Airmail’s First Day
The Post Office called on Army Air Service
pilots to carry the first airmail. Despite numerous
hardships, the first flying postmen usually made
their appointed rounds.
By C.V. Glines
In 1834, Postmaster General William T. Barry remarked that “the celerity of the mail should always be equal to the most rapid transition of the traveler.” Little did he realize that “the transition of the traveler” would one day reach supersonic speeds.
The development of airmail began long before the invention of the airplane, the dirigible or even the balloon. It began with the pigeon post, which was used by armies many years before the birth of Christ to send messages long distances. Since then, all the man-made vehicles of the air have been used to carry letters from one place to another. Lighter-than-air craft carried mail. Then came the airplane. In the Space Age, experiments have been conducted with missile mail, and messages have been carried on spacecraft and deposited on the planets and the moon for future explorers to discover.
The story of airmail really begins on May 15, 1918, when the world’s first regularly scheduled airmail route was inaugurated under U.S. government auspices between New York and Washington, D.C., with a stop at Philadelphia. The distance of the route was 218 miles, and one round trip per day was made, six days a week. Army Air Service pilots flew the route until August 10, 1918, when the Post Office Department took over the entire operation with its own planes and pilots.
Attempts to start airmail service had begun as early as 1912, when it seemed that the airplane might developinto a practicable means of transportation. Recommendations were made to Congress that year to appropriate $50,000 to start an experimental service. Many government permits were issued to make short exhibition flights with mail, but it was not until 1916 that sufficient funds were made available to begin scheduled operations. Advertisements for bids were issued but not one was received. However, the war in Europe caused improvements in aircraft to be made rapidly, and in the fiscal year ending June 30, 1918, Congress appropriated $100,000 for development of an experimental route between Washington and New York. Bids were to be delivered within 10 days.
Much to the surprise of the Post Office Department, Colonel E.A. Deeds, head of the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps (later the Army Air Service), offered to operate the postal route with military planes and pilots. The offer had developed because of a request from Europe that pilots be given more cross-country experience before being sent overseas. Flying the mail over a fixed route system would give pilots valuable experience.
On March 1, 1918, the Post Office Department made an agreement with the War Department “to inaugurate an Aerial Mail Service between Washington, D.C., and New York beginning May 15th.” Major Reuben H. Fleet, the executive officer to Colonel Henry H. “Hap” Arnold in charge of planning instruction at Army Air Service schools, was concerned about training pilots at 34 fields in the United States; setting up an experimental airmail service was far from his mind. Consequently, when he saw the War Department order dated May 3, 1918, he paid little attention to it. Fleet, a tall, broad-shouldered man who would one day be president of his own aircraft company, had enough problems without worrying about what he considered unrelated responsibilities.
On May 6, Fleet received a summons from Secretary of War Newton D. Baker and was told that Arnold had recommended him for the job of getting the airmail route started. Baker said, “The first plane will leave Washington for Philadelphia at precisely 11 a.m. on May 15th. President Wilson will be there.”
Fleet was dumbfounded. “Mr. Secretary,” he said, “we don’t have any planes that can fly from Washington to Philadelphia and New York. The best plane we have is the Curtiss JN-4D Jenny, and it will fly only an hour and twenty minutes. Its maximum range is 88 miles at a cruising speed of 66 miles per hour.”
Baker listened patiently while Fleet explained that the range of a plane was dependent upon its fuel supply, that the Jennies had dual controls and were designed to carry only an instructor and a student, and that they had no baggage compartment where mail could be stowed. He told of the shortage of pilots, of how very few Air Service pilots had any experience flying cross-country, of how there were no adequate maps available, and of how there was a lack of good, experienced aircraft mechanics. He said he would need much more than eight days to modify some planes, test them and train some pilots.
Baker was adamant. Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson had already issued a national press release announcing that the airmail route was going to be inaugurated at 11 a.m. on May 15th, and he was not going to back down. The schedule, already announced, called for daily flights five days a week between Washington, Philadelphia and New York.
Fleet was furious, but he knew he could not waste a minute. He made arrangements with the Curtiss Aeroplane Corporation on Long Island, N.Y., to convert six JN-4Ds to JN-4Hs, which involved replacing the standard 90-hp OX-5 engines with 150-hp Hispano-Suizas.
“And leave out the front seat and the front set of controls and make a hopper to carry mailbags up there,” Fleet ordered. He also asked that the gas capacity be doubled by hooking two 19-gallon gas tanks and two 21Ž2-gallon oil tanks in tandem for longer range operation. A total of 12 modified Jennies would eventually be required.
Next, he made arrangements with the owner of Belmont Park, a racetrack on Long Island, to use the infield as a terminus so that the training of Army pilots would not have to be interrupted on Hazelhurst Field at nearby Mineola. Bustleton Field, located near the railroad station in north Philadelphia, was designated for the midpoint station. The Washington, D.C., field would be Potomac Park’s old Polo Grounds, a 900-by-300-foot grassy area surrounded by trees between the Tidal Basin and the Potomac River. Fleet wanted to use the airport at College Park, Md., but postal officials objected because it was nine miles outside the city, too far from the main post office.
Mechanics were hurriedly located and ordered to report to the three fields. Fleet asked for six Army Air Service pilots and was told to choose four; the Post Office Department would choose the other two. Fleet selected Lieutenants Howard P. Culver, Torrey H. Webb, Walter Miller and Stephen Bonsal. They were the most experienced pilots available who had not yet been committed to go to France; however, only Culver had more than four months of flying experience.
Post Office Department officials selected Lieutenants James C. Edgerton and George L. Boyle, two recent flight-training graduates. Fleet understood why these two were chosen when he learned that Edgerton’s father was purchasing agent for the Post Office Department and Boyle’s future father-in-law, Judge Charles C. McChord, was an Interstate Commerce commissioner who was credited with saving the parcel post for the Post Office Department at a time when private express companies were fighting the government in court for the business. This victory gave Judge McChord enough political power to persuade postal officials to let his soon-to-be son-in-law go down in the history books.
Edgerton and Boyle had graduated only a few days before from flying school at Ellington Field, Texas. During their training they had flown briefly on one cross-country training flight, a short hop from Ellington to another field about 10 or 14 miles away. Both had only about 60 hours of student pilot time in their log books.
Fleet was furious over the two assignments made solely on the basis of political contacts, but he had no choice. On May 13, he took the train to New York with five of the six pilots, leaving Boyle in Washington to take the first flight north to Philadelphia. The modified JN-4Hs had arrived at Hazelhurst Field by the time he arrived, but they were still in crates. Fleet had only 72 hours to get them assembled and into position to begin operations.
Mechanics and pilots worked around the clock to get the planes ready. By the afternoon of the 14th, only two were ready to go. Leaving Webb in charge of getting the other planes ready, Fleet commandeered a Jenny from Hazelhurst Field that had the smaller engine and no extra fuel and oil tanks. The plan was for Edgerton, Culver and Fleet to fly to Bustleton Field and stay overnight. Early on the 15th, Fleet planned to fly one of the modified Jennies on to Washington so that Boyle would have the honor that Judge McChord so keenly wanted him to have.
Webb would leave Belmont Park at 11:30 a.m. on the 15th and fly the New York mail to Philadelphia; Edgerton would then fly Webb’s mail pouch and the Philadelphia mail from there to Washington. When Boyle arrived at Bustleton from Washington, Culver would take the Philadelphia mail, along with the pouches that Boyle would bring from Washington, to Belmont. From then on, these four pilots, plus Bonsal and Miller, would make all the trips during the experiment.
Fleet’s best-laid plans went askew from the start. He took off from Belmont in the late afternoon of May 14 for the 90-mile flight to Philadelphia in thick haze and fog, followed by Edgerton and Culver in their faster JN-4Hs. Fleet soon lagged behind in his lighter powered Jenny, and he lost sight of the others.
Fleet described the flight: “I climbed through the fog and came out at 11,000 feet, almost the ceiling of the plane. I flew south guided only by magnetic compass and the sun until I ran out of gas and the engine quit. Since we didn’t have ‘chutes in those days, there was nothing I could do but ride the Jenny down. I broke out of the clouds at about 3,000 feet over lush farmland, so I just picked out a nice pasture and landed. A surprised farmer sold me a five-gallon can of tractor gas but I had trouble getting it in the tank without a funnel. Perhaps three gallons got in the tank and the rest all over me, but darkness was coming and I couldn’t wait to get more from town. I asked him to point out the direction Philadelphia was and took off. Two miles from Bustleton Field I ran out of gas again and landed in a meadow. Since no telephone was available, I persuaded a farmer to drive me to Bustleton Field. Culver and Edgerton had just arrived after similar experiences, so I sent Culver with aviation gasoline to get my plane and fly it in.
“There were so many things wrong with our planes and their engines that we worked all night to get them in safe flying condition. For example, one gas tank had a hole in it and we had to plug it up with an ordinary lead pencil. Next morning, one machine was flyable, so at 8:40 a.m. I took off for Washington, where I landed at 10:35 at the [Polo Grounds] in Potomac Park. The mail was due to start twenty-five minutes later.”
While Fleet had been worrying about the technical flying details, Captain Benjamin B. Lipsner had been detailed to take care of administrative matters. He was waiting nervously at Potomac Park, wondering if he had taken care of all the necessary details. Although not a pilot himself, he knew he would be criticized if anything went wrong with the arrangements, especially since President and Mrs. Woodrow Wilson and many other VIPs, such as members of Congress, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels and his assistant, Franklin D. Roosevelt, had been invited to witness the takeoff of “the first plane in history to carry mail at an announced time to and from designated places on a regular schedule irrespective of weather.”
The Polo Grounds had never been intended to be a flying field, but it was the only open flat space available in the city at the time. Towering trees stood like sentinels around the field. On earlier demonstration flights, Jennies had barely cleared the trees.
Lipsner was greatly relieved when Fleet circled the field, squeaked his way among the trees and landed. Lipsner asked him if Boyle did not show up, would he take the first run. Fleet said he would, but Boyle–accompanied by his fiancée, who was holding an armful of roses–arrived at that moment.
Producing a road map he had strapped to his thigh, Fleet instructed Boyle to follow the railroad tracks northward out of Washington’s Union Station all the way to Philadephia. As they were talking, a long line of shiny black cars chugged into the entrance to the Polo Grounds while Army guards held back a cheering crowd. Secret Service agents surrounded President and Mrs. Wilson as they stepped down from the lead car, smiling. The president’s left hand was bandaged because of a burn he had suffered from having inadvertently touched a hot cannon the day before at a military ceremony.
As the president shook hands with the two pilots, a siren blared across the field and a motorcycle escort sped ahead of a mail truck. The truck parked nearby, and four mail bags were unloaded that contained 3,300 letters and weighed 140 pounds. Merrill Chance, the Washington postmaster, held one of the bags open and President Wilson dropped in a letter addressed to Postmaster Thomas G. Patten in New York City. The president had written his name at the top of the envelope above the fresh cancellation of a new airmail stamp that had just been released. Six ranking Post Office officials also placed their initials on the white selvage attached to the stamp. Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson called this the “first aeroplane stamp to be sold by [his] department.”
Burleson presented Boyle with a bouquet of flowers and presented Fleet with engraved watches for himself and the six pilots. When the bags were placed in the plane, Boyle climbed into the cockpit. “Switch off!” he shouted to Sergeant E. F. Waters. Waters turned the propeller three times.
“Contact!” Waters yelled, and Boyle replied, “Contact!” Boyle turned the switch on and Waters used all his strength to spin the propeller. The engine coughed once and died. Waters tried again. And again. And again.
Fleet, standing nearby, thought the problem might be the spark plugs. While Sergeant Waters tried to find the problem, Fleet heard the president, visibly annoyed, whisper to Mrs. Wilson, “We’re losing a lot of time here.”
“Sergeant, check the gas tank,” Fleet ordered. Waters climbed up on the plane’s wing with a dip stick. It came out dry. In the excitement, the formalities and picture taking, everything had been checked but the gas tank!
Fleet ordered that the tanks of three aircraft parked nearby should be drained of fuel for Boyle’s plane. He also sent a truck to the Navy yard to borrow replacement gasoline. Several more cans were filled, and the engine was finally started. Everyone, including the president, smiled with relief.
Lieutenant Boyle taxied out and began the takeoff run. Bumping stiffly on its tail skid at first, the frail machine slowly gathered speed–but it was heading for the trees!
The crowd gasped and fell silent. At the last second, Boyle eased back on the stick, missing the treetops by about three feet. The crowd breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Except for the fact that Boyle was 45 minutes late getting off, everything seemed to have gone just as the Post Office Department press releases said it would. While Fleet remained to greet Edgerton on his arrival from Philadelphia, Lipsner returned to his office to find a telephone call waiting from New York. After appropriate ceremonies there, Lieutenant Webb had departed Belmont on schedule, carrying mail from New York. An hour later, another phone call came in from Bustleton Field. Webb had arrived there and turned the mail over to Edgerton, who loaded it aboard, along with the southbound Philadelphia mail.
Culver loaded his northbound Philadelphia mail and waited for Boyle. When Boyle did not arrive in a reasonable time, Culver took off anyway at 2:15 p.m. and arrived at Belmont to a rousing welcome–even though he carried no mail from Washington.
Meanwhile, a call came to Colonel Arnold from Boyle about an hour after he had departed the Polo Grounds. Lost and nearly out of gas, he had landed in a farmer’s field at Waldorf, Md., 20 miles southeast of his takeoff point. The plane had flipped over on its back and the prop was splintered, but he was unhurt. Ironically, he had crashed on property next to that owned by Otto Praeger, second assistant postmaster general, who was in charge of the airmail operation. His mail was quietly trucked back to Washington.
Instead of following the railroad tracks northward, Boyle had followed a branch line out of the Washington rail yard that took him southeast instead of north. His unreliable compass was no help. The young lieutenant had become not only the first official, scheduled-airmail pilot to depart with mail from Washington but, unhappily, had also become the first airmail pilot to get lost and the first to have an accident.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant Edgerton had landed on schedule at the Polo Grounds that afternoon to be greeted by a relieved Fleet and a small but enthusiastic crowd. He carried 150 pounds of letters and copies of The New York Times.
Boyle’s mail bags were sent by air next day on the scheduled northbound flight. That flight carried 600 letters, including the one President Wilson had autographed. (This letter was later auctioned off for the benefit of the Red Cross in New York City for $1,000.)
The first day of the airmail service was termed a complete success by Post Office Department officials, although Fleet, Lipsner and a few other government personnel felt differently.
While no one else seemed to worry about Boyle’s flying skill, Fleet was very concerned. He wanted a replacement pilot assigned immediately, but Postmaster General Burleson asked Colonel Arnold to “give the young man a chance.”
Two days after his forced landing, Boyle took off again, this time with Edgerton flying ahead following the four-track Pennsylvania Railroad in a training Jenny to make sure Boyle was headed in the right direction. About 50 miles north of Washington where the railroad crossed the Susuehanna, Edgerton waved Boyle ahead, confident that he could not get lost going the rest of the distance to Philadelphia, and returned to Washington.
But Boyle did get lost again. Completely disoriented after Edgerton turned back, he edged southward again in the area’s typical spring haze and followed the shoreline of Chesapeake Bay in a semicircle. After three hours and 15 minutes, he landed in a pasture at Cape Charles at the tip of the Virginia Peninsula. As Fleet commented in his report of the first day’s operation, “[Only] the Atlantic Ocean and lack of gas prevent[ed] him going farther.”
Boyle bought tractor gas and oilfrom a farmer, asked for directionsand took off again. He found Philadelphia this time and flew around the city looking for Bustleton Field untilhe ran out of gas. He crash-landed between two birch trees on the golf course of the Philadelphia Country Club, onlya few miles from his intended destination on the north side of Philadel-phia. Although both wings had been sheared off and the landing gear and fuselage were badly smashed, Boyle escaped unhurt. Once more, his mail was trucked to a take-off point.
To Fleet’s dismay, postal officials again requested that “Lieutenant Boyle be given a third chance and, if he fails, the Department will take the responsibility for his failure.” Fleet protested and denied the request, saying with uncharacteristic restraint, “The conclusion has been reached that the best interests of the service require that Lieutenant Boyle be relieved from this duty.” He was backed up in his decision by Secretary of War Baker. Boyle was replaced by Lieutenant E.W. Killgore, who served successfully during the three-month experiment but was involved in five forced landings due to mechanical failure.
In a mid-1960s interview, Reuben Fleet told the author that Boyle’s performance was understandable: “There were no maps of much value to airmen in those days. Major E. Lester Jones, chief of the Geodetic Survey Office, made up maps for the airmail pilots. The official state maps of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland were all of different scales and they showed only political divisions with nothing of a physical nature except cities, towns, rivers, harbors, etc. We had to fold large maps of the United States in a strip in order to have everything on a uniform scale. Naturally, they contained little detail.
“In addition to poor maps, the magnetic compass in any airplane was highly inaccurate and was affected by everything metal on the airplane. Pilots almost had to have a sixth sense about navigating and many didn’t acquire this until they had flown a long time. Lieutenant Boyle simply didn’t have enough training to do the job and should not be criticized too severely for his mistakes.”
Lieutenant Edgerton, the other Post Office Department selectee, served during the entire three-month experiment without accident and flew more trips and had more flying time (106 hours) than any of the other five pilots; he had only one forced landing, which was caused by mechanical difficulties. Postmaster General Burleson gave him a special commendation for his “judgment and courage as well in storms as in fair weather.”
Army Air Service pilots continued to fly the New YorkWashington route between May 15 and August 10, 1918, without much more public notice beyond the first two or three days. Although few people knew it, the pilots still had their difficulties. The pledge to keep on a regular schedule six days a week “irrespective of weather” drove the pilots to take exceptional risks. However, unplanned landings due to mechanical malfunctions were relatively infrequent considering the times. The airmail pilot’s greatest threat–then, as always–was the weather.
At the end of the first month of operations, the Post Office Department published a press release noting that 10,800 pounds of mail had been flown over 1,000 miles at an average speed of 70 mph. Edgerton was mentioned as having made 20 perfect flights without “a stop en route, and without damaging a plane.”
On June 3, the first airmail flight was scheduled to be made between New York and Boston on a single round-trip basis. For public relations and goodwill purposes, Lieutenant Gustave Vannelle, a French aviator, was chosen to make the first flight, along with a mechanic. He crashed on takeoff, and both men suffered minor injuries. On June 6, Lieutenant Torrey Webb was assigned a Curtiss R-4 for the trip; Robert Heck, a mechanic, was to accompany him. Webb got lost en route in a severe rainstorm, landed in a pasture to ask for directions and finally landed at the Franklin Park Aviation Field in Saugas, Mass., where the plane hit a mudhole and flipped over on its back. Neither Webb nor Heck was hurt.
After his plane was repaired, Webb returned to New York in bad weather on June 11 with 64 pounds of mail and Boston Postmaster William Murray as a passenger. As Webb recalled later, “Visibility was zero-zero and I just skimmed over the telephone poles all the way.”
Although postal officials bragged about the new postal service, the public did not want to pay the extra charge for airmail stamps. Planeloads of mail averaged less than 50 pounds daily. However, when the airmail experiment with the Army Air Service ended after three months, the operational statistics were impressive for the time period, despite the mishaps and interrupted schedules.
The Army pilots had successfully completed 270 flights and had carried 40,500 pounds of mail. They had flown a total of 421:30 hours without a fatality or serious injury. Of the trips flown, 53 were forced down because of bad weather en route and 16 had ended in forced landings due to mechanical difficulties. Lieutenant James Edgerton had the best record, with 52 trips covering 7,155 miles and only one forced landing.
The Army Air Service pilots had proved they could maintain a fair semblance of regular schedules if a suitable system was set up, the airplanes were properly maintained and the pilots were trained. These pioneers had set an enviable standard of performance for those who followed as civilian employees of the Post Office Department.
The last flight by the Army Air Service pilots took place on Saturday, August 10, 1918. The Post Office Department took over the airmail operation officially the following Monday and continued until September 1, 1927. By the time the Air Mail Service of the Post Office Department was fully replaced by commercial operators flying the mail under government contract, a transcontinental route had been established, radio aids to navigation and “blind flying” instruments were being developed, and planes were flying day and night. Today’s modern airline industry is the direct outgrowth of those pioneering efforts.
Contributing editor C.V. Glines is an award-winning aviation writer and the author of Air Mail: How It All Began. For further reading, he recommends: Aerial Pioneers: The U.S. Air Mail Service, 19181927, by Donald B. Holmes; and Tracks Across the Sky, by Page Shamburger.