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
(Page 3 of 4)
Bomar: Thank you, Mr. Praeger. That was most interesting. And now let me introduce Mr. Ed Havens of La Mesa who holds Pass #72 of the Aerial Mail service dated December 14, 1918. Ed Havens has the somewhat dubious distinction of having participated in the first non-stop delivery of mail from airplane to ground. What about it, Mr. Havens?
Havens: There were many amusing incidents in those early days of the air mail, such as the case of W.L. Smith, who took off one morning from Washington with the mail, for Newark. He never reached Newark and was not heard from for 24 hours. We assumed he had cracked up en route until we received a telegram from him up in Connecticut saying, “I over-shot the field.” But you asked about the non-stop delivery. Well, Pop Stephens and I were detailed to fly a pouch of mail and a carton of eggs on the plaza in front of the Washington Post Office. I was to hang out on the wing of the plane and release the parachute when the pilot gave me the signal. The collar of my leather coat kept swatting me in the face and I was hanging on the wing with one arm and holding the parachute with the other, so that I missed the pilot’s signal. The result was that our pouch was released too late and landed several blocks from the Post Office plaza. I am afraid our demonstration was not very successful.
Bomar: I suppose your job of repairing engines and planes in those early days was a lot different from the present?
Havens: I’ll say it was. In the first place the engines were mostly Liberties and repairs to engines and planes were required much more frequently than they are with modern equipment. We had a real job on our hands keeping the air mail equipment mechanically perfect in those days.
Bomar: Thanks, Mr. Havens. I wish we had time for you to tell some more of those interesting anecdotes of the early days. But I want to call on Major Reuben Fleet, president of San Diego’s leading industry, Consolidated Aircraft Corporation. Major Fleet, you were loaned by the Army Air Corps for the purpose of organizing the air mail service at the request of Mr. Praeger, were you not?
Fleet: Yes, Tom, I was, and I want to say that the success of the air mail in its early days was due almost entirely to the dynamic personality and the determination of Otto Praeger. Every possible stumbling block was placed in his way to prevent him from starting air mail service. The reason the Army volunteered its personnel for this job was that the Air Corps saw an opportunity to secure very useful training for its pilots in carrying mail cross country, day by day.
Bomar: Your pilots then for this first service were all Army officers, weren’t they?
Fleet: Yes. Our first flight was on May 15, 1918. All of the dignitaries of Washington, headed by President Woodrow Wilson and Postmaster General Albert Burleson, were there for the occasion. Lieutenant George Boyle, the pilot of the plane leaving Washington, was in the air about 20 minutes when he became lost and decided to land and get his bearings. He picked a rough field and in landing, nosed over and broke his propeller. So the northbound flight ended at a little town in Maryland thirty miles north of Washington.