A Ride in the Boeing 40C

Onboard “Airmail 1” for the first leg of the trip, from New York to Bellefonte.

Addison Pemberton pilots his restored Boeing 40C earlier this year. On the September 10 flight, the author rode in the compartment beneath the upper wing. (George Perks)

“Do you have an airsickness bag and some Dramamine?” asks Addison Pemberton, pilot of the Boeing 40C. It’s Tuesday night, and I’ve traveled by subway, train, and automobile to Republic Airport on Long Island for the privilege of flying with Pemberton and four others as they retrace the airmail route from New York to San Francisco.

“Eat bananas,” advises Ben Scott, who pilots the 1930 Stearman Speedmail. As I scrawl Find grocery store. Bananas, Ben continues, “They taste the same coming up as they do going down.”

I draw a line through my to-do note.

I’m already somewhat nervous about flying the New York-to-Bellefonte leg. As Donald Dale Jackson reported in a 1991 Air & Space article, "The long, low ridges that roll across central Pennsylvania like waves on a choppy sea—hard to read from the air, prey to violent weather changes, and short on flat clearings for forced landings—were dreaded by pioneer fliers. Those who endured the area called it the ‘Hell Stretch.’ ”

But the five men re-creating the trip are all experienced pilots, and my fears soon disappear. Pemberton, who coordinated the reenactment, and Scott are joined by Larry Tobin, pilot of a 1927 Stearman C3B; Al Holloway, pilot and mechanic extraordinaire; and George Perks, a pilot and the photographer who is supplying the photo blog for the trip.

At dinner, the men eat heartily, and talk about various airmail pilots and the difficulties they faced. They regale me with past adventures and their hopes about the reenactment. I hear the refrain “We’re living the dream” several times. As the evening winds down, we agree to meet in the hotel lobby at 6:00 a.m. the next morning.

At the appointed hour I head downstairs. The entire crew is already waiting in the lobby. We make the short drive to the American Airpower Museum, where the vintage aircraft were stored overnight.

Many of the American Air Power Museum employees and volunteers have shown up in period clothing, as have representatives of the United States Postal Service. We’ll be carrying about 700 letters on our flight, which will be stamped at each stop (some of these will go on sale). We were supposed to be on the television news at 6:30, but were preempted by a breaking story about a serial killer. The television cameras show up a bit later though, and Addison gives an eloquent speech about airmail history.

Jim Vocell, vice president of museum operations at the American Airpower Museum, worries that I’ll be cold during the trip, and offers me a flightsuit. But I decide to experience the flight as a 1928 passenger would (although I know a 1920s airline passenger would be scandalized by my T-shirt and jeans).

Then it’s time. To enter the 40C, I stand on Addison’s back, who is on his hands and knees. I feel bad about crushing the pilot before we even begin our flight, but Addison assures me that everyone enters and exits the Boeing in this manner.

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