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Remember the Air Mail Pioneers
by Nancy Allison Wright

Air Mail Pioneers rank as the honored few, much to the envy of all who claimed to be aviation trailblazers, yet were born too late to qualify for this exclusive club.

Members of AMP are the very early ones: the pilots, mechanics, radio operators, clerks and support personnel who worked for the U.S. Post Office Department from 1918 to 1927 when it operated the Air Mail Service.

Tackling improbable odds, these aviation pioneers blazed the first air trails across our continent and created our first air routes. They flew the beacon-dotted blackness of the first night flights, established radio beam flying, developed and installed our first lighted runways and formed our aviation weather reporting and forecasting system.

Club Numbers Diminish

Only thirty members remain in the AMP organization, which once offered membership to 2,700 former Air Mail Service employees, and none of the pilots survive.

Yet, in the glory days of the organization many hundreds jetted across the nation for annual reunions. It was a time to honor members who made their "last flights" and a time to reminisce. Wrapped in those recollections was the first chapter of the story of scheduled flight.

Air Mail Established

Air Mail Plane

Before the U.S. Post Office Air Mail Service little could be called scheduled air delivery. A few nonscheduled routes operated between major cities, but no national commitment existed for mail delivery by air.

Then came the end of World War I, and the post office declared its intention to establish a cross-country airmail route. The Army Signal Corps offered to initiate the service. Three months after the inaugural flight on May 15, 1918, the post office took over from the army and continued the service. They ran it until 1927 when they transferred airmail delivery to America's newly organized commercial airlines.

Heroes of the Sky

Airmail pilots were the glamour boys of the operation. A breed apart, they were the envy of every kid in the nation who could look up and see a lonely biplane with "U.S. Mail" painted on its fuselage winging its way across the sky. They were the by-the-seat-of-their-pants fliers, the helmet and goggle boys who felt the wind when they flew and heard it singing through the wires and drumming on the fabric of their wings.

In those days, it made sense to fly by feel and to listen. Singing wires came in handy because a particular sound on approach meant you had a safe landing speed. If the pitch was too high, you were too fast; if the wires quit singing, you crashed.

As for that wind: "You could tell whether you were moving or side slipping by the feel of the air on your face," recalled airmail pilot Harry Huking.


PHOTO: The Curtis Carrier Pigeon was designed and built for the U.S. Post Office Air Mail Service. Arthur R. Smith was killed in this plane, #602, when he hit trees near Montpelier, Ohio, enroute to Chicago.

A Wing and a Prayer      Little Plane
                         These earliest of the winged couriers flew as odd an odd. assortment of planes as had ever been assembled. At one time or another the Air Mail Service tried more than 20 types, ranging from German Junkers to Curtiss "Jenny" trainers and World War I bombers. They settled on the British-made de Haviland-4.

Originally a World War I light bomber and observation plane, the DH-4 workhorse underwent extensive modifications prior to mail duty. The pilot's cockpit was relocated to the gunner's cockpit behind it, the gasoline tank moved from behind the pilot to the former pilot's cockpit and a mail cargo compartment installed behind the engine.

The planes' Liberty engines were likewise dismantled and modernized. With such improvements as heavy stub-tooth gears, drilled pistons and better oil pumps, the 12-cylinder, 400 hp motor became as reliable as any of the day.

Remodeled, the DH-4Bs, (so designated after conversion) had a range of about 350 miles and an average speed of 115 mph. They carried a mail load of 500 pounds.

Improvements not withstanding, airmail pilots suffered their share of woes struggling to stay aloft. One problem was their planes' tendency to accumulate ice.

Jenny was a Lady

Airmail pilot Ernest M. Allison appreciated the Jenny for that reason. "I always considered it a very safe plane," he said, "because the carburetor would vibrate the plane so badly that it would shake the ice off the wings."

Cockpit Clutter

Whereas an airline captain nowadays uses a plethora of navigational equipment, the airmail pilot had: "An altimeter of sorts, a compass that might work and an airspeed indicator that never did," said airmail pilot and former United Airlines Captain E. Hamilton Lee.

So mostly the Mail Service pilot, or "breezo" as he was known in the jargon, navigated by wits alone. This meant goggles down, he leaned over the side to spot landmarks.

That method of navigation made perfect sense to these early flyboys, and when more sophisticated methods appeared they received mixed reviews. Airmail pilot Harold T. Lewis once commented to a reporter, "An instrument panel is just something to clutter up the cockpit and distract your attention from the railroad or riverbed you're following."

Navigate by Eye

Map reading was not a prerequisite for employment as an airmail pilot, because there were no flight maps. Instead there were flight directions compiled by other pilots and station managers. They read something like this: "From the end of the runway follow the main road keeping to the left of the small lake and pass straight over the big tree at the end. Then head for the water tower in the distance." On a foggy morning that water tower might as well have been on Mars.

Plane Crash

PHOTO: U.S. Air Mail Service plane crashed into a tree near Philadelphia in 1919.

Accidents Galore

Because of this inexactness, early airmail pilots erred. But generations of pilots learned from their failures and applied their hard-won knowledge to future action.

During the first years of Air Mail Service, the lessons came fast. Statistics tell the story. In 1921, P.O. officials recorded 1,764 forced landings, about half due to mechanical failures and half due to weather. In that same year, 12 pilots were killed. In all, 32 pilots lost their lives in the nine years of service, approximately one out of every six employed.

Determined, however, to prove the mail could be borne on wings despite the hazards, they created milestones that led the way to today's space age wonders.

First Flight Faux Pas

Inaugural day of airmail service marked the first such milestone. That was May 15, 1918, the day four Army pilots, flying Curtiss Jennies with Hispano Suiza 150 hp engines, launched world's first continuously-scheduled public airmail service. Their route: a distance of 219 air miles from Washington-to-Philadelphia-to-New York.

No matter that the history-making flight was only 75 percent successful. Air Mail Pioneers chuckle when they recall that northbound pilot Lt. George Boyle lifted off the Washington Polo Field amidst smiles and cheers from President and Mrs. Wilson, other dignitaries and bystanders only to nose-dive 20 minutes later, quite off course, in a plowed field in southern Maryland.

The young, inexperienced pilot only suffered injury to his pride, but the plane's propeller busted on landing. And all that official inaugural day mail had to be rushed by truck back to Washington for the following day's flight.

The incident and its resolution fit a catchall category of sublime miscalculations and swift recoveries most AMP's agree convey the "spirit of the old Air Mail."


PHOTO: 'The Carrier Pigeon.' This ship had interchangeable ailerons, rudder and flippers, a droppable fuel tank and interchangeable upper and lower wing panels.

Coast to Coast

Another milestone occurred on February 22 and 23, 1921, when the service staged the first day and night transcontinental airmail flight. Until then they flew the mail by day and transferred it to fast trains at night. At this time, "night flying was so new, many doubted that you could keep an airplane right side up in the dark," remarked Allison.

But they used the same technique they used for bad weather. They simply flew closer to the ground to pick up reference points. Due to the heroic efforts of pilot Jack Knight, who flew an extra route, fighting storm and darkness, over unfamiliar terrain from North Platte, Nebraska, to Chicago, the demonstration succeeded. A mail official summed up the Air Mail's daring feat saying, "Last night's flight means the speedy revolution of mail methods throughout the world."

Congress was impressed and the Service received the funds it so desperately needed to survive. Eventually, improvements followed. Beacons were installed at all mail fields and route marking lights were placed at emergency fields. Large conical wingtip lights were attached to airplanes, and pilots carried flares that could be dropped to illuminate the ground.

Because of these developments, efficiency and safety improved considerably. In 1922 the Air Mail Service received the Collier trophy from the National Aeronautics Association for its outstanding record of safety. Again in 1923 it received the coveted award for demonstrating the practicability of night flying.

Night Flying Scheduled

In 1924 the Post Office Department Air Mail Service inaugurated the first scheduled transcontinental night flying carrying the mail between San Francisco and New York in about 34 hours elapsed time.

Well Known Aviators

The men responsible for these accomplishments went on to become giants in aviation folklore. Many of them held key positions in the aviation industry. Among these are: Reuben Fleet, founder of Consolidated Aircraft Co.; Paul Collins, who with Amelia Earhart, established Northeast Airlines; R.C. Marshall, executive vice president of American Airways, later known as American Airlines; Harold T. Lewis who started Trans Canada Airlines; and Ernest M. Allison who helped organize and run China's first scheduled civil airline, China National Aviation Corporation.

Airmail pilot Jack Knight, later a captain with United Airlines, won himself a spot on Ripley's Believe It or Not in 1936 for having "flown more than 1,500,000 miles without an accident." Dean Smith, airmail pilot and author, flew with Admiral Byrd on his 1928 expedition.

Remember Us

When these early birdmen organized Air Mail Pioneers, their principal goal was to "record the history of the Air Mail Service and preserve the mementoes of that group." In 57 years they've gone far toward achieving these aims.

They've promoted the installation of markers and plaques in airports and other locations where the Mail Service maintained landing fields. They've left their memorabilia to a variety of museums throughout the country. And they've written and published an historical record of their feats entitled "Saga of the U.S. Air Mail Service."

Old 249
"Old 249"

By far their greatest achievement is the DH-4 airmail plane they rebuilt and flew over the transcontinental route to commemorate their golden anniversary. Called "old 249" (photo at left) it was the brainchild of member William J. Hackbarth. It took three years, some $80,000 and many years of know-how, provided by AMPs, to complete.

The biplane was constructed from parts and pieces of mail plane 249 that crashed in 1922 atop Porcupine Ridge east of Salt Lake City.

On April 22, 1968, Hackbarth departed from San Francisco Airport on his 3,600-mile-sentimental journey along the historic mail route. He cruised at 100 mph, stopped 23 times (no night flying here) and arrived at the nation's capital 18 days later.

"As soon as I landed I knew I was in the wrong place," he said by way of explaining to reporters why he set down at Anacostia Naval Station rather than Washington National Airport (Ronald Reagan National Airport) where he was expected.

But it was all in the "spirit of the old Air Mail," and a smiling Hackbarth took off again and set her down with the grace of a gliding swan at the proper airport while thousands of onlookers cheered. Today "old 249" hangs in the atrium of Washington's National Postal Museum.

Because Air Mail Pioneers take pride in their accomplishments, they ask to be remembered for them. It seems like a small request for those who first lifted the highways of humankind into the heavens.

Remember you old-timers? How could we forget?

Nancy Allison Wright is editor of the Air Mail Pioneers News, a periodic newsletter of Air Mail Pioneers. Her father, Ernest M. "Allie" Allison, was former national treasurer and western division president of Air Mail Pioneers.

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