBack in BellefonteĒ
by Michael R. Newcomer
In the early 20's, the transcontinental airmail route was laid out
from Long Island, New York to
San Francisco, California. The main route was broken into segments and
worked like the pony
express or a fireman's "bucket brigade". The route passed over every kind
of terrain in the country
including the snow covered Rocky Mountains. But the deadliest route was
the Long Island to
Cleveland flight with a refueling stopover at Bellefonte, Pennsylvania.
The danger was due to the
unpredictable weather patterns and changing winds of the Allegheny
Mountains. This mountain
range contributed to the high rate of accidents and deaths and became
known to the pilots as "The
The people of Bellefonte loved the air mail pilots. Everyone wanted
them as house guests, gave
them dinners and treated them like the heroes they were. In return the
pilots would give impromptu
air shows and simply show off for their friends. One pilot, Slim Lewis,
would arrive in town and fly
over the courthouse to announce his return. Slim once buzzed by the
courthouse so close that the
weathervane spun around.