The Father of Airmail Looks Back
On the 20th anniversary of airmail service, three key players recalled the early days.
- AirSpaceMag.com, September 17, 2008
Smithsonian National Postal Museum
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Bomar: Wait a minute, Mr. Praeger. I thought you began with Army pilots.
Praeger: True. At this point the United States Army stepped into the picture with the suggestion that air mail flying would fit in excellently with its training program and it offered to operate the service without cost to the Post Office Department during the period of the war. This was gratefully agreed to, but soon the Army had a change of heart, and a Colonel in the Air Service called upon me to urge the Department to give up the idea of operating an air mail, citing the usual line of objections set forth by doubters. The Colonel was not so certain that he could dissuade the Post Office Department from starting the air mail, for he brought with him a Major of the Air Service, young, unusually capable, and full of pep. And that is where Major Reuben H. Fleet, now President of the Consolidated Aircraft Corporation of San Diego, entered the picture of the air mail. The Colonel, seeing that the Post Office Department would not change its intentions, turned sharply to Major Fleet and said, “All right, Major, it’s your baby,” and left the room. The Postmaster General officially designated Major Fleet as Superintendent of Air Mail Service. With great energy he organized his staff and assembled his equipment, and with military precision started the actual flying operations of the Air Mail promptly on the hour set on May 15, 1918.
I might add that the Army operated the Air Mail for three months, and then turned it back to the Post Office Department as a smooth running service between Washington and New York.
Bomar: After the Air Mail got started, how did it fare? How did it develop; how did the public take to it?
Praeger: In the beginning, every city wanted the Air Mail service, but educating the communities to pay a higher rate of postage for Air Mail than ordinary mail, was somewhat difficult. However, the Air Mail was such a flying success and the possible expedition of the mail over long distances was so evident, that before the first year was out the Postmaster General authorized extension of the Washington—New York line into a trans-continental air route. The second lap in the service was from New York to Chicago, the third, Chicago to Omaha, and finally, in the summer of 1920 the service was completed to San Francisco.
Bomar: But that was all daylight flying, was it not?
Praeger: Yes. The Air Mail was carried by airplane in the daytime and at the end of each day it was transferred to the night trains, to be taken off again early next day by the mail plane. Of course, the Department realized that night flying was necessary to round out the service which the airplane could render for expedition of the mails. So, while the mail was being operated by daylight flying, extensive experiments were being made on night flying, and finally on February 22, 1921, the first experimental day and night through flight between New York and San Francisco was made in a little over 33 hours elapsed time.
Bomar: I take it that the Air Mail operation was not without its thrills.
Praeger: Mr. Bomar, in those early days, operating the United States transcontinental Air Mail with discarded war planes, day in and day out, winter and summer, was in fact a succession of thrills. The devotion to duty, and the great personal courage of the individual flyers, was what put the Air Mail service over. Captain Jack Knight’s exploit on the first day and night trip, when he carried the mail through snow and storm during the night is a classic that pilots still talk about, and that is only one of the many tales of our postal pilots, involving forced landings in mountain fastnesses and bringing the mails, sometimes after accidents, safely overland to the nearest habitation. And so, true to the best traditions of the postal service, the Air Mail sped on its way, day after day and year after year, and this week the nation is celebrating the twenty years of its unbroken operation in fulfillment of Postmaster General Burleson’s first instruction that the Air Mail once started must never stop, but must be developed to the fullest possibility of mechanical flight.