The pioneering pilots who delivered the U.S. mail in open-cockpit biplanes had one of the world’s most dangerous jobs.
Post Office pilot James Hill once needed three whole cigars and part of another just to find New Jersey. Hill had taken off from the airport in Cleveland, bound for New Brunswick on his leg of a regular airmail route. He’d been told the weather was clear up to the Alleghenies, with cloud cover from there to the coast. In the vicinity of Mercer, Pa., he finished an inflight cigar and looked at his airplane’s clock. The clock had stopped. Hill knew the distance from Cleveland to Mercer was 75 miles. He also knew that he’d smoked an entire cigar. Doing a bit of math on the fly, he figured he needed to smoke three more cigars and two-fifths of a fourth in order to mark the 255 remaining miles. When he got that far into the final cigar, he dipped below the cloud cover and found himself approaching Hadley Field, outside New Brunswick.
The years that the Post Office Department ran the airmail service were like that—makeshift maneuvers, dangerous and unreliable equipment, and a collection of genuine characters flying the mail. Dean Smith, a survivor of that period, called the fraternity of early airmail pilots “a suicide club.” He said that “Only pilots desperate to fly would join it,” though he also noted, “you could at least be comfortable while life lasted.” By the end of those early years of hazardous experimentation, however, the United States had a national air traffic network of sorts and the beginnings of a commercial aviation industry.
The airmail service wasn’t really the Post Office’s idea; the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics had suggested it. But Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson threw his weight behind the NACA proposal. He told Assistant Postmaster General Otto Praeger, who was given direct oversight, “The airmail once started must not stop, but must be constantly improved and expanded until it would become, like the steamship and the railroad, a permanent transportation feature of the postal service.”
NACA advocated the airmail service to spur the development of facilities, routes and equipment that would also benefit the private sector. Once landing strips were built for airmail traffic, they could be used by anyone, and the routes that airmail pilots charted would prove useful to commercial traffic of all sorts. Furthermore, the need for quality commercial aircraft to carry the mail would lead to new designs that could be employed by the private sector.
That was the idea, at least. Implementing it was a bit of a challenge. The agency expected to pioneer the development of all these things understandably placed a premium on predictability and reliability. Both were in short supply during the early days of airmail.
After a brief stint in the summer of 1918 when U.S. Army pilots and airplanes flew the mail, the Post Office began to hire its own pilots and purchase its own equipment. At first, both pilots and equipment were for the most part Army surplus. The Post Office, which had been upset with the Army pilots’ poor discipline and disappointed by the quality of its equipment, again found itself having to rely on them.
Praeger was responsible for overseeing the airmail service from 1918 to 1921, and his insistence on maintaining a fixed schedule routinely exceeded the ability of his men, his equipment and his airfields. Years later, Praeger would speak glowingly to a radio reporter about the airmail pilots’ heroics. Perhaps time had softened his views. In the early going, he maintained a fairly jaundiced view of his men. The first rule in the list Praeger gave them was: “Pilots will not perform any stunts with mail aeroplanes.” That rule preceded a rule requiring a preflight safety check.
Praeger seems to have spent much of 1918 and 1919 engaged in a battle of wills with his pilots. The first to openly rebel against him were Eddie Gardner and Robert Shank. On November 18, 1918, Gardner and Shank refused to take off from Belmont field on Long Island in foggy weather that had already caused a crash and claimed the life of a pilot at a nearby field. The manager at Belmont backed them up and cabled his opinion to Praeger. Praeger’s response: “Start the Mail Ship Without a Minute’s Delay.”
Against his better judgment, Gardner attempted to do so, but after a short flight he and Shank returned to the field and parked the plane. Praeger responded by firing them both on the spot. They were rehired a couple months later, however, when the Post Office installed James Edgerton as superintendent of flying operations, a job seemingly created to mitigate the growing conflict between Praeger and the pilots.
Things came to a head on July 22, 1919. After a two-week stretch that had seen 15 crashes and two fatalities, Leon “Bonehead” Smith refused to fly out of the same fogbound field that Gardner and Shank had refused to fly from the previous year. One by one, every pilot on the eastern seaboard refused to fly that day, and the strike was on. It lasted less than a week, in part because Praeger and the Post Office took a beating in the press. The main concession to the pilots was that deskbound officials in Washington would no longer get to decide if it was safe to fly.
That made a significant difference. Of the more than 200 pilots who flew for the Air Mail Service, 35 died in crashes. Of those, 20 died before 1920.
Although low-grade conflict continued between Praeger and pilots, airmail routes rapidly expanded after the strike. By September 1920, the first transcontinental route was in place, though it combined flight and rail travel. Since it was unsafe to fly at night, mail was transferred from planes to trains after dark, and then transferred back to planes at daybreak.
During this period, pilots were assigned to fly set routes back and forth on a daily basis. In the flat and sparsely populated Midwest, that routine occasionally led to complacency and boredom that tended to reinforce Praeger’s fear of stunt flying.
Once, E. Hamilton Lee, the second pilot to refuse to fly in the 1919 airmail strike, decided to buzz an iced-in barge on the Mississippi River. During his dive he hit a string of telegraph lines, which broke free and wrapped around the propeller. The prop continued to spin as the whirling telegraph line tore Lee’s plane apart. He crashed, but was fortunately able to walk away with the mail.
Another pilot deviated from his assignment on a more regular basis. R.C. “Tex” Marshall used to stop every afternoon in the same Iowa farmer’s pasture to stretch and smoke. One afternoon, the farmer had his bull in that pasture. The bull took exception to Marshall’s presence and charged him. The farmer got between Marshall and the bull, enabling Tex to get safely aboard his plane. Before climbing aboard, the airmail pilot armed himself with a rock, planning to get some payback from the bull. Circling back over the field, he threw out the rock and hit the farmer instead.
Future smoke breaks were taken elsewhere.
Out west, the routes were a bit more dangerous. In October 1920, flying from Salt Lake City, Utah, to Cheyenne, Wyo., barely a month after transcontinental service was established, James Murray encountered a snowstorm while skirting the northern edge of the Colorado Rockies. Seeing a gap in the storm while trying to follow the Laramie Valley northeast of the Medicine Bow range, Murray made for it. The gap closed before he got there, though, and he found himself in a blinding snowstorm with the Medicine Bows on his right and the Laramies on his left. When Murray could see trees about 50 feet below, he forced the plane into a stall and pancaked onto the mountainside right around sundown.
Marking his direction based on the sunset, Murray walked for about two hours before spending the night crouched under a cedar tree. The next day he found his way to a Forest Service road and reached civilization after a 14-mile hike.
The problem with the Post Office’s early transcontinental route was that it wasn’t much faster than mail sent by train, despite being considerably more expensive—and dangerous. In order for airmail to work, the pilots needed to fly at night. And not even Praeger believed that they could do so safely without ground-based navigational beacons. Yet in a reckless experiment that claimed the life of one of his pilots, that’s exactly what he arranged.
Desperate to secure Congressional funding for the beacons before he was replaced by an appointee of Republican President Warren Harding, Praeger scheduled four day-and-night transcontinental flights between New York and San Francisco—two westbound and two eastbound—in February 1921. Praeger was neither a pilot nor a northerner, and it’s doubtful he ever fully understood the peril he was putting his pilots in.
As would be expected in February for a route that ran almost exclusively through the snowbelt, weather was a problem. The westbound flights were stranded in Dubois, Pa., and Chicago. The first eastbound flight ended tragically when William Lewis’ de Havilland DH-4B stalled after takeoff outside Elko, Nev. The only thing that saved Praeger’s hastily arranged publicity stunt was Jack Knight’s successful flight from North Platte, Neb., to Chicago. Knight had never flown the Omaha-to-Chicago route before, and his first flight was not only at night, it was through rough weather that didn’t clear up until about 5 a.m. His strategy was basically to look for Lake Michigan and then find Chicago.
Praeger got all the publicity he wanted, but didn’t get the funding he sought. Under the Harding administration, Paul Henderson replaced him, and the Army, not the Post Office, set up the first beacon system. That system, which extended from Dayton to Columbus, was turned over to the Post Office in 1922.
It wasn’t until 1923 that funding for a nationwide network of beacons was secured, and the build-out rapidly followed. By the end of 1924, lighted beacons were in place from Rock Springs, Wyo., to Cleveland. The entire route was lighted by the summer of 1925.
The route-marker beacons were rotating lights designed to be visible from 10 miles away. Each was mounted atop a 51-foot-tall metal-frame tower, with a small shack nearby housing the beacon’s generator. The towers were placed on large concrete arrows painted with yellow reflective paint, pointing the way to the next beacon. Dozens of these arrows survive, generally in the West. A restored beacon and shed can be found at Grants-Milan Municipal Airport in New Mexico, while Montana continues to operate 19 of the beacons for the benefit of general aviation traffic in the state. Much brighter beacons were installed at the Post Office’s airfields along the route.
By 1925, the Post Office had the airmail service on a solid footing, with well-lit routes and airfields on the ground and with much better instrumentation and more reliable engines in the planes aloft. That year, Congress also authorized the Post Office to contract out airmail flights.
In 1926 the Post Office’s beacon and airfield infrastructure was transferred to the Department of Commerce, and its corps of pilots and fleet of aircraft were wound down. However, the Post Office remained an integral part of commercial aviation after routes were contracted out in the mid-’20s.
The so-called Airmail Scandal of 1930-34, in which carriers and the postmaster general rigged the contracts for airmail routes, resulted in sweeping changes to commercial aviation in the U.S. The Black-McKellar bill, passed in the wake of the scandal, resulted in the breakup of William Boeing’s empire, creating separate entities that became United Airlines, United Technologies and Boeing.
Though it must have seemed like an exercise in futility in the early going, time proved NACA correct in its prediction that airmail would spur commercial aviation. Within seven years of the first routes being flown, the U.S. had a rudimentary air traffic control system, a network of airfields and the beginnings of a competitive market for commercial aviation.
Richard Jensen is a writer and historical preservation consultant based in Sioux Falls, S.D. Recommended reading: By the Seat of My Pants, by Dean C. Smith; and Mavericks of the Sky, by Barry Rosenberg and Catherine Macauley.