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A Curtiss Jenny, de Havilland DH-4, and Boeing 40C stand in formation while a Sikorsky S-39 surveys the annual fly-in at altitude. (CAROLINE SHEEN)

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.

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We message. We yak. We text. We chat. We send our love online, but when was the last time you got a real letter? You know, paper, envelope, canceled stamp? Once there were love letters in bad handwriting, rambling accounts of Uncle Bob’s bladder surgery, and pleas for additional funds from penniless sophomores.

I grumble but I am as bad as anyone. I had a perfectly good chance late last August to write you a letter from the Iowa City airport, where I’d just dropped by in a 1927 Ford Tri-motor. We’d come to deliver the airmail to Iowa City from the town of Blakesburg,  75 miles to the southwest. The occasion was the 90th anniversary of the U.S. Air Mail Service.

I say “we,” although I was only a passenger (seated in a wicker armchair bolted to the floor) and the guest of Greg Herrick, the owner and restorer of the Tri-motor. Herrick had been sworn in that morning by Susan Pierson, the Blakesburg postmistress, as a contract “pilot mail messenger.” Herrick, his copilot Nathan Rounds, and a dozen or so other fliers who would be flying the mail that day repeated the oath to “pay over any money belonging to the United States which may come into my possession or control.”

Suddenly we were on government business, taking oaths and mailbags at the Antique Airfield, just outside Blakesburg. It is home to a five-day fly-in that features some of the nation’s finest privately owned vintage aircraft and some of the rarest as well.

Today’s motley squadron was a veritable airmail museum. We had Frank Schelling’s Curtiss JN-4H Jenny, trucked in from the Schellville Airport in Sonoma, California. The Jenny represented the first government airmail aircraft, which took off from a polo field in Washington, D.C. on May 15, 1918, carrying a letter handed over by President Woodrow Wilson. The Jenny was bound for a relay field in Philadelphia and a second jump to Long Island, New York. Unfortunately, the inexperienced Army pilot promptly got lost and, descending to ask directions, cracked up in a farmer’s field in Maryland 24 miles away. President Wilson’s letter quietly reached New York by train late that night.

For the Contract Air Mail (CAM) era that came in with airmail privatization in 1925, we had a Boeing 40C, a single-engine monster biplane with impeccable airmail credentials. Flying the CAM 8 route between Seattle and Los Angeles, it crashed on an Oregon mountaintop in 1928, an accident that killed its passenger, severely injured the pilot, and scattered its mail to the winds. Eighty years later, Spokane aircraft resurrectionist Addison Pemberton had reassembled the pieces into the only flying Boeing 40C and flown it to Blakesburg to reenact the original transcontinental airmail route. (For a photographic record of his progress across the country last September, visit www.airspacemag.com/specialsections/airmail-odyssey.html.)

At any moment, we were expecting a de Havilland DH-4, the ex-Army bomber that served as airmail’s workhorse for a decade. Our DH-4M2 had been forced down en route from its home base at Al Stix’ Historic Aircraft Restoration Museum near St. Louis, Missouri, by a historically appropriate ignition problem. Problem solved, pilot and restorer Glenn Peck would chug into Blakesburg later in the day, with the V-12 Liberty engine sounding, as Peck put it, “like a Peterbilt tractor heading down the highway.” Greg Herrick’s Ford Tri-motor (and another Herrick-owned tri-motor, a 1931 high-wing Stinson in American Airlines livery) represented the beginnings of the airline era, when CAM contracts were used to support the spread of passenger service. Filling out our airmail heritage were various small contract haulers: a Stearman 4DM Speedmail, a Waco ASO, and even a Sikorsky S-39 flying boat. Today we would all fly to Ottumwa, Iowa, where the Jenny, the Boeing 40C, and those with other plans would turn back. Five of us, including Herrick’s Ford Tri-motor, would go all the way to Iowa City.

Postmistress Pierson handed out United States Postal Service canvas bags, one per aircraft. As Tri-motor crew, I helped stow our scrawny sack in the Ford’s baggage compartment.

Our air armada was carrying commemorative “covers,” blank envelopes with colorful pictures and imprints made by a rubber “cachet” to mark the occasion, making them suitable for collectors. The covers were also suitable for real letters, as we discovered in Iowa City, where postmaster Doug Curtiss and two clerks had set up an office at the airport. Their job was to “back stamp” the covers: mark them as officially received so we could fly them back to Blakesburg. But Curtiss had his own supply of 90th anniversary airmail covers for sale, plus first-class postage at 42 cents. There were no airmail stamps—there has not been a domestic airmail class since 1977, when the Postal Service said that most first-class mail was flying, airmail stamp or not. Today, the USPS flies 316 million pieces of first-class mail a day, mostly on the aircraft of Federal Express, the postal service’s biggest air contractor. Personal letters, or what the postal service calls household-to-household correspondence, make up less than one percent of first-class mail.

I meant to write a letter, honest. But our time in Iowa City was limited, and I calculated the Tri-motor would need an hour for the return flight. The Ford  4-AT-B is authentic right down to the 1927 toilet with authentic direct-to-the-outside discharge. The Iowa City airport offered less daunting facilities.

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