aviation comes of age
the creation of NACA
the development of air power
advocates of strategic bombing
Billy Mitchell and the bomber
the U.S. Air Corps
the start of air mail
the growth of airlines
Imperial Airways
the flying boats
the clipper ships
  a Russian experiment


Air Mail

The story of how the delivery of the mail spawned commercial aviation in the United States is one of the remarkable chapters in the history of flight. After a rocky start on May 15, 1918, air mail runs became reliable, and the Post Office sought to expand its air mail operations. The fleet was expanded from the original seventeen planes, mostly Jennies, with the addition of Standard aircraft (manufactured by a Japanese company) and war surplus de Havilliand D.H. 4 training planes dubbed “flying coffins,” because the fuel tanks were right in front of the pilot.

The first  extension of the service would be to link Washington and New York with Chicago, but that required flying over the Allegheny Mountains, a treacherous flight in the old open-cockpit planes then in service. Between May 1919 and the end of 1920, the “graveyard run” between New York and Chicago was opened, though it claimed the lives of eighteen pilots—some crashing due to bad weather or mechanical failure, some crashing and being blown up while flying the JL- 6, a Junkers aircraft bought by the Post Office that had serious fuel leakage problems.

Fearing that the Warren Harding Administration would cut the air mail service of the Post Office when it took power in March 1921, the Post Office Air Service, headed by Otto Prager, decided to stage a dramatic cross-country flight that would impress Congress and the president. On February 22 (Washington’s birthday), two D.H. 4s took off from New York and two from San Francisco; the hope was that at least one would make it across the country.

The event was followed by the entire country, with many along the route lighting bonfires to point the way. The two planes that set out from New York were grounded by bad weather in Chicago, and one of the planes flying eastward crashed in Nevada, which left only one plane still flying. This plane landed in North Platte, Nebraska, and from there pilot James H. “Jack” Knight was to continue to  Omaha, where another pilot would fly on to Chicago.

A broken tail skid caused a three-hour delay, so by the time Knight arrived in Omaha, all the bonfire burners had gone home, figuring the flight had failed. The pilot who was to take over for Knight had been unable to come down from Chicago, and in what was to be described as one of the bravest (and most foolhardy) acts in the history of aviation, the exhausted Knight, who had never flown the Omaha-Chicago run, downed a quick cup of coffee and took off into the night for Chicago, with nothing but road maps to guide him. After seven hours in the air, Knight somehow found Checkerboard Field in Chicago, arriving at 8:40 A.M. The mail was transferred to another plane and the rest of the flight went off without a hitch. The mail had crossed the continent in an astounding thirty-three hours and twenty minutes, less than half the previous record.

The war-surplus de Havilland D.H. 4 biplanes became the backbone of the first U.S. air mail fleet. These planes were not built for long flights, however, and they required a wartime regime of maintenance; as a result, forced landings and crashes were frequent.  

Jack Knight  became a national hero (he would later become a celebrated pilot of the DC-3), and the air mail service was saved. Harding’s Postmaster General, Will H. Hays, addressed the entire issue of air mail service from a businesslike and professional point of view and instituted  many innovations that benefited all forms of aviation, such as an electric light directional beacon system, landing lights at airports, and regular broadcasts of weather conditions across the country. The routes were extended beyond the borders of the United States, and one such route,  a “star route" (one handed over to a private contractor) between Seattle and Vancouver, brought William F. “Bill” Boeing into the aviation industry.

A young Bill Boeing (right) and Eddie Hubbard, after flying the first (Canada-to-United States air mail flight in 1919.  Behind them is the Boeing-built Curtiss Model C-700 navy trainer they flew.

Boeing, a member of a wealthy lumber family in Washington, had been nothing more than a hobbyist before 1919. When the opportunity arose, he and aviator Eddie Hubbard started building mail planes, intending to corner the air mail contracts from the United States to Asia. A similar star route run by Carl Ben Eilson (owner and one-man operator of the Farthest North Airplane Company) flew ski-equipped air mail planes to Alaska and initiated the legendary era of Alaskan aviation.
 The Post Office lost money on air mail service: between 1918 and 1925, its air mail service had cost $17 million to operate and had brought in less than a third of that. An odd alliance was forged between Pittsburgh Congressman Clyde Kelly and Postmaster General Harry New that resulted in the Kelly Act of 1925, which turned over air mail delivery to private contractors.

Kelly believed that this would suppress the air transportation industry and thus help the railroads, the largest customers of Pittsburgh steel. Why, Kelly reasoned, would private air transporters stand any better a chance of making a profit than the Post Office? But New made sure that air mail carriers were permitted to that air mail carriers were permitted to keep 80 percent of the face value of the mail they carried, and this proved to be a windfall for the holders of the Contract Air Mail, or CAM, routes.

Suddenly, there was a way to make big money with an airplane. The holders of the CAM routes— only a handful of contractors were awarded routes at first, though more than 5,000 companies submitted bids—were among the biggest industrialists in America at that time. Henry Ford held two of the contracts—CAM- 6 and 7 (Detroit—Cleveland and Detroit—Chicago). CAM-I (New York—Boston) went to Colonial Air Transport, an outfit backed by Rockefeller, Vanderbilt- Whitney, and Fairchild money. and managed by Juan Trippe. Frank, Dan, and Bill Robertson, hacked by powerful St. Louis business interests, were awarded CAM-2 (Chicago—St. Louis), and featured Charles Lindbergh as its principal pilot.

The Chicago—Dallas- Fort Worth route, CAM-3, was awarded to National Air Transport, a hastily assembled company headed by Clement Keys of the Curtiss Corporation and backed by Charles Kettering of General Motors and Howard Coffin of the Hudson Motorcar Company. CAM- 4 (Los Angeles—Salt Lake City) was awarded to Western Air Express, managed by famed race car driver Harris “Pop” Hanshue and backed by Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler; CAM-8 (Los Angeles—Seattle) was awarded to Pacific Air Transport, founded in 1912 by Vein C. Gorst and one of the few companies in operation before 1920 that received an air mail contract. Three smaller companies headed by Walter Varney, Clifford Ball, and Charles Dickinson were awarded CAM contracts for the more dangerous, less lucrative routes.

Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT) offered luxury service, but the complicated plane-train (with buses to connect airfields and train stations) was expensive, required frequent transfers, and cut only a day off the railroad’s 3-day coast-to-coast trip. Still, Lindbergh’s promotion of TAT made flying a viable option to many—and resulted in the formation of TWA.

Having landed these potentially lucrative contracts, the companies put pressure on the manufacturers to create the planes that could fulfil them. Postmaster General New hoped that the opportunity to make a profit carrying mail would result in the carriers’ building better aircraft that could also carry passengers. The better aircraft soon came, from such builders as Bill Stout, who built the Ford Trimotor, or “Tin Goose,” which became a mainstay of early 1930s aviation.

The development of air mail services of other countries followed the American model. French airplane manufacturer Pierre-Georges Latecocre established the first air mail service between France and Morocco on September 1, 1919, with a fleet of fifteen Breguet 14 biplanes. The routes were even more hazardous than those flown by the Americans: pilots risked being captured and held for ransom if their plane went down in a desert region. Like the Americans, French air mail pilots carried guns and frequently had to stand guard and fend off looters (sometimes while injured) if the plane went down for a crash or emergency landing.

 In May 1926  a celebrated flier for Latecoere, Jean Mermoz (who inspired Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s 1931 novel, Night Flight) was captured by Moroccan nomads and imprisoned in a cage for three days until he could be ransomed by the company representative in Casablanca.