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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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If I had written, I would have told you that it was exhilarating to fly at 1,500 feet over Iowa’s golden ocean of corn, watching the Tri-motor’s big shadow skim the green waves below. I would have filled you in about Blakesburg, which is short for the annual meeting of the Antique Aircraft Association and its associated Air Power Museum. Bob Taylor started the association in August 1953 with a $12 classified ad in an aviation magazine. “I got 12 members at a dollar apiece, so I broke even,” Taylor recalls. “It’s been about the same ever since.”

The first fly-in, held in 1954 at the Ottumwa airport where Taylor was the operator, attracted five aircraft. The fly-in has been at Blakesburg since 1971, after Taylor bought a 147-acre farm, filled in a ravine to create a 2,200-foot grass strip, and threw up a row of hangars. The 2008 gathering drew more than 325 aircraft and about 1,600 members.

The Blakesburg fly-in is not an airshow. Blakesburg is a meeting for AAA/APM members only, Taylor says, because airshows are a pain in the neck. They draw people who know nothing about airplane safety or etiquette, people who walk into off-limits areas and into spinning props.

Blakesburg is the Un-Oshkosh. (As airplane fans know, Oshkosh is short for the Experimental Aircraft Association’s annual Wisconsin fly-in, which last summer drew 540,000 attendees and 10,000 aircraft.) Blakesburg is low-key and intimate. If you don’t know most of the Blakesburg crowd by the end of the weekend, they’ll probably know you, at least by sight. In fact, Blakesburg is not open to the public. To attend, you’ll need to pay $35 to join AAA/AMP as an associate member.

Local caterers serve home-cooked food in industrial quantities. A lively aerial flea market offers ancient altimeters, retro aviator shades, and conversational scraps like “I wanted to give him my propeller, but no, he went out and spent two grand on a new one.” Ride offers came at me from every side, including from one gentleman who, after explaining, panel by panel, how he’d assembled his retro acrobatic kitplane, offered me the keys to take it up solo. (Unlicensed, I declined.) At night, old aviation movies aired in the museum hangar. Saturday night was 1932’s Air Mail, with Pat O’Brien and Ralph Bellamy.

The U.S. Air Mail Service was the orphan child of technology, politics, and patronage. Otto Praeger was the Washington correspondent for the Dallas Morning News in 1914 when Postmaster General Albert Burleson, an old friend, Texas hunting buddy, and fellow Democrat, named him postmaster of Washington, D.C. The next year, Burleson named Praeger his Second Assistant and mandated the newsman to modernize all post office transport. Even consider airplanes, Burleson said.

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.

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