March 2002
by Kate Bernard

A short research paper on the history of U.S. air mail

On May 15, 1918, a United States Air Mail Service flight took off from Washington D.C., bound for Philadelphia, marking the world’s first scheduled mail flight. Lieutenant George Leroy Boyle, the pilot chosen for the flight, turned in the wrong direction, became hopelessly lost, and landed in a field 24 miles from where he took off. The mail was unloaded from the plane and placed on a train, and the first flight was considered a failure. But many successful flights followed. In order to achieve success, pilots had to overcome extraordinary obstacles. As a result, their discoveries and sacrifices helped to pioneer the modern air transportation system.

The rapid expansion of air mail came with a high human price. Accidents were common. Since air mail pilots lacked modern conveniences such as maps, reliable engines, and weather reporting systems, dozens of airplanes were wrecked, 43 pilots were killed, and 23 pilots were injured during the time the Post Office operated the system and before the mail was handed over to private contractors in 1925. (Christy 80-81)

Navigation was crude. With no maps for aviation, mail pilots resorted to using railroad maps and flew along railroads because they were easy to see. Pilots called railroads the “iron compass.” There were also no published charts that identified airports so there was no information about obstacles or terrain that could affect approaches. Pilots had to gather their own information from experience. Pilot Byron Moore’s “little black book,” for instance, contained these crude instructions to find an airport: “Take the fourth dirt road and follow it to the ravine– just across the ravine is the airport.” (Bilstein 53) To compound the map problem, early compasses were unreliable. Eventually a new type of compass with a float chamber was developed, which is still used today. There was no radio navigation because of interference caused by aircraft ignition systems. There were experiments with radio navigation, but none proved useful for mail. Finally, night flying was almost a death sentence until lighted airways were developed. Beacons were placed on airports across national routes and pilots could follow them visually. The early cross-country lighted airways were the predecessors to today’s airline routes.

The airplanes and engines used in the Air Mail Service were hardly reliable because during the first nine months of air mail service, there were 23 forced landings due to mechanical problems. Spark plugs fouled, radiators leaked, oil leaked, ignition systems failed, and pilots simply ran out of fuel. The winter of 1919-1920 was especially rough on airplanes because radiators and water pumps froze, congealed oil overflowed, and pipes burst.(Leary 109) These recurrent problems spurred development of better engines, and also led to the development of multi-engine airplanes.

Early mail planes were both unreliable and difficult to fly. A certain type of modified Curtiss Jenny required a constant 30 to 40 pound push on the controls, which left pilots’ arms “numb as blocks of wood.” (Leary 42) Pilots needed to be virtual athletes in order to fly.

In addition, mail pilots lacked the airport infrastructure known today. Newark’s new airport in 1919 was between a fork in railroad tracks. It had factory chimneys at one end, a canal at the other, and only 900 feet of landing area between. When mail planes landed, spectators gathered to watch in anticipation of accidents. Young spectators once ran out onto this small field as a plane landed and forced the pilot to swerve toward a second group of children. The plane had no brakes and a boy was struck and killed by the propeller. (Leary 99)

Weather was by far the worst problem in air mail flying. Pilots lacked the instruments needed to fly in poor visibility and not much was understood about weather phenomena. Lieutenant James C. Edgerton was one of the first pilots to fly through a thunderstorm and live to tell about it. On May 21, 1918, he flew through a storm on a mail flight from Philadelphia to Washington and a large piece of the wooden propeller broke off. When he landed, he was so terrified that his muscles locked and he had to be helped out of the plane. “Paint was chewed off the leading edges of the wings,” he wrote. (Leary 42) Max Miller hit a tree while trying to descend through fog. John N. Miller somehow survived a landing in 62-mile-per-hour winds, but his airplane didn’t. Pilots had to endure temperatures of 25 below zero in their open cockpits, working to keep ice from forming inside their goggles. (Leary 109) They were so burdened with clothes that sometimes they had to be helped into their cockpits. (Rinard 40) The need to operate in all types of weather led to revolutionary instrument improvements, enclosed cockpits, and a nationwide radio weather reporting system.

The U.S. Air Mail Service improved aviation to the point that it became safe enough to transport paying passengers by airplane. Air Mail was the forerunner to commercial airlines. Someone had to explore the problems of navigation, poor airplanes, poor infrastructure, and bad weather. And far better to lose bags of papers and occasional pilots than to experiment with cabins full of people. If no one would have undertaken this so-called suicide mission, air transportation would hardly be the complex operation that it is today.

Works Cited

Bilstein, Roger E. Flight in America 1900-1983: From the Wrights to the Astronauts. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984.

Christy, Joe. American Aviation: An Illustrated History. Blue Ridge Summit, PA: TAB Books, 1987.

Leary, William M. Aerial Pioneers: The U.S. Air Mail Service, 1918-1927. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1985.

Rinard, Judith E. The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Book of Flight. Buffalo, NY: Firefly Books, 2001.