Airmail pilot Jack Knight’s heroic flight in a day-and-night ‘grand relay’ brought him instant celebrity in 1921.
Jack Knight had nearly reached Laramie, Wyoming, when his Liberty engine suddenly coughed and died. The February wind practically tore the goggles from the pilot’s face as he peered around the cowling of his de Havilland DH-4B mail plane through the snow-filled sky at the mountains below him. Even if he’d had a parachute, he was too low to use it. He spotted a snowy ridge and headed for it, hoping to drop the biplane like a leaf onto the uphill slope. But wicked air currents tossed him around, and before he knew it he was headed into a rocky canyon—with no way out of it in sight. He tried to soften the crash with a sideslip, but he hit hard, smashing his face into the cowling. The engine and propeller buried themselves in the snow, while the mail plane’s fuselage rolled down the slope. It finally came to rest wedged among boulders.
It was not an unusual way for an airmail flight to end in 1921. For the pilot, there was a relatively happy ending this time. Regaining consciousness, Knight discovered that “nothing was broken except the plane and my nose and a couple of pine trees,” so he began his walk to civilization.
After a few miles the flier spotted a man on horseback and fired his service revolver in the air to attract his attention. Alarmed, the rider galloped off. Seven miles and several hours later, Knight came upon a ranch house, and the rancher drove him to Laramie—where he made arrangements for forwarding his load of mail, had a doctor tend to his nose and finally boarded a train to Cheyenne.
The young men who flew the mail during the early days of the U.S. Air Mail Service were generally cut from the same mold— young, adventurous and veterans of World War I. But Jack Knight’s life, both before and after his airmail days, was unusual. He was born James Herbert Brockett on March 14, 1892, in Lincoln Center, Kan. When he was about a year old, his mother, a schoolteacher, died, and his father brought her body back to her hometown of Buchanan, Mich., where James and his older sister were adopted by his aunt and uncle, Dr. Melvin Knight and his wife Emma.
As he grew up, James loved climbing things: trees, roofs, anything where he could feel closer to the sky, so naturally he was given the nickname “Sky.” He was very small and fragile for his age, but his boyhood friends recalled that he was a determined competitor in sandlot baseball games. He enjoyed writing when it was about something that interested him, such as air travel. He was also a practical joker. None of his pranks had serious consequences, but whenever there was mischief in his neighborhood, “Sky” Knight was one of the usual suspects.
In 1910 Knight enrolled at Michigan Agricultural College, now Michigan State University, studying mechanical engineering. There, he acquired another nickname, Jack. His practical jokes continued, eventually leading to his suspension. Knight then traveled to Chicago, where he joined Mead-Morrison Engineering Corporation as a draftsman and engineer.
As World War I raged, Knight became enamored with the idea of flying for Uncle Sam. He quit his job and joined the U.S. Army Air Service in 1917, reporting for flight training at Ellington Field, Texas. There, as a member of the 122nd Aero Squadron, Knight met some of his future fellow airmail pilots, including E. Hamilton Lee. Both Lee and Knight, much to their displeasure, were rated so highly that they were ordered to remain at Ellington as flight instructors after their training. Time and again Knight asked to be sent to a combat squadron, but the war ended with him still in the States.
Knight returned to his Chicago job for a time. Looking back on those days, he wrote: “One day the other members of my squadron, barnstorming on a Liberty Loan drive, came to Chicago. They were doing acrobatic flying and knew where I worked, so they staged a dogfight all around and over the building—with me on the roof watching. I got so excited I went downstairs and quit, wired Washington, D.C., and got on as a mail pilot.” It was 1919, and the U.S. Air Mail Service was still just a novelty to most of the country, especially Congress, which was under pressure to give higher and higher yearly subsidies to the young organization. Officially begun on May 15, 1918, using military aircraft and fliers, the service was transferred on August 12, 1918, to the purview of the Post Office Department, which used modified war surplus de Havilland DH-4s and civilian pilots.
Although many, including President Woodrow Wilson, supported the idea of an airmail service, implementing the plan finally was the work of Second Assistant Postmaster General Otto Praeger and his superintendent of Air Mail Service, Ben Lipsner. They wanted pilots who had at least 1,000 hours of flying time, and they preferred to hire veterans. The annual base salary was between $2,000 and $3,000, with 5, 6 or 7 cents per mile flown depending on the route. The mileage rate doubled whenever a pilot flew at night, and a man received $3 for each day he spent away from home.
It was good money for the times, but the work was hazardous to say the least. There were three main zones: New York to Chicago; Chicago to Cheyenne, Wyo.; and Cheyenne to San Francisco, covering a total of 2,665 miles. There were also several shorter spur routes, like New York to Washington, D.C., and Cheyenne to Denver, but these were later abandoned in favor of the more impressive coast-to-coast delivery of airmail, which better competed with railroads. The airmail postage rate was 8 cents per ounce per zone. Each plane carried an average of 400 pounds (about 16,000 letters), which meant that about 224,000 letters could be transported every day.
The transcontinental route, from east to west, began in New York at Hazelhurst Field. Flying the “Hell Stretch” over the Allegheny Mountain region, pilots fought rain, snow, ice, wind and fog all the way to Cleveland, where they exchanged mail sacks with another pilot. From the shore of Lake Erie it was on to Checkerboard Field in Maywood, near Chicago, and another handoff. The relay system continued to Omaha, Neb.; North Platte, Neb.; Cheyenne; Salt Lake City, Utah; Reno, Nev.; Elko, Nev.; and finally San Francisco. There were also optional refueling stops along the way, but no navigation light beacons or radios were available to help pilots find their way in for a landing.
Many airmail pilots had started out flying Curtiss JN-4H “Jennies” and then similar biplanes built by Standard Aircraft Corporation. Eventually the service settled on the DH-4Bs, 100 of which were given to the Post Office Department by the military. A license-built copy of a British design using the 12-cylinder liquid-cooled 400-hp Liberty engine, the American DH-4 had served as a reconnaissance plane as well as a bomber during World War I. The DH-4B, developed too late to see wartime action, had the cockpits relocated and much of the fuselage’s fabric covering replaced with birch plywood. On the airmail version, the front cockpit was converted into the mail cargo area and the pilot’s cockpit was moved back to the original observer’s position.
Pilots had to be good to handle these flying mail trucks. Forced landings were common, and many pilots were lost in collisions with fog-shrouded mountains or crashed due to fires resulting from leaky fuel lines. Of the 40 original airmail pilots, 30 would die while flying the mail. In fact, insurance companies would never cover pilots or ground crews, and stores refused to open charge accounts for pilots or their families.
There was constant experimentation in an effort to make the flights safer and the planes more reliable. The “grease monkeys” (mechanics) and “beezers” (pilots) worked together, sometimes all night when necessary, knowing that the pilots’ lives as well as the future of the Air Mail Service could be riding on it. At the Air Mail Experimental Shop in Monmouth, Ill., mechanics took suggestions from pilots and field mechanics and implemented modifications. Some worked, but many didn’t.
Jack Knight entered this world in 1919. At first he was assigned to the eastern division, flying each direction out of Cleveland. Knight learned quickly from his fellow pilots, though each man had his own techniques and stuck by them. While some were always busy installing or tinkering with new instruments to help with navigation, others like Harold T. “Slim” Lewis claimed, “An instrument panel is just something to clutter up the cockpit and distract your attention from the railroad or riverbed you’re following.” Knight eventually settled on flying “under the weather,” or close to the ground, whenever possible for the best visibility.
Of course, any information a pilot could gain about the weather ahead of him was always welcome. Knight, like many other pilots, kept a notebook in his plane containing names of farmers and their telephone numbers along his route. An airmail pilot never knew where he might be forced down, and having a name or telephone number could make the difference between success or failure if a downed plane’s mailbags had to be sent on by train. Knight sometimes telephoned farmers far ahead of him to find out what weather to expect.
During one difficult leg, Knight became apprehensive enough to put his trusty notebook to a different purpose. He recalled:
I had got about 20 miles from Bellefonte up in the mountains, the “graveyard of the aviators.” Suddenly something closed in and the visibility was about zero-zero. I knew that my gas was running low, and had figured I had about enough to reach Bellefonte. Then with the visibility getting bad I figured it was about all up with poor Jack. I began to write my will. Any minute I expected to hit a peak in the fog and I figured if I tried to go lower, I’d find zero-zero there too. I wrote down everything I could remember that I owned and willed it to someone, signing my name. And then I decided to go down a bit anyway as I only had a speck of gas left. Fortunately, I came out in a little hollow between two mountains and to my amazement there was a small town beneath and one sign which I could read. The sign said, “Mifflinburg Carriage Shop.” I immediately got my bearings and flew to Bellefonte only a few miles distant, refueled and went on.
Some pilots felt that Otto Praeger was a tough man to work for. His motto was: “Fly by the compass. Visibility not necessary.” Knight had been with the Air Mail Service only a few weeks when two of the best pilots, including E. Hamilton Lee, were suspended for insubordination after refusing to take off in what they felt was unsafe weather. In support, the rest of the pilots went on a two-day strike. The two fliers were eventually reinstated, but not before guidelines were established for flying in bad weather.
Shortly after that, the Air Mail Service was asked to help with delivering desperately needed medicine to New York City for six people who were victims of botulism. Researchers in Urbana, Ill., had developed a new serum, but had no way to get it there quickly enough to save the patients.
The serum was sent by train to Chicago, where Knight took off for New York in a twin-engine Martin. He told reporters: “We’ll go straight across [Lake Michigan] and I’ll make Cleveland by 3. With no trouble we’ll make New York by 7 and if we are a little late we can have them send out flares.” Problems with the left engine delayed his takeoff, and it was after 1 o’clock before he finally got away, into a strong headwind. The engine soon began acting up, and Knight was forced to land near Gary, Ind., for repairs. But he delivered the serum to New York in time to save the patients. Newspapers heralded him as “the hero of the ‘serum flight.’”
Knight subsequently married Lois Hoag in Cleveland. He had met his bride-to-be while they were still in college. Asked how she felt about marrying an aviator, Lois replied: “Good nerve is required in an aviator. Nerve is also a necessary factor in matrimony.” The newlyweds began their honeymoon with a flight, the bride’s first, in a Curtiss biplane.
Each veteran pilot was responsible for breaking in new members of the Air Mail Service. Every man had his own methods of dealing with bad weather. Knight’s habit of flying as low as possible, to maintain visual contact with landmarks, could be especially dangerous in low-hanging fog, as was tragically the case with new pilot Clayton Stoner. While flying from Chicago to Cleveland on a particularly foggy morning, he dropped down to locate some railroad tracks— just as his friend and mentor Jack Knight always did. The wingtip of his plane struck a treetop, and Stoner’s plane spun to the ground and burst into flames. Trapped in the wreckage, he burned to death.
Knight soon transferred to the western division, flying from Omaha to North Platte and Cheyenne. The sparse population and quickly changing weather conditions out west often made for challenging flying. One time when Knight took off from Cheyenne in heavy winds, bound for Salt Lake City, he flew for 11⁄2 hours at full power but had covered only about 40 miles. Running low on fuel, he decided to return to Cheyenne, but then he had to land. Knight later said: “I turned around and lost altitude all the way back, and flew into Cheyenne at a height of 2,000 feet. I didn’t dare throttle her down in sideslips. If I hadn’t thought of the sideslip business you would have [had] to come on up to the north star to see me.”
Witnesses on the ground, where wind gusts were measured at over 100 miles per hour, said that Knight’s plane “hung stationary, like a big hunting eagle, until it landed like a leaf.” It was, some said, like seeing a car stuck in the mud.
If a pilot was forced down, he was supposed to recover the mail sacks and do his best to get them to the nearest train station. That could be a tall order if the flier was injured and far from civilization. Knight once crash-landed on a hot summer day and broke his ankle and his wrist. He staggered along in search of help, struggling to carry the mail sack, but he kept falling down. The pain became so intense that sometimes, he later admitted, it was a temptation to lie down and just let nature take its course. “Then a damn magpie would get near my face,” he recalled. “I’d look up at that filthy black bird and think of all the stories I had heard about magpies picking out people’s eyes….I’d decide that damn bird wasn’t going to peck on me, and I’d get up and walk some more.” He finally managed to reach a cabin, whose residents rescued him.
Airmail pilots were generally very modest about such escapades. Knight summed it up in an article he wrote for US Air Mail Pilot: “We of the western division know how the riders of the Pony Express, the drivers of Ben Holiday’s overland stage line and the freighters of the fifties legged it and fought it out down there below. What’s a crash or forced landing to that? All we had to do is fly.”
After three years of government subsidies, pilot deaths and very little to show for it, however, Congress was becoming weary of funding an endeavor that seemed a waste of time, lives and money. Even President Wilson’s support of the Air Mail Service was not much help. By early 1921—with Warren G. Harding’s administration, on record as strongly opposed to the “folly of air mail,” set to take office in March—it seemed like the Air Mail Service was about to join the Pony Express as just another impractical and short-lived relic of the past.
Praeger decided that impressive publicity was needed to encourage outgoing members of Congress to give the Air Mail Service a big vote of confidence before their session ended in March. Up until 1921, the mail planes had flown primarily during the day, transferring mail sacks to trains at night. Praeger announced that the Air Mail Service would fly a day-night transcontinental route beginning on Washington’s birthday, February 22, 1921. Two mail planes would take off from each end of the route—two from New York and two from San Francisco—and continue, through a series of relays, to fly the mail coast-to-coast, covering the distance (each way, he hoped) in about 36 hours, or about a third of the time it took a letter to travel that distance by train.
There would be no radio communication and no electronic beacons for the nighttime portions of the event. Citizens along the route were encouraged to light bonfires to help guide the pilots. At 6 a.m. on February 22, Elmer L. Leonhardt and Ernest M. Allison took off minutes apart from Hazelhurst Field in New York, heading west into a stormy winter sky. A short time later in San Francisco, Farr Nutter and Ray Little took off in two DH-4s heading east. What was dubbed the “grand relay” had begun.
Meanwhile, in Omaha, Neb., Knight was getting ready to fly his regular route to Cheyenne. His nose was still covered in plaster, thanks to his crash in the mountains near Laramie about a week before, and he had just come out of the hospital. He was unaware that he had been selected to participate in the nighttime portion of the transcontinental flight, though he had volunteered some days earlier. He just thought that he was scheduled to take off from Omaha at noon, flying to North Platte, then on to Cheyenne—his usual assignment.
In the eastern division, at Bellafonte, Pa., both Leonhardt and Allison refueled and took off for Cleveland, headed for the Hell Stretch. Fog and snow squalls set in, forcing Leonhardt down near Du Bois, Pa.—one bird was out of the relay. Allison managed to push on to Cleveland, where he handed the mail to Wesley Smith. There was heavy snow in Chicago as Smith relayed the mail to Bill Hopson, who headed for Omaha but returned a few minutes later, reporting the weather was too severe for him to continue. The westbound portion of the race was over.
While Wesley Smith was handing his mail off in Chicago, Knight was leaving North Platte, headed toward Cheyenne. It was one of the longest legs in the route, especially on a day when Knight was still stiff and sore. Meanwhile, at Reno, Nev., both flights were making good time. Nutter handed his mail to Jack Eaton, and Little gave his bag to William Lewis, a relative newcomer to the service who was supposed to be married in a few weeks. Both pilots reached the next stop at Elko, Nev., without problems. Eaton headed for Salt Lake City, but while Lewis’ plane was in a steep climb after takeoff, the engine stalled at about 500 feet. He crashed and was instantly killed. There was now only one plane left of the four that had begun the relay.
At Salt Lake City, Jimmy Murray took Eaton’s relay and flew to Cheyenne, Wyo., where he handed off to Frank Yaeger, who wasted no time in getting airborne as the sun was setting. He landed in darkness at North Platte, Neb., with the help of light from buckets of gasoline ignited by mechanics. A short time later, Harry G. Smith landed with the mail from Lewis’ plane, which had been flown to Salt Lake City by William Blanchfield.
Knight arrived at North Platte just before sundown, now aware that the leg he would fly from North Platte to Omaha was part of a historic relay. This would be the first true night flight, and he was hoping that people would remember to light bonfires to help guide him across the dark prairie. But he had to wait almost three hours while mechanics worked on a broken tailskid and temperamental engine. He finally took off at about 11 p.m., heading into the darkness toward Omaha. He recalled, “Through occasional slits in the clouds I could get glimpses of the dim silver thread of the Platte River.” But he needed more than just the river—and he got it. “The first of the beacon bonfires showed at Lexington, Neb. There was another at Kearney, and others at Grand Island, Columbus and Fremont.”
Knight reached the Omaha field about 1 a.m. on Wednesday and was greeted by a crowd of 2,000. “I climbed out of my ship thinking only of supper and sleep,” he recalled. He was expecting to hand off his mail sacks to Bill Hopson or Dean Smith from Chicago to make the return flight eastward. But those men were still stuck in Chicago, over 400 miles away, due to heavy snow across Iowa and Illinois. It looked like the grand relay race would end right there. Bill Votow, the airfield manager, gave Jack the bad news and advised him to get some rest.
Knight told him: “Bill, it seems a shame to have to quit this flight when we’ve gotten the mail halfway. Let me get warmed up here a few minutes and I’ll take ’er on through to Chicago.” Votow said: “Jack, don’t kid me. You’ve never flown the Omaha-Chicago route. Even in daylight you’d never make it in this kind of weather.” Knight replied: “If people will keep lighting bonfires, I can make it. All I need is some of your good coffee and I’ll give it a go. How about a map?”
A Rand McNally highway wall map was all Votow could find. Knight ripped off the part that showed Omaha to Chicago and took it with him to study while he got something to eat at a diner across the road. Later he said: “The situation, then, was that if I did not myself carry the mail on to Chicago the whole test would fall down. The pouches would have to be sent as far as Chicago, by rail, and that certainly would have justified the criticism that continuous air mail service across the country was not practical. So I pleaded for the opportunity to go on. There’s not a pilot in the air mail service who would not have done the same. Any of the fellows would have insisted on going ahead if they had been in my shoes.”
By the time Knight was ready and the snow had subsided a bit, it was about 2 a.m. The mechanics had poured preheated oil and water into the de Havilland. If he didn’t start right away, the engine would have to be drained and the fluids reheated. Knight told Votow: “Leave your lights on for one hour. If I get lost, I’ll come back. Spread the word that I’m coming, Bill, and wire my wife.”
Knight’s first checkpoint was Des Moines. Using his flashlight, he saw some railroad tracks and decided to follow them. He was running low on fuel when he spotted the state capitol. Seeing there was too much snow to land in Des Moines, he switched over to his auxiliary fuel tank and headed east toward Iowa City. He recalled: “I was fairly dead for lack of sleep. I was constantly on the verge of dozing. My eyelids were so heavy that it seemed they must close. I gripped the control stick with my knees and began slapping my hands together. Then I tried to arouse myself by hammering my own face. I fussed over the instruments. I stuck my head over the side of the cowl and let the rushing zero wind bite into my cheeks. Fog and snow obscured the ground. I seemed to be roaring through a white-black space absolutely alone in the universe. Here was the danger that I needed to restore my wakefulness. My drowsiness passed. Then I did not dare to be tired.”
Following what he recognized as the Iowa River, Knight traveled north into Iowa City, where everyone at the airfield had gone home, assuming the relay had been canceled. He gunned his engine over the housetops, hoping to awaken someone. The airfield’s night watchman lit a signal flare, which Knight spotted. He landed after 4:30, with no fuel left.
The watchman and Knight refueled the plane, then—with some flares marking the end of the runway—Knight took off about 6:30 as the sky was getting lighter. There was a fog bank over the Mississippi River, but for once Knight climbed above the fog and flew on. He recalled: “Chicago is my old home….The smoke of Chicago mixing with the gray clouds of the early morning is the finest sight I ever have seen.”
There was a large crowd awaiting him at Checkerboard Field— some of whom had waited all night, dressed in evening attire. Knight gunned his engine, then shut it down with one of his customary war whoops and handed his mail off to Jack Webster to take it on to Cleveland, where Ernie Allison landed at 4:50 p.m. It was a record time of 33 hours after the first takeoff, 65 hours faster than the best train time.
Knight made the papers across the country. Reporters mobbed the exhausted aviator, who was typically modest about his feat. Praeger boasted that the night flight was “the most momentous step in civil [aviation] action.” Celebrities began lobbying lawmakers to maintain the Air Mail Service. World War I Ace Eddie Rickenbacker said: “If the people of this country permit Congress to eliminate the air mail appropriation they will be making one of the biggest mistakes in the history of science. It is an angel of peace in peace times, and can be almost immediately transformed into a splendid war weapon.” Within days, the outgoing Congress approved $1.25 million for the program’s continuation and expansion.
A reorganization of the Air Mail Service soon followed. When the Harding administration took office a month later in March 1921, Praeger was replaced by Colonel E.H. Shaughnessy, who made drastic changes, most of them welcomed by the pilots. They could now make more decisions about whether or not conditions were safe for flying. Each pilot was assigned his own plane, encouraging modifications for performance or navigation. All major aircraft maintenance would be done at Maywood, a major regular stop on the transcontinental route. Parachutes became standard equipment.
Night flying was discontinued until the Air Mail Service could set up an effective system of navigation beacons and emergency landing fields. Pilots were encouraged to talk to local civic leaders about establishing such a network. Knight and Slim Lewis visited dozens of farmers and chambers of commerce in Nebraska and Wyoming, resulting in the construction of the first reliable system of night beacons by August 1923—more than 900 miles of guiding lights.
Knight himself flew a lot of extra hours testing the new system, consisting of 36-inch beacons, rotating six times per minute, which could be seen from 70 miles away. By July 1924, he and his fellow pilots could fly in darkness with more confidence along the world’s first lighted airway route from Chicago to Cheyenne. Knight also worked with the developer of radio communications, sometimes installing a receiver in his helmet, strapping a 170-pound radio to his chest and trailing a 200-foot antenna from the cockpit.
By 1925, the government decided to change to civilian contractors. President Calvin Coolidge signed the Kelly Bill, authorizing contract airmail services. Companies like Colonial Air Transport, Ford Motor Company and others were awarded bids for the routes by August 1927. Like the other firms, National Air Transport, which later became United Air Lines, hired some of the airmail pilots, including Knight, who flew his old route from Omaha to Cheyenne and later piloted Douglas DC-3s between Omaha and Chicago. Knight helped to train many pilots, including some from other airlines, to fly the mail over the routes with which he was so familiar. One of those newcomers was Charles “Slim” Lindbergh.
Knight became one of the premier captains of United Air Lines’ “Mainliner DC-3 Fleet,” building an impressive flying record—both in number of air miles and safety. He was also a favorite with the passengers, since he was never too busy to show a child the flight deck or calm a nervous passenger. By 1937, he had logged over 18,000 hours and flown more than 21⁄2 million miles. He retired from flying to take on the job of public education director and later vice president for United. Knight enjoyed talking about the old days, but he always emphasized safety: “I shudder even now when I think of some of the crazy flights we made back in the early days when flying the mail in the old Army DH-4s of wartime fame. How we bucked the wind, rain and snow and set our ships down in the most unexpected fields because we felt that, come what might, ‘the mail must go through.’ And in those days it was no flying, no pay. I think that the ruling that pilots be paid whether they make a flight or not, due to bad weather, was the greatest advance towards safety as far as the personal equation was concerned, that has ever been made in flying.”
In October 1938, Knight piloted an original DH-4 on a coast-to-coast reenactment flight of the first day and night mail run. Later that same year he was honored at the Hollywood premiere of the film Men With Wings, starring Fred MacMurray, Ray Milland and Donald O’ Connor.
When World War II began, Knight wanted to contribute his expertise. While still flying for United, he had made 10 semiannual aviation survey tours around the country, getting to know designers, manufacturers and pilots of civilian and military aircraft. Speaking as the head of the Civil Aeronautics Administration pilot recruitment drive, Knight said, “As for the quality of our planes, I can say without exception that they are the best in the world [and] I believe our boys are the best in the world.” Asked about lagging production and pilot training, he replied: “It takes at least a year to make a good pilot; planes are being made in a matter of days. I am convinced that in spite of any human or other bottlenecks which may now seem to block progress, we are going to have the finest army of flying talent the world has ever known.”
When he was given the opportunity to travel to South America to develop ways to harvest native rubber and transport it to America for the war effort, Knight threw himself into the project, serving as chief of flight operations with the Defense Supply Corps. His duties included training 28 pilots, most of whom would fly Consolidated PBYs, to operate over the mountains and jungle. The work was extremely hazardous, since the mountain ranges were from 16,000 to 22,000 feet high, and the jungle airstrips were fairly short. Knight called it “the worst flying in all the world,” but he managed to set up an efficient shuttle system. The PBYs generally carried six to eight tons of rubber each trip.
In South America, however, Knight encountered an enemy that proved to be more deadly than any of the hazards he’d faced as a pilot: malaria. He was eventually forced to return home to Michigan to try to recuperate. On February 24, 1945, he was stricken by a severe attack. Rushed to the hospital, he lapsed into a coma and died that night. Per his wishes, his ashes were scattered over Lake Michigan.
Jack Knight’s fame lives on in his home state. In 1978 the people of Buchanan constructed the Knight Chapel in the Oakridge cemetery. Many pioneer airmen and United executives were on hand to witness its dedication in May of that year, complete with a flyover by United planes.
In 1999, thanks to the efforts of Dick and Dean Swem of Buchanan, Knight was inducted into the Michigan Aviation Hall of Fame as a recipient of the Spirit of Flight Award. Today organizations such as the American Air Mail Society use Jack Knight’s name in publications like their “Jack Knight Air Log,” and the Chicago chapter of the society has been designated the Jack Knight Air Mail Society since 1941, when Knight himself was a featured speaker at a meeting.
To the end of his life, Knight served as an inspiring ambassador for aviation. During one of his 1938 speeches, he said: “Judging from the progress I have seen in aviation during the [past] 20 years, I would not hazard a guess of what airplanes will be 20 years from now.” He would no doubt be delighted to know how far aviation has come in the more than 80 years since his lonely flights across the American Midwest in an open-cockpit de Havilland mail truck, just doing his job.
Scott M. Fisher gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Corbin Detzen and Berrien County Record editor Tom Kent with research for this article.Additional reading: Mavericks of the Sky: The First Daring Pilots of the U.S. Air Mail, by Barry Rosenberg and Catherine Macaulay; and Wings Across America: A Photographic History of the U.S. Air Mail, by Bruce McAllister and Jesse Davidson.
Originally published in the November 2006 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.