Website of the Antique Airplane Association and the Airpower Museum Last Update: Aug 26 2014

U.S. Air Mail Service – 90th Anniversary

by John A Eney, eneyair@olg.com
Originally Published in Skyways Journal Magazine

Lt. George Boyle in JN-4H 38262 starts his takeoff from
Washington, DC with the first scheduled US air mail on May 15,
1918. Photo USAF 34145, Editor’s collection

May 15th of 2008 marks 90 years since the inaugural launching of the
first scheduled air mail service sponsored by the United States Post
Office Department. On that fog shrouded mid-May morning in 1918,
President Woodrow Wilson handed his personal letter of greetings to a
very young and relatively inexperienced Army Air Service pilot at
Potomac Park polo grounds in Washington, DC, to be flown to the Mayor
of New York City, via a relay stopover at Philadelphia, PA.
Simultaneously, another Army pilot was departing from Hazelhurst Field
on Long Island, NY, for the same relay handover point in Philly. This
may sound simple to modern readers, but in wartime 1918, with
springtime dense morning fog over the entire northeast coast, and no
available pilots trained in ANY cross country navigation, let alone
instrument flying, this was taking extremely high risk. How this
entire event was conceived, funded, produced and directed, and by
whom, is a well documented tale of political ambitions, technical
naivete, and military courage worthy of a Hollywood movie or TV
miniseries. And this event is today recognized as the seed planting
for the U.S. airline industry we now take for granted.

The prime mover in this birth of the air mail was NOT the pilot
community, nor even the young aircraft industry. It was one Otto
Praeger, Second Assistant Postmaster General, himself a non-flyer who
simply sought to improve the speed of intercity mail shipments then
carried exclusively by train. Oblivious to the limitations of 1918
aircraft technology and performance, he convinced his boss, Postmaster
General Burleson, to suggest to the President that the Secretary of
War could order the Army Air Service to assume this new role, starting
in just a matter of several days! And so the executive orders were
quickly passed to War Secretary Newton D. Baker, thence to Chief of
the Army Air Service Col. “Hap” Arnold, who promptly summoned his
Executive Officer to his desk, one Major Reuben H. Fleet. The orders
were dated May 3, 1918. The orders read to initiate daily air mail
service between Washington and New York on May 15, 1918. Hap Arnold
and Reuben Fleet were professional soldier-pilots who knew all too
well that you didn’t say “no” to the President, and they had to salute
and carry out the orders as best they could, given no suitable
airplanes, and no pilots with adequate cross-country navigational
training in good weather or bad.

And it is in major crises that clever men rise to become great men.
In this situation, Fleet needed to overcome his Air Service
inadequacies in men and equipment in just twelve days to avoid
embarrassing the President of the United States and the Air Service in
the eyes of the news media and the American public. His first action
was to request Col. Edwin A. Deeds, Chief of Air Service Production,
to place an immediate order to the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor
Corporation, Garden City, Long Island, NY, for (6) new specially
configured JN-4H “Jenny” training biplanes with doubled fuel tank
capacity and without controls in the front cockpit, which was to be
covered over as a mail pit. This would give the mail plane Jenny
twice its standard range of only 88 miles so it could in fact make the
trip from DC to Philly nonstop. The “H” model Jennies were powered by
the 150 hp Hispano-Suiza (“Hisso”) liquid cooled V-8 with enclosed
overhead cams and automatic valve lubrication, making them far more
reliable than the earlier 90 hp Curtiss OX-5 V-8s with open, hand
lubricated valve actions. Curtiss simply added a second standard
terneplate fuel tank in tandem with the regular tank between the
firewall and the mail pit. The airplane problem was solved in short
order through this instant cooperation between the
engineering-educated Fleet, his parent command staff, and the already
humming production line at Curtiss. (Could this ever happen today?)

Fleet then hand picked by name several of his best Army instructor
pilots who could at least dead-reckon with a road map in lieu of any
aeronautical charts which did not then exist. He had the new special
Jennies assigned to these four pilots with one for himself. The
airplanes were to be ferried to the necessary fields of deployment by
15 May. Fleet flew himself down from NY to DC early in the morning of
the 15th, delayed considerably by very low ceilings and poor
visibility all the way. He flew Jenny number A.S. 38262 into the polo
grounds before a waiting crowd of news media, onlookers, and a very
impatient President Wilson and his attending staff of Secret Service
guards. He motioned to his in-place enlisted men to service the
airplane for the flight back to Philly, and was then informed that the
pilots he had selected were to be replaced by two other fresh
graduates from Air Service primary flight school who happened to be
sons of .politically important officials. in the Wilson
Administration. The politically selected pilot for the DC to Philly
leg that morning was Lt. George Boyle, and the southbound pilot from
Long Island was to be Lt. James Edgerton, neither of whom had ever
flown out of clear sight of their home training fields. Once again
the professional soldier, Fleet realized he had again been snared by
political forces opposing both sound reason and sound physics. He
proceeded to brief Lt. Boyle on how to follow the mainline railroad
tracks that ran from DC to Philly, in a fairly straight northeasterly
heading, unhindered by any mountains or tunnels. All he needed was
the road map from Fleet, and the magnetic compass in the JN-4H cockpit
instrument panel. Potomac Park was a tiny peninsula extending from
the eastern shore of the Potomac River close to the center of DC and
parallel to the river, near the Jefferson Memorial and across from
what is now the Pentagon and Reagan National Airport.

With appropriate ceremony, the President made his public sendoff
speech and handed his personal letter to the crew chief loading the
mail pit while Lt. Boyle suited up and mounted the rear seat of
38262. The Army guards drew the crowd away from the Jenny so that the
engine could be hand propped to start. Well, the engine failed to
start after many tries. Fleet told the crew chief to dipstick the
fuel tank since even brand new float gauges had been known to mislead.
The tank dipped near empty. In the rush of the moment that morning,
they forgot to refuel the airplane after Fleet landed it.

With the fuel soon topped in both the tandem tanks and the mail bin
loaded and the hatch strapped closed, the Jenny now started on the
first swing of the prop and Lt. Boyle waved to have the chocks pulled
from his brakeless spoked wheels. He blasted the power to lift the
tailskid free of the turf polo field and turned to start his takeoff
into what little wind there may have been in that foggy condition.
The crowd cheered as his Jenny cleared the tall trees surrounding the
periphery of Potomac Park and disappeared into the mist as it flew off
toward destiny in Philly.

Major Reuben H. Fleet, just arrived at Potomac Park in
Washington, DC from New York via Philadelphia in Army Air Service
Jenny 38262 for the start of the first scheduled US air mail service
on May 15, 1918. President Woodrow Wilson and other officials were on
hand to witness this historic event. Photo: USAF 34209,
Editor’s Collection

Well, sort of. Astute witnesses at the departure candidly reported
later that the sound of the departing Hisso engine seemed to indicate
that Boyle was not following a straight-out northeastern heading
through the mist, but was circling around at first. But, no matter
that, the southbound Jenny from Philly with the mail from New York
soon landed and the headlines across the nation proclaimed the
successful start of scheduled U.S. air mail service. A short time
later, a phone call was received at the polo field communications
tent. It was Lt. Boyle. He had gotten lost and made an emergency
landing in a farmer’s field. The stub crops caught the landing gear
spreader bar and the prop dug in and flipped the JN onto its back. He
was unhurt. The mail was not damaged or lost. His location was a
farm in Waldorf, MD, southeast of Washington, not northeast. He had
followed the railroad tracks, but the wrong tracks. A branch line off
the mainline northeast railroad right-of-way went south to a coal
powerplant at Popes Creek, through the little town of Waldorf. But
nonetheless, the other legs of the DC-PA-NY air mail route had been
flown successfully that day, and the champagne corks were already
popped. Today, NASA would call this a 90% mission success, and indeed
it was that.

Standard JR-1Bs, designed from the outset as mailplanes,
replaced the Army Jennies when the Post Office Department took over
the air mail from the Army Air Service in August, 1918. Photo:
Editor’s Collection

The Army Air Service continued to operate one trip per day from DC to
NY along this 218 mile route using the mail-configured JN-4Hs on a
6-day week, with Sundays off (for the pilots, not the ground crews) up
until August 12, 1918, at which time the Post Office Department took
over the entire operation, using specially designed mail planes
ordered from the Standard Aircraft Company of Elizabeth, NJ. These
Standard JR-1B models were also Hisso powered, like the Army JN-4Hs,
but had a 200 pound mail capacity and a range of 280 miles. While
rarely if ever depicted in aviation history journals, these Standard
JR-1Bs remain milestones in being the first civil aircraft specified
and procured by the U.S. Government. According to Reference (1), the
scorecard of statistics on the mission performance of the Army pilots
and their (6) Jennies during their May-15-August 12 tour of duty on
the northeast corridor route were as follows:

  • 92 percent of schedule flights successfully completed.
  • 193,021 pounds of mail carried
  • 128,225 route miles flown without a signel fatality

All this was accomplished without aeronautical charts, no radios, no
gyros, in open cockpits, and all during the height of the east coast
summer thunderstorm season.

This first air mail service “experiment,” using Air Service pilots and
JN-4Hs, owed a great deal to the management skills of a non-flying
Army ground officer, Captain Benjamin B. Lipsner. So impressed was
Otto Praeger with Lipsner’s masterful coordination of the air mail
operation, he asked Lipsner to resign from the Army and sign on as
the head of the air mail for the Post Office Department. Lipsner had
wanted to see action in France before the war ended and hesitated to
resign his commission, so Praeger wrote to War Secretary Baker
requesting Lipsner be granted a leave of absence, but this request was
denied. Shortly thereafter, the Army did in fact allow Lipsner to
resign and assume his new civil service position as the first
Superintendent of the Aerial Mail Service (Reference 1). The new air
mail chief’s first official act was to request the Post Office order
to (6) of the Standard JR-1Bs mentioned earlier.

The workhorse of the air mail service in the US, the
Liberty-powered US-built DH-4. Photo: Editor’s Collection

The new Air Mail Service undertook immediate plans to methodically and
cautiously expand its service to other cities in other states toward
the Midwestern industrial population centers of Cleveland and
Chicago. This New York-Cleveland schedule began in May of 1919. In
September of that year, it was extended to Chicago. This was the
prelude toward realization of the ultimate goal of the Post Office,
which was a true transcontinental air mail route from New York to San
Francisco. The airplane of choice for these expanded routes with
longer ranges was the rebuilt ex-Army DeHavilland DH-4, a British
design built under license by several manufacturers in the United
States, and intended to be America’s bomber at the Western Front in
France before the war ended in November, 1918. These DH-4s had been
stripped of wartime armament and had all new landing gears and
fuselages made of steel tubing. The redesign for mail service
included relocating the pilot.s cockpit well aft of the engine and
fuselage fuel tank, whereas the original wartime design had placed the
cockpit underneath the upper wing centersection and sandwiched
(sometimes literally) the pilot between the Liberty V-12 engine and
the main fuselage fuel tank behind that cockpit. (It was the British
wartime original design that had earned the nickname of “Flaming
Coffin” due to high fatality rates in crash landings.) These DH mail
planes were redesignated as DH-4Ms, and many of these conversions were
performed under government contract by the Boeing Airplane Company in
Seattle, WA. It was also during this transition to DH-4Ms that the DC
terminus for the air mail was located on College Park Airport in
College Park, MD, just outside the northeast border of the District of
Columbia. That site of many aviation firsts, including the
demonstrations and sales of Wright Brothers’ aircraft, remains today
as the oldest continually active airport in the United States, going
back to 1909.

The old and the new of mail delivery.The Pony Express was the
fastest means of sending mail during the great western movement of the
19th century United States. The airplane, symbolized by the DH-4
mailplane in this photo, took the lead in speed in the early 20th
century. Photo: Editor’s Collection

Loading mail into DH-4 No. 68 with its big Liberty engine
warming up. Photo: Editor’s Collection

Looks like the end of the line for old number 400; or, maybe
she’s tucked away in an old barn somewhere, long forgotten and just
waiting to be found! Photo: Editor’s Collection

Several attempts were made to improve the DH-4’s load-carrying
ability including the addition of Bellanca lift struts. Photo:
Editor’s Collection

Another load-carrying improvement to the DH-4 was this big
winged modification by the Whitteman Co. in 1921. Photo: Editor’s
Collection

L.W. F. (Lowe, Willard & Fowler) converted the workhorse
deHavilland DH-4B into a twin engine mailplane with disappointing
results. Service ceiling was reportedly 1,500 feet, and takeoff speed,
cruising speed, and landing speed were the same! Photo: Editor’s
Collection

The transcontinental air mail service route was completed in
September, 1920, extending westward through Omaha, North Platte,
Cheyenne, Rawlins, Rock Springs, Salt Lake City, Elko, Reno, and into
San Francisco at Crissy Field. Air mail flying remained a
daytime-only operation up until 1921, though maintenance and overhauls
proceeded around the clock at each waypoint shop hangar. Night time
air mail flights were first tried as an experiment starting on
February 22, 1921. On that date, two pilots flying DH-4s left from
San Francisco eastbound, and two other pilots left from Hazelhurst
Field on Long Island westbound, also both in DH-4s. The goal was for
at least one member of each team to successfully link up at a transfer
relay point in Chicago within a total elapsed time of 36 hours, flying
through the night as well as day. The westbound team had one ship
forced down by weather in western PA, a mountainous region with
unpredictable weather still known today by airline pilots as “hell’s
stretch.” The two separated east bound ships had changed pilots at
Reno and again at Salt Lake City and Cheyenne, and North Platte, where
the relief pilot was one Jack Knight. Weather was ominous as Knight
took off for Omaha, but news accounts of the air mail events were
already causing enthusiastic residents along the prescribed route to
light huge bonfires in open fields to guide the pilots through the
night. By 1 am, when Knight made the outskirts of Omaha, he found
the entire city lit up for his guidance, and he landed at the
destination turf landing field between rows of old 55-gallon drums of
gasoline set afire to light the runway for him. He had flown 276
miles and was due to be relieved for the last leg eastward into
Chicago. But that relief pilot was weathered in at Chicago and could
not get to Omaha. Knight was totally unfamiliar with the leg from
Omaha to Chicago, but after a hot slug of coffee, decided to re-man
his DH and press on to Chicago himself, with the help of the bonfires
set along the way. The station manager gave him a Rand McNally road
map of the 435 leg to Chicago, via Des Moines and Iowa City. Knight
overflew Des Moines due to weather and landed for fuel at Iowa City in
a snow squall. After that brief stop at around 5 AM, he again took
off for the last 200 miles into Chicago through light snow and icing
conditions which severely threatened weight and drag of the strut and
wire covered DH. At early dawn light, he spotted the railroad main
line parallel tracks and followed them in to Maywood Airport in
Chicago where he landed and turned over the mail to the eastern route
pilot at 8:40 am on February 23rd, 1921. The nation had been linked
by overnight air mail with an elapsed time of just 33 hours and 25
minutes, with just under 26 hours of actual flying time. Jack Knight,
the air mail pilot, became a national hero and was featured in
newsreels at movie theaters coast to coast. An elated Otto Praeger,
speaking for the Post Office Department, made a public announcement
that overnight air mail service nationwide was now a regular scheduled
operation and that a radio network of ground stations would be
promptly activated during the 1921-1922 period to hasten the exchange
of weather reports needed for the safety of both pilots and ground
crews.

Jack Knight became a national hero for his daring role in the
first overnight transcontinental air mail service.
Photo: Editor’s Collection

The first air mail flights in the US authorized by the
Postmaster General were made by Earle Ovington at the International
Aviation Meet held at Garden City Estates, Long Island, NY from
September 23 to October 1, 1911. A temporary post office was set up
and Ovington carried the mail sack on his lap while flying his Bleriot
monoplane on the 7-mile trip to Mineola, NY. Here, Postmaster General
Frank H. Hitchcock hands the first sack of air mail to Ovington
seated in his Bleriot. The Cradle of Aviation Museum on Long Island
has a reproduction of Ovington.s Bleriot. Photo: Editor’s
Collection

Early attempts at carrying air mail and, in this case, parcels
as well, were mostly short-lived. Considering the type of aircraft (an
early pusher biplane), this must have been one of the earliest
attempts. Photo: Editor’s Collection

Standard biplanes carried the air mail for Colorado Airways.
Photo: Editor’s Collection

The Post Office Dept. ordered a mailplane version of the Glenn
L. Martin MB-1 bomber that could carry 1500 lbs. of mail in a bulbous
nose. Six of these huge mail carriers known as the Martin Model MP
were put in service on the New York-Chicago run during the winter of
1919-20, one of the most severe on record. Rough weather and rough
airfields quickly claimed 4 of the MPs and the Post Office transferred
the remaining 2 to the Army. Photo: Editor’s Collection

Three Martin MP Mailplanes await delivery at the Martin factory
in Cleveland. Photo: Editor’s Collection

Martin MP No. 203 was severely damaged at Heller Field, NJ in
1920. Photo: Editor’s Collection

In 1923, after Army experiments with beacon-lighted “airways” proved
viable, the Post Office Department began installing tower-mounted
rotating gaslight beacons every 25 miles along its routes with
emergency landing fields adjacent to each of these beacons, staffed
with mechanics for aircraft servicing and repair. Full
transcontinental air mail service along this lighted airway became a
reality in 1924.

The Kelly Air Mail Act

The Kelly Air Mail Act of 1925 became a watershed event that set into
motion the creation of commercial air mail and passenger travel in the
United States. U.S. Representative Clyde Kelly convinced the
U.S. Congress in February of that year that the government should get
itself out of the air mail business and let private air carriers
compete for contracts to operate various portions of the national
route system already established. The first five Contract Air Mail
(CAM) small feeder route contracts were awarded by Postmaster General
Harry J. New on October 7, 1925. The first contract to actually get
underway was not one of these five, but a later one awarded to one
Henry Ford, the automobile manufacturer in Detroit, MI. Ford had
hired airplane designer William B. Stout, since 1923, to lead the
development of all-metal monoplane transports produced under the
respected Ford corporate name. This air mail contract award for
service between Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland, hastened the fielding
of the legendary Ford Tri-Motor with its signature corrugated aluminum
skin covering the entire airframe. At first, these air mail contract
carriers were paid by the pound of mail actually carried, but this led
to fraudulent abuses whereby the carriers were mailing bricks inside
mail bags back and forth to up their winnings on invoices submitted to
the Post Office Department. The fee schedule was soon changed and
paid the carriers according to the volume of the mail compartment in
their aircraft. This had a secondary benefit in that it accelerated
the purchase of larger aircraft with larger payload capacities that
eventually included space for paying passengers as well as mail
sacks. The U.S. airline industry was thus born in the process.

The Boeing Model 40A (shown here) and 40B could carry
passengers as well as air mail and were used primarily on routes in
the western US. Photo: Editor’s Collection

The Douglas Mailplanes, M-2s, M-3s, and M-4s (shown here) were
developed to replace the aging DH-4s. Photo: Editor’s
Collection

An innovative method of picking up mail in rural areas without
landing was developed by Lytle S. Adams and is shown here in use with
one of Clifford Ball’s Fairchild FC-2s on CAM 11 in 1930. The pickup
system was developed further and used extensively by All-American
Aviation which became Allegheny Airlines. Photo: Editor’s
Collection

U.S. Air Mail usage surged with each new success, and the DH-4Ms
soldiered on in air mail service until they began to wear out. In
1927, the government sponsored a design competition for new, higher
performance mail planes and the winner was the Douglas Aircraft
Company of Santa Monica, CA. They were to produce (51)
Liberty-engined, purpose-built biplanes that carried twice the
500-pound load of the DHs and cruised at 175 mph. Those Douglas ships
were designated the M-2 and one survives today fully restored to
flying condition in the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum in
Washington, DC. Only a couple of mail-configured DH-4s remain in
U.S. collections. The former Paul Mantz-owned DH-4M used in the 1957
Warner Brothers feature film, “The Spirit of St, Louis,” resides now
in the Evergreen Air Museum collection in Tillamook, OR. Another
recently restored DH-4M flies occasionally out of the Historic
Aircraft Restoration Museum at Creve Coeur Airport, west of St. Louis,
Mo. The U.S. Post Office Building in downtown Washington, DC,
contains a little-publicized museum hall deep inside the building
which displays a privately reconstructed DH-4 mail plane and a 1939
Stinson SR-10 Reliant that was used for aerial mail pickup by
grappling hook with the All-American Airways contract carrier for
several years. The Smithsonian NASM has an original American-built
DH-4 bomber on display, fully restored with full military equipment,
not as a mail plane.

As more and more contracts were let for commercial air mail carriers
in various regional feeder routes, more civil aircraft of various
makes and models began to appear in air mail liveries. These included
old Curtiss Jennies (again) as well as new production biplanes with
steel tube construction by such manufacturers as Swallow, Travel Air,
Waco, and Stearman. The Boeing Airplane Company operated a Boeing Air
Transport
contract carrier in the Pacific Northwest states, and they
developed their own very large single-engined biplane, the Boeing 40,
which was equipped with a heated and lighted fuselage compartment that
would hold not only mail but two seated and safety-belted paying
passengers in fully-enclosed luxury, with windows on both sides.
Today, there is one Boeing 40 displayed in the Ford Museum in
Dearborn, MI, and a newly restored and fully flyable Boeing 40 owned
by Mr. Addison Pemberton at Spokane, WA. Both are powered by the
original Pratt & Whitney R-1690 “Hornet” 9-cylinder radial engine.

Clifford Ball started flying the air mail between Pittsburgh
and Cleveland in 1927 with 2 Waco 9s in an operation that became
Pennsylvania Air Lines and, later, Capital Airlines. One of the Waco
9s, Miss Pittsburgh, survived, was beautifully restored, and can be
seen today hanging in the Pittsburgh airport terminal. Photo:
Editor’s Collection

Ryan M-1 Mailplanes served Colorado Airways out of Denver.
Photo: Editor’s Collection

National Air Transport Douglas M-3 Mailplanes at Hadley Field,
New Brunswick, NJ on Sept. 1, 1927 inaugurating scheduled
coast-to-coast air express service. Photo: Editor’s
Collection

Pitcairn Aviation Inc. operated CAM 19 between New York and
Atlanta with Pitcairn Mailwings and Super Mailwings like this PA-8.
Expanding south into the lucrative Florida market and north to Boston,
the name was changed to Eastern Air Transport and, eventually, to
Eastern Airlines. Photo: Editor’s Collection

The Curtiss Carrier Pigeon mailplane. National Air Transport
operated 10 of these on the New York-Chicago air mail route. Photo:
Editor’s Collection

Varney Airlines provided air mail service between Elko, Nevada
and Pasco,Washington via Boise, Idaho with six of these Wright
J-4-powered Swallow mailplanes.The pilot is Leon Cuddeback who flew
the first flight on this route on April 6, 1926. Photo: Editor’s
Collection

Square-tail Stearmans including the C-3s (C-3B shown here),
Speedmails, Senior Speedmails, and Junior Speedmails were popular
mailplanes. Photo: Editor’s Collection

The McNary-Watres Act

With small contract mail (and passenger) air carriers operating all
over the country, the U. S. Postmaster General now wielded the most
power in all of civil aviation. Such was realized by the new
Postmaster General, Walter Folger Brown, appointed by the newly
elected President Herbert C. Hoover in 1929 (References 1-6). Brown
seized the opportunity to implement sweeping changes toward creating a
nationwide network of commercial airlines who were self supporting on
passenger revenues and who did NOT need to be dependent on air mail
subsidies for survival and profit. In 1930, Brown convinced a majority
in Congress to pass legislation that came to be known as the
McNary-Watres Act on April 29th, which contained provisions for the
Postmaster General awarding contracts to the lowest
“responsible” bidder, vice the traditional “lowest bidder.”
“Responsible” was defined as those carriers who had carried mail over
a route of at least 250 miles for a period of at least six
months. This had the instant effect of eliminating the smaller
carriers who were having difficulty surviving and were shipping bricks
to pad their incomes. In mid May of 1930, Brown summoned the heads
of the major airlines to his office and briefed them on his plans to
reshape their industry, through mergers, to improve economies of scale
and to avoid competition between companies serving the same markets
(!!). The airline heads had little choice, since Brown controlled the
awards of their air mail contracts. Unable to agree among themselves
how to divide up the national route structure, they asked Brown to act
as umpire and decide for them what appeared in the best interests of
the Department. Brown proceeded over a matter a weeks, to define what
became the “big four” U.S. airline companies, American, Eastern,
United, and TWA. Gone were the small carriers such as Robertson in
St. Louis and Ludington in Philadelphia.

What the well-dressed air mail pilot wore, and didn’t wear!
Dick Merrill, a well-known air mail pilot, liked to fly the hot, humid
southern routes of CAM 19 in his shorts, gun, parachute, helmet, and
goggles. Photo: Editor’s Collection

These major airline companies completed expansion of commercial
passenger and mail service to all four corners of the continental
U.S. and achieved sufficient financial stability to invest in their
own research and development programs in partnership with aircraft
manufacturers and national laboratories pursuing aeronautical
sciences, such as the Guggenheim Laboratories at MIT, Princeton, and
Cal Tech. There followed advances in multiengine airframe design and
construction, radial engine design, constant speed variable pitch
propeller design, and gyro-based cockpit instrumentation that was
needed for nighttime and weather flying. By 1933, United had funded
Boeing to produce the Model 247, and TWA had countered by funding
Douglas to produce the DC-2. American pioneered their overnight
transcontinental passenger sleeper service with an order from
Curtiss-Wright for the Model T-32 Condor II (see Skyways

  1. and #84).

Keeping the air mail safe was serious business and pilots often
carried sidearms to enforce that. One wonders what was so important
in the air mail on this NAT Carrier Pigeon to warrant protection by
U.S. Marines armed to the teeth! Photo: Editor’s Collection

But, despite what appeared to be benevolent dictatorial steering of
the airline industry by the Postmaster General’s office, to the
betterment of the air transportation of the general public, the winds
of political change and unrest among the smaller air carriers began to
cause opposition in the public news media. The stock market crash of
October, 1929, and the ensuing Great Depression in the American
economy that was felt around the globe, precipitated a swing in
political leadership toward a Democrat, Franklin D. Roosevelt, as
President in 1933. At the urging of Senator Hugo Black of Alabama,
FDR promptly appointed his own Postmaster General, one James
T. Farley, with strong encouragement to sweep the Department clean of
any public appearance of government collusion and profiteering in the
airline industry (References 1-3). Black’s hearings on the air mail
in the Senate opened on February 2, 1934, with unsubstantiated
accusations of government collusion thrown at former Postmaster Brown
and toward the Department of Commerce, wherein resided the Bureau of
Air Commerce which regulated aircraft design and manufacturing
standards. Those who refused to open their accounting books to the
Senate were sentenced to jail terms for contempt. The scene got ugly
and became a public news spectacle on street corners and in movie
theaters.

Army Air Mail, Part TWO

On February 9th, 1934, head of the Army Air Corps, Major General
Benjamin B. Foulois, was summoned to the White House to meet
personally with the President. FDR was very upset about the Senate
hearings and wanted to defuse that situation promptly to regain public
confidence in the Depression-ridden administration. Without
exchanging niceties, the President asked the General, point blank,
“Can your Air Corps fly the air mail?” With flashbacks to the 1918
tasking of Reuben Fleet to create an Army Air Mail overnight, Foulois
reasoned that he too was faced with little choice and responded in the
affirmative, like a good soldier, and like a hopeful leader toward
better funding support for his struggling peacetime Air Corps.
Shortly after returning to his office that same day, Foulois was
served with Executive Order Number 6591, directing that
the Army immediately take over the U.S. Air Mail as an emergency
measure, with full cooperation of the Post Office Department, the War
Secretary, and the Secretary of State. On February 19th, the Post
Office cancelled all existing air mail contracts, sending a shock wave
throughout the aviation industry. No criminal charges had ever been
proven, yet the government was punishing the very corporate structure
it had hastily created during the Hoover administration. Airline
leaders such as Eddie Rickenbacker of Eastern, and D.W. Tomlinson of
TWA took to public microphones and news cameras expressing their
outrage, to no avail. The die had been cast in the oval office, and
the Air Corps was once again in the breech, ready or not, just like in
1918.

When the Army Air Corps was directed to fly the air mail in
1934, a wide variety of aircraft were used ranging from fighters to
large bombers such as this Douglas B-7 seen here on Air Mail Route 18
between Salt Lake City, Utah and Oakland, California. Photo: Editor’s
Collection

Foulois immediately passed the word down through his chain of command,
directing his area commanders to take over regions of the air mail
route structure, using military observation aircraft, fighters, and
bombers, as were at hand in local squadrons. Bomb bays in Martin
B-10s became mail bins with the bomb racks removed and the belly doors
safetied shut. Crews of open cockpit fighters like the Boeing P-12,
and attack planes like the Curtiss A-12 began stuffing sacks of mail
around the pilot’s feet and behind the pilot’s seat. On the P-12, the
only space available was a tiny stowage area behind the cockpit,
which, loaded with mail, made for an aft center of gravity and a
dangerous lack of longitudinal stability. The Army clearly lacked the
proper aircraft and the proper cockpit gyro instrumentation, as well
as the pilot instrument proficiency, to undertake this new air mail
directive around the clock, in fair weather or foul. Within days,
there were front page photos of fatal crashes of Army mail planes
almost every other day. It was a man made slaughter of dedicated
young military pilots, in peacetime, simply to serve a political
purpose. FDR became more embarrassed by the Army Air Mail debacle
than he had been over the Black hearings in the Senate earlier that
year. And what action was taken in the oval office this time? FDR
simply called General Foulois back onto the carpet and blamed the
entire mess on his inadequate leadership of the Army Air Corps
(References 1-5).

The other end of the Army spectrum, also seen here on
A. M. Route 18, were fighters that had very little air mail capacity
such as this Boeing P-12E. Photo: Editor’s Collection

On June 1, 1934, a sheepish Roosevelt administration ended the Army
Air Mail emergency service and returned the responsibilities back to
the contract air mail carriers. In later years, retired General
Foulois tried to put a better face on his being abused by the
executive branch, and stated that the Army Air Mail tragedy of 1934
was actually a godsend, for it awakened the American public to the
needs in training and equipment in the Air Corps that served to shore
up our air defenses in time to bounce back from the attack on Pearl
Harbor in 1941. Always, the good soldier, to the bitter end.

Loading the mail into an Eastern Air Transport Condor 18. With
improvements in airplanes, navigation, communication, airports, and
weather forecasting in the .30s, carrying the air mail became routine,
and the risk and adventure of the early days, just a memory. Photo:
Editor’s Collection

References

  1. Glines, Carroll V. The Sage of the Air Mail, Van Nostrand
    Company, Inc., Princeton, NJ 1968.
  2. Shamburger, Page, Tracks Across the Sky, Lippincott
    Company, Philadelphia and New York, 1964.
  3. Neilson, Dale, Saga of the U.S. Air Mail Service, Air Mail
    Pioneers, Inc., 1962.
  4. Courney, W.B., “The Wreck of the Air Mail,”, Collier’s
    magazine, February 9, 1935, page 10 and following.
  5. Allen, Oliver E., The Airline Builders, Time-Life Books,
    Alexandria, VA 1981.
  6. Rosenberg, Barry, and Macaulay, Catherine, Mavericks of the
    Sky
    , HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 2006.