You’ve Got Mailplanes
Square-tail Stearmans, straight-wing Wacos, and Hisso Jennies top the roster of antique airplanes at a captivating grass strip in Iowa.
- By John Fleischman
- Air & Space magazine, January 2009
(Page 3 of 4)
The idea of flying the mail had been around since the hot-air balloon (during the 1870 German siege of Paris, Parisians sporadically flew mail across German lines with balloons). But it was the bona fide airplane and America’s 1917 entry into the Great War that gave the Post Office big ideas. With Burleson’s support, Praeger pushed airmail past a Congress leery of the cost. When the 1920 elections sent a solidly Republican House and President-Elect Warren Harding to Washington to cut the size of government, the airmail service looked especially vulnerable. Praeger was now a patronage lame duck, but in February 1921 he ordered a last-ditch demonstration of a coast-to-coast, day-and-night relay. Jack Knight carried the eastbound mail by night from North Platte, Nebraska, to Omaha, where bad weather convinced the next pilot it would be suicide to try for Chicago. Volunteering for a second relay, Knight climbed back into the cockpit and flew on to drop out of the soup near a Chicago airport. The final transit time for getting the mail from San Francisco to New York was 33 hours and 21 minutes, 75 hours less than the best train time. That kind of time savings suddenly made economic sense to business customers. Congress was sufficiently impressed to keep the U.S. airmail going until commercial air carriers could build the capital and experience to take over CAM routes.
The U.S. Air Mail Service is usually depicted as a black comedy of regular crashes, occasional deaths, and steady red ink. William M. Leary, author of Aerial Pioneers, says that during the Air Mail Service years, 34 pilots were killed. Leary also calculated that in the government-run era, the service cost $14.4 million and, when revenues and remaining assets are subtracted, it still lost between $10 million and $12 million. But the Air Mail Service left a national airway system, connecting the coasts with a route lit by beacons for night flying. It virtually invented cross-country navigation, aerial charting, and systematic aircraft maintenance. To relay real-time weather reports, it set up the first nationwide radio network. It brought the east and west coasts a day closer in business time. Most of all, the Air Mail Service figured out in the 1920s how to transform a bunch of airplanes into a functioning transportation system. Modern commercial aviation is still working out the details.
At Blakesburg, I learned there are two communities devoted to airmail days. The antique airplane fliers were impossible to miss, as they taxied their brightly colored machines on the grass and circled overhead. The other community was keeping watch, as they always do, from far away: the stamp collectors.
Airplane devotees and stamp collectors have been together from the beginning. Indeed, some collectors don’t even wait for the Wright brothers: They collect balloon and airship mail. Others pursue only “pioneer” covers, the term for any postmarked letter or card flown as a stunt or a promotion. But real airmail stamp collecting begins on May 15, 1918, with the real U.S. Air Mail Service and a Jenny JN-4H, which appeared on the first U.S. airmail stamp—eventually the most valuable stamp in U.S. postal history. W.T. Robey, a Washington attorney and collector who bought a sheet of 100 at the post office, realized that the blue airplane had been printed upside down on the red and white stamp. He recalled: “My heart stood still.” The hearts of collectors have stood still ever since. One inverted Jenny, originally 24 cents, sold at auction in 2007 for nearly $1 million.
And then there are “crash covers.” The American Air Mail Society has offered these since 1923, when in its first catalog it included a section on “Interrupted Flight Covers, familiarly know as Crash Covers”—postmarked envelopes recovered from aircraft that have crashed, caught fire, or otherwise not made the swift completion of their appointed rounds.
Addison Pemberton’s Boeing 40C is listed in the AAMS book under 1928: “October 2. ROSEBURG, OREGON PAT—CAM 8. Pilot Harry G. Donaldson crashed his plane because of fog. Mail carried 22 lbs. A few loose covers salvaged in damaged condition but forwarded without special markings. One cover known.”
For another example, I might have taken a closer look at the DH-4 that flew into Blakesburg from St. Louis in the maroon and silver livery of Robertson Aircraft Corporation, the outfit that hired Charles Lindbergh to fly an airmail route. Lindbergh crashed two Robertson DH-4s in 1926, bailing out when he was out of fuel. A Lindbergh crash cover from the second wreck, in November 1926, is in the collection of Philip McCarty, a renowned collector of U.S. domestic crash covers. But McCarty says that the community is abuzz with the news that a cover from Lindbergh’s first bailout has surfaced.
McCarty, who has examined the cover, which has markings indicating that it had been delayed by a wreck, says it spent the last 82 years framed on a wall, the prized possession of the man who received it. (Now in the hands of a dealer, the cover could fetch $6,000 when it comes to auction.) The letter crashed to earth near Ottawa, Illinois, on September 16, 1926, after Lindbergh jumped from his fuel-exhausted DH-4 into fog. As the airplane nosed down, the last ounces of fuel trickled into the carburetor and the engine revived, leaving Lindbergh floating down while listening to his own airplane circling in the fog.