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Flying Blind: The Army Air Corps Delivers the Mail

By Kevin L. Cook
8/6/2018 • MHQ Magazine

Tasked with carrying the mail when commercial airmail contracts were canceled in early 1934, the army air corps was thoroughly unprepared for the job— resulting in nearly a dozen airman deaths and accusations of ‘legalized murder’.

“Foulois!” General Douglas MacArthur, U.S. Army chief of staff, barked to his aide, the head of the army air corps. “A newsman just told me that the president has released an executive order giving the Air Corps the job of flying the mail. What do you know about it?” Major General Benjamin D. Foulois had just struck a match to light his pipe. He later recalled that he felt as if he “must have leaped eight feet in the air” before returning “to earth in a shower of sparks and tobacco.”

Second Assistant Postmaster General Harllee Branch had called Foulois at about 11 A.M. on February 9, 1934, and the two had met that day to discuss the airmail situation. For months a U.S. Senate committee had investigated commercial airmail contracts for possible fraud, and Branch had told Foulois that “in the event of cancellation…the Army might be called upon to carry the mails.” Foulois, interpreting the meeting as a preliminary discussion, estimated to Branch that preparations would require roughly “a week or ten days.”

After the three-hour meeting with Branch, Foulois briefed Major General Hugh A. Drum, deputy chief of staff. Around 4 P.M., while Foulois was still in Drum’s office, MacArthur learned of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s order.

Foulois’ off-the-cuff estimate of ten days’ preparation time had become a deadline. The air corps would take over airmail service from private contractors at midnight on February 19. “My first move was to get full control of every aircraft unit of the Army in the United States,” Foulois said.

He placed Brigadier General Oscar Westover in charge of the Army Air Corps Mail Operation (AACMO). They divided the country into three zones: an eastern zone with headquarters at Newark, New Jersey, under Major B.Q. Jones; a central zone headquartered at Chicago under Lieutenant Colonel Horace M. Hickam; and a western zone under Lieutenant Colonel Henry H. Arnold, with headquarters at Salt Lake City, Utah. They gave priority to maintaining airmail service among the twelve cities with Federal Reserve banks. Foulois distributed “uniform types of aircraft with uniform speed in each zone” to maintain existing schedules.

At the outset, not many of the army’s planes had lights for night flying or equipment to use recently developed radio beams for navigation. Crews stripped planes of armament and added radios and blind-flying instruments. They converted rear cockpits of observation planes to mail compartments and sealed bomb bays of mail-carrying bombers. Further, the army had to arrange for office space and work space all over the nation.

General Foulois sent his three zone commanders a radiogram on February 16, ordering them to consider carefully “experience of personnel, suitability of aircraft, night-flying equipment, and blind-flying equipment.” Another message sent the next day told the three commanders to “impress most emphatically upon all pilots” the necessity for extreme care. If weather conditions were uncertain, pilots were to remain on the ground, despite the delay in mail delivery. “Drill these instructions into your pilots daily until they thoroughly understand the safety-first policy of the Air Corps,” Foulois demanded.

Foulois told a congressional committee on February 16 that 250 officers, 150 airplanes, and about 350 enlisted men would be involved in the effort. The army air corps was about one-twentieth the size of the independent air force today and had to draw personnel to fly the mail from its thirteen hundred officers and 14,450 enlisted men.

“We have assigned to this work the most experienced pilots in the Army Air Corps,” Foulois promised the committee. “We have had a great deal of experience in flying at night, and in flying in fogs and bad weather, in blind flying, and in flying under all other conditions.” He conceded that pilots had not flown over the scheduled lines, but added, “We feel that after three or four days of preliminary flying over those routes we shall experience no difficulty in maintaining the regular schedules.” In fact, he confidently predicted that within a few weeks “after February 19, our personnel and material may be in such shape that we can operate additional lines.”

When a congressman asked about flying the mail during winter in open -cockpit planes, Foulois replied, “A great deal of night mail is flown in those types of planes, and our men have been flying in all sorts of weather.” He added, “My thought is that this operation is going to be a great benefit to our pilots and personnel. It is a wonderful opportunity to build a really good organization for an emergency.”

Major Jones told the same hearing that air corps pilots had been getting only about four hours of flying time per month and they were eager for the job. On February 15, he had led a formation of five pursuit planes from Langley Field, Virginia, to Newark at an average speed of two hundred mph. When a reporter questioned the army’s ability to fly the mail, Jones replied: “Don’t worry about that—unless an elephant drops on us. If it does, we’ll cut it up and ship it out as mail.” Personnel and planes were already in position. Pilots would be taking trial and route familiarization flights for three days, until operations commenced.

Second Lieutenant Beirne Lay Jr., assigned the mail run from Chicago to Nashville, had a different, less optimistic perspective. He had been a flying cadet at Kelly Field, Texas, only eight months earlier. Now his entire class would be among the inexperienced pilots flying for the AACMO. Before operations began, Lay received an hour of instruction in blind flying, in addition to the thirteen he had gotten at the advanced flying school at Kelly. According to Lay, air corps pilots at the time received little practice in radio-beam flying because the service believed such aids were too susceptible to enemy interference in combat situations.

A thermometer on the hangar registered minus four degrees when Lay left Chicago on a nighttime familiarization run in a Boeing P-12, an open-cockpit biplane. The regulation strip maps had not arrived, so Lay borrowed a Rand McNally state map from a clerk in the national guard office. While Lay waited in the operations office for a weather report, a teletyped message arrived with the news of the first AACMO fatalities. Second Lieutenants Jean D. Grenier and Edwin D. White Jr. had crashed their sleek, low-winged Curtiss A-12 monoplane into a mountainside. While on a practice run, they failed to find their way through a mountain pass between Rock Springs, Wyoming, and Salt Lake City. Lay knew them both.

Lay took off and had just tuned in the Terre Haute, Indiana, radio beam when his receiver suddenly quit. He checked his compass only to find it “revolving like an eggbeater,” presumably because of vibration or electrical interference in the small P-12. He followed the Big Dipper and a line of rotating beacons to an intermediate stop at Terre Haute, where the wind direction forced him to land directly into the field’s floodlights. “I was completely blinded as I settled the last forty feet to the ground in a power stall,” Lay recalled. “When I finished bouncing, I taxied up to the warm-looking glow of the operations office.”

That same night, February 16, there was a second fatal crash. Second Lieutenant James Y. Eastman was on a practice run from Salt Lake City to Seattle in a twin-engine gull-wing Douglas B-7 bomber. He was following a line of lighted beacons, spaced at ten-mile intervals. When he could not see the next beacon because of poor visibility, he attempted to land at an emergency field near Jerome, Idaho. His bomber stalled during a turn and crashed.

The following day brought two additional incidents. A pilot got lost and ran out of fuel but made a successful dead-stick landing on a farm near Dover, New Jersey. In the same situation near Mansfield, Ohio, another pilot parachuted to safety.

The surge in air corps fatalities so enraged World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker that he publicly referred to the deaths as “legalized murder.” Rickenbacker was a vice president of North American Aviation, the parent company of Western Air Express, Transcontinental and Western Air, and Eastern Air Transport, three of the carriers whose mail contracts had been canceled, so he had additional reason to be angry.

North American Aviation and Douglas Aircraft had developed a new air transport, the forerunner of the famous Douglas DC-3. Rickenbacker and Jack Frye, vice president of TWA, were planning a record-breaking transcontinental flight and decided to make their attempt just before the contract cancellation took effect. Despite predictions of a large storm in Newark, they figured they could leave Los Angeles, beat the storm, and arrive before the midnight cancellation deadline. The pair succeeded, flying cross country in just over thirteen hours with an average speed of 203 mph. Their flight shattered the existing passenger plane record by five hours and came within three hours of the racing plane record.

The trip provides context for the fractious environment in which the air corps worked—and for the scrutiny it would receive. For months the public had followed the numerous twists and turns of the Special Committee on Investigation of the Airmail and Ocean Mail Contracts, chaired by Senator (and future U.S. Supreme Court Justice) Hugo Black. The explicit policy of President Herbert Hoover’s postmaster general, Walter F. Brown, had been to limit competition and “to subsidize an infant industry until it can become self-sustaining.” Many considered the record-breaking TWA flight proof of that policy’s success. One newspaper editorialized that the trip emphasized “the folly of the Government’s course in breaking faith with the pioneers, whose courage, foresight, and money are building triumphs for this country in aviation.”

Other editorials opposed air corps involvement in delivering airmail on less specific grounds. One said cancellation was “just another step for the Government to fasten its tentacles deeper into the vitals of private business and industry.” Another quipped that Roosevelt’s New Deal gave airlines a raw deal. Accusations of corruption and favoritism pitted the new Democratic administration against Hoover’s Republican legacy. The aviation industry itself was sharply divided between large carriers that had airmail contracts and small independents that wanted them.

These factors focused public attention on the air corps as it began to fly the mail during a stretch of severe winter weather. Much of the Northeast was snowbound, without train or bus service. New York City put more than twenty thousand jobless men to work clearing its streets.

Lieutenant Donald Wackwitz, who brought the first service-flown airmail to Newark, arrived two hours late. He encountered bad weather, and the radio in his Keystone B-6 bomber had gone dead shortly after he left Cleveland. The weather caused problems on southern routes too. After leaving Birmingham, Lieutenant John R. Sutherland flew off course in bad weather and was forced to land his P-12 in a small field at Demopolis, Alabama. Sutherland crossed town on city streets to reach a better field for takeoff, stopping to refuel at a gas station along the way. While landing in Selma, the P-12 nosed over into a ditch. A chain gang helped the pilot right his plane, but he had to wait for a replacement propeller to be brought from Atlanta.

There were other narrow escapes before the next fatal accident. On February 22, Second Lieutenant Durward O. Lowry died when his Curtiss O-39 observation biplane crashed near Deshler, Ohio. Lowry used his parachute but got caught in the plane’s tail. His mother, who reportedly learned of his death from a newspaper, told a reporter, “Good as they are, those Selfridge Field fliers shouldn’t have to fly at night through winter storms over unfamiliar courses that it took months for commercial pilots to learn.”

That same day another air corps pilot died during a training flight near Denison, Texas. Foulois reported that the death “was in no way connected with airmail operations,” but the connection existed in the public mind anyway.

The next afternoon, a Douglas C-29 amphibian piloted by Second Lieutenant James H. Rothrock, with Second Lieutenants William S. Pocock Jr. and George F. McDermott as passengers, left Brooklyn’s Floyd Bennett Field on a ferrying flight. Water in the fuel tanks forced a landing at sea off Rockaway Point, Long Island. “At first we did not think our predicament was serious and just laughed and kidded about it,” Pocock told a newspaper.

Rothrock had contacted the field by radio, but high winds and rough seas stymied rescue attempts by small planes and boats. A rescue by the police aviation unit failed when spray froze the controls of their amphibian. The three men waited for five hours, clinging to the C-29’s wing. McDermott lost his grip and slid into the frigid water just minutes before the navy destroyer Bernadou reached them.

Soon after McDermott’s death, Foulois recorded in his memoirs, a reporter confessed that he had “orders to ‘get’ [Foulois]. We’re supposed to dig up all we can to prove you’re inefficient and that Army fliers are not equipped to do the job.” Air corps supporters pointed out that the media had paid little attention to commercial carrier accidents since the air corps had been carrying mail. The day of McDermott’s death, a United plane crashed near Salt Lake City, killing three crew members and five passengers. Three days later an Eastern plane made a forced landing near Savannah, though without injury to the pilot or seven passengers.

On February 24, Foulois detailed new safety procedures regarding weather and equipment to all control officers and pilots. Officers could not assign pilots more than eight hours’ duty per day, and pilots would have twenty-four hours off every four days. Only pilots with more than two years’ service were to fly at night unless weather conditions were excellent.

On the night of February 27, Foulois spoke over the CBS radio network to give the air corps side of the story. He pointed out that in some cases the “poundage has been in excess of 100 percent over the loads normally carried,” necessitating the use of two or three planes instead of one. Foulois explained the difference between “beam-flying” directional radio beams and “blind flying.” A pilot following a radio beam heard a continuous hum in his earphones, which was broken into a series of signals for the letters “A” or “N,” depending on whether the pilot had strayed to the left or right of the beam. Blind flying was much more difficult, Foulois said, and it had been only during “the past year that improved radio and blind-flying instruments had been available in any quantity for general service use.”

He pointed out that flying military aircraft designed for combat was “inherently hazardous under all conditions, and accidents increase when flying activities are carried out on a large scale.” Foulois conceded that “insofar as quantity of aircraft is concerned, we are behind at least four foreign air powers. But I will not admit that the normal quality of our material and the general efficiency of our personnel is exceeded by any air power in the world.”

Events in the air grabbed the headlines, but the AACMO faced difficulties on the ground as well. Westover inspected operations and found a lack of hangar space at Cheyenne. Planes were staked down in the open, and in cold weather it could take three hours to start the engines. At the beginning of operations, office space at Cheyenne consisted of one ten-square-foot room. For three weeks, the Richmond office space was a women’s restroom in a hangar.

Space inside the planes posed other problems. Westover learned that the postal service had to devise smaller airmail pouches to fit in the small space available in a pursuit plane. Some commercial planes could carry up to two thousand pounds of mail. The air corps had few aircraft with that capacity, so “at certain places we had to carry that same amount of load with six planes of smaller capacity,” which required more equipment, organization, and control. He noted, “That actually multiplies the risk.”

One of Lay’s criticisms was that existing squadron organization had been destroyed. The volume of mail on each route dictated the number of planes and pilots required. “A hastily conceived peacetime order produced more chaos than war,” he said. Frustration was evident at all levels. The central zone’s commander, Hickam, sent the War Department this telegram message after a discussion of the chain of command for the Chicago air depot: “Who is commanding this thing anyway? Make up your minds. Love and kisses, Horace.”

Curtis E. LeMay flew the Richmond to Greensboro, North Carolina, run. Decades later, the general remembered how a group of mechanics had once gathered around a pot of thin stew, cooking it over a plumber’s burner in a corner of a cold hangar. “We were ordered quickly away from our bases, slashed into tiny detachments, and scattered all over the nation.”

There was no subsistence allowance, and personnel had to make their own arrangements for food and lodging. A private earned only $21 a month, so enlisted men ran out of money quickly. “They were eating homemade mulligan and they were sleeping on planks laid across sawhorses in cold hangars,” LeMay recalled. “Lucky to be out of the rain.” A captain at Atlanta’s Candler Field lent his men $1,200 out of his own pocket, to keep up morale.

Legislation to fund the AACMO included a provision for a $5 per diem allowance, but it had become snarled in the political debate surrounding cancellation of airmail contracts. Representative Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts said the bill “put the stamp of approval on nothing but murder.” Supporters of the operation pointed out that deaths in the air corps, while tragic, were nothing new. Fifty had died in 1932 and forty-six in 1933—all without charges of “legalized murder.” The bill, with its per diem provision, finally passed in late March.

After the first few days of the operation, there was a lull in fatal accidents. The corps received two new Martin B-10s each week and quickly pressed them into service. Each twin-engine bomber could carry about two thousand pounds of mail. They soon were making runs between New York and Chicago and from Newark to Miami.

On March 9, however, three crashes resulted in four deaths. A B-6 piloted by Lieutenant W.M. Reid, with Private Floyd Marshall as radio operator and Private Ernest B. Sell as crew chief, left Jacksonville for Miami. Shortly after takeoff from an intermediate stop at Daytona Beach, the plane’s two motors began to sputter. Sell moved forward to use a wobble pump to transfer fuel from one tank to another. Reid had to land in a wooded area, and Sell was thrown forward and killed when the plane hit some trees. Marshall suffered a fractured shoulder, but Reid was uninjured.

First Lieutenant Otto Wienecke, a veteran with ten years in the air corps, was killed when his O-39 nosed in near Burton, Ohio, while carrying a load of mail from Newark to Cleveland. Wienecke’s hands were still at the controls when he was found. The investigating board noted that the aircraft’s artificial horizon and directional gyrocompass were mounted at knee level, so low that they would have been difficult for the pilot to see, but reported the accident’s probable cause as a combination of darkness and bad weather.

Lieutenants F.L. Howard and A.R. Kerwin died in Wyoming on a familiarization run in a Douglas O-38 single-engine, two-seat biplane. Witnesses said the engine sounded “like a Ford car operating on two cylinders.” Pilot Howard had circled Cheyenne to return to the airport when the engine quit completely. Their airplane struck a power line at the edge of the airport, and sparks ignited its fabric covering.

The following morning MacArthur called Foulois to accompany him to the White House. “Without a word of greeting,” Foulois recalled, Roosevelt boomed at him, “General, when are these airmail killings going to stop?”

“Only when airplanes stop flying, Mr. President,” Foulois replied.

“For the next ten minutes MacArthur and I received a tongue-lashing which I put down in my book as the worst I ever received in all my military service,” Foulois wrote in his memoirs. He also believed that he “was to be the ‘heavy’ in the airmail drama.”

Roosevelt next sent a letter to Secretary of War George H. Dern demanding, “the continuation of deaths in the Army Air Corps must stop.” He asked Dern to “issue immediate orders to the Army Air Corps stopping all carrying of airmail” except where weather, equipment, and personnel could be relied on to ensure there would be no more fatal accidents. “Because military lessons have been taught us during the past few weeks,” Roosevelt requested that Dern consult with the secretary of commerce, who oversaw civil aviation at the time, and the postmaster general to arrange additional training for army pilots in “night flying, blind flying, and instrument flying.”

This publicly released letter reflected a defensive political strategy. Republicans, searching for issues in the election seven months away, were calling for a suspension of the airmail service. The president noted he was writing to House and Senate committee chairmen to urge “speed in the enactment of the legislation” that would allow new contracts to be written and end “the period of emergency.” He also declared that the air corps got the mail job only after “the definite assurance given me that the Army Air Corps could carry the mail.” Speaking from the Senate floor, Arthur R. Robinson of Indiana and Simeon D. Fess of Ohio questioned who had given “definite assurance,” since senior army officials, including Foulois, were on record as being surprised by the order to the air corps.

In response to the president’s rebuke, Foulois issued orders to “suspend immediately all carrying of airmail until your personnel and equipment are in position and ready” to operate under a reduced schedule agreed on by the air corps and the postal service. During a ten-day hiatus, he directed the corps to inspect and check all aircraft, radios, and instruments. He also ordered that only pilots with two years of service could fly mail, ruling out most reservists.

Foulois personally inspected many facilities and reported, “The morale of the officers and men was the highest of any unit I had ever seen in the service,” but added that “many were gaunt from prolonged physical exhaustion.” On March 17, he shared his new safety precautions over the NBC radio network. Just as he finished the broadcast, however, he learned of another crash near Cheyenne. Lieutenant H.C. Richardson, a laid-off United co-pilot, had been killed on a training flight in an O-38.

Nevertheless, operations resumed on eight routes on March 19. The worst of the exceptionally severe winter weather was over, and the air corps was better prepared than it had been a month earlier. There was one more fatal accident before operations ended, when Lieutenant Thurman Wood lost control of his Curtiss A-12 in a thunderstorm and crashed near DeWitt, Iowa.

New commercial airmail contracts were announced in May, and AACMO operations wound down. The final air corps transcontinental mail flight was made on May 7. B-10s relayed mail from San Francisco to Cheyenne, A-12s carried it across the central zone to Chicago, and then other B-10s took it from Chicago to Newark. At fourteen hours and eight minutes, the trip lasted an hour and three minutes longer than Rickenbacker and Frye’s TWA flight, but the air corps pointed out that its route was 247 miles longer and that mail was transferred at five intermediate stops.

The final AACMO flight was between Chicago and Fargo, North Dakota, on June 1, 1934. The postmaster general reported that since February 19, the air corps had flown 1,719,919 miles in mail service and carried 629,150 pounds of mail. The corps had flown seventy-five percent of scheduled miles (compared with 93 percent of scheduled miles flown during fiscal 1934 as a whole).

The Air Corps News Letter claimed that despite the “most unusual and prolonged stretch of bad weather, not a single pound of mail was lost,” compared with the commercial carriers’ average monthly loss of 172 pounds. This may seem a curious statement, given the number of crashes, but not all crashes involved planes with mail aboard. Furthermore, planes with mail did not necessarily lose their mail pouches in an accident. For example, one newspaper story about a crash near Uniontown, Pennsylvania, related that after the pilot reported in, he “walked back into the hills to his plane and returned with his mail to send it on by train.”

Beirne Lay Jr., writing in 1937, was cautious in placing blame for the air corps’ unimpressive airmail performance. He cited bad weather, mechanical troubles, unadapted equipment, unfamiliarity with routes, and “the subordination of caution to an almost wartime spirit of over-anxious resolve to make a bold showing.” Lay blamed pilot fatigue, recalling his own experience when “the screech of the slipstream through the wires and the thunder of the engine woke me up one night in time to pull out of a vertical dive.” Of the eleven airmen who died flying mail, he doubted “that there was one who was not dead tired.”

Former Brigadier General William Mitchell appeared before a Senate committee, where he was introduced as a farmer “at one time connected with the Army.” He made a point often overlooked by air corps critics who thought that all flying was equal: “The Army has been equipped and the Air Service designed to act near an army on the ground. Airmail has had ships designed to fly across the country.” He stressed the need for increased hours and practice in blind flying. “You have got to fly under all sorts of circumstances to develop it. If you fly all the time in fair weather, anybody could do it.”

As public and congressional debate raged over contract annulment and air corps performance, one thing became clear. “At least the cancellation of the airmail contracts has shown the American people the total unpreparedness of the American flying force,” said Wisconsin representative Thomas O’Malley. Representative Carl M. Weideman of Michigan said, “It is about time we awoke to the fact that our air force is not as adequate as that of England, of France, or of Japan.” He said that although accusations of murder had been made, “probably these lives have not been lost in vain,” because of the lessons learned in flying the mail.

Air corps appropriations had declined from $37 million in fiscal 1931 to $19 million in 1934. This prompted Oregon representative Charles H. Martin to say: “When it comes to the question of politics, do not say that our Air Service is no good. The Air Service is just as good as Congress has made it. If you will pass the proper laws and the proper appropriations, you will have a proper Air Service.”

Speaker of the House Henry T. Rainey was less interested in Congress accepting responsibility and urged an inquiry into War Department procurement methods. “If we are unfortunate enough to be drawn into another war, the Air Corps wouldn’t amount to much,” he said. “If it is not equal to carrying the mails, I would like to know what it would do in carrying bombs.”

Aviation reminded its readers that Foulois was “the world’s first military airplane pilot” and said that to make him the scapegoat for “everything that has gone wrong over the last half-dozen years…is so repugnant to every sense of fairness that the blindfolded figure of Justice shrieks in agony.” Foulois weathered the storm and retired on December 31, 1935. Westover succeeded him as chief of the air corps.

Despite congressional misgivings, the air corps’ financial situation soon improved. The president released impounded air corps research and development funds, and authorized $7 million in public works funds for new aircraft and other equipment. Air corps expenditures increased from $17 million in fiscal 1934 to $32 million in fiscal 1936.

Newton D. Baker formed and chaired a War Department special committee on the army air corps. Baker had been Woodrow Wilson’s secretary of war during World War I. In its July 1934 final report, the committee recommended the formation of a General Headquarters Air Force, which Foulois, a member of the committee, described as “the first giant step toward the creation of an independent Air Force.” This centralized air force consisted of most of the combat elements of the air corps, and was “capable of operating either independently or in cooperation with the ground air forces,” according to Foulois.

Three decades later, at General Foulois’ 85th birthday party on December 9, 1964, Lieutenant General Ira C. Eaker, who had been in charge of the San Diego to Salt Lake City mail route, called the airmail operation “the best possible training for those who were to lead the Air Forces in the Second World War.” Foulois himself said: “If I had it all to do over I would take the same position again. I would hope that I could have the same able commanders and brave pilots with me again, although I would wish for better planes, engines, instruments, and airways aids, and a little more time to get ready.”

 

Originally published in the Spring 2008 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here

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