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)

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The 40C is a beautiful aircraft; only 10 were built. They were designed for use as mail carriers; only later were they converted to carry passengers. The extremely comfortable mahogany-accented cabin seats four. The engine sits in front of the passenger cabin, so there's no forward view, but I have great visibility to the right and left. The windows look out over the airplane’s 44-foot wingspan.

Our call sign for the trip is “Airmail 1.” Ben and Larry are “Airmail 2” and “Airmail 3,” respectively.

We plan to head straight for the Statue of Liberty and make a pass before heading for Bellefonte. But at the request of the air traffic controllers at JFK, we make a slow pass by the control tower. “You’re looking beautiful, Airmail 1,” says the tower as we depart.

We fly over Floyd Bennett Field (New York City’s first municipal airport) at 700 feet, and Addison requests permission to circle the Statue of Liberty.  We make one pass of the Statue of Liberty at 1,200 feet, ever mindful of Larry’s limited fuel capacity. (The Stearman C3B carries only 50 gallons of fuel, and making it to Bellefonte will be close as it is.)

JFK hands us off to LaGuardia air traffic control, which asks, “Airmail 1, what are you?” Addison gives the controller a quick description, and soon we’re away from the city.

I’m trying to follow the 1921 Pilots' Directions, but it's difficult. I don't know if I've correctly identified the Orange Mountains, or Hopatcong and Budd lakes. The first landmark I'm absolutely certain of is at mile 78: "The Delaware makes a pronounced U-shape bend just north of Belvidere. A railway joins the two ends of the U.” To our right is a mountain range. Larry says, “I bet Jack Knight [an early airmail pilot] ran the gap on our right.” The notch is so close to the treeline, reminding me again how low the airmail pilots flew.

The cockpit is open, and behind the passenger cabin. As we fly, Addison speaks with me by radio. “Jack Knight may have seen that same church steeple,” he muses. “In my 39 years of flying,” he continues, “this is some of the best weather I’ve ever seen. The plane is running fantastic. It’s purring like a cat in a creamery.”

The 40C’s windows slide open, and I poke my head out the window, snapping pictures and shooting video; this is the way to travel!

While I’m busy being a tourist, Addison shares some history with me. “When an airmail pilot got into the cockpit and began setting up with his directions and everything else, it was called ‘building the nest.’ ” From our earlier conversations, I know that Addison has “built his nest,” in part, with boxes of Good & Plenty. (His love of sweets has earned him the trip nickname of “Sugar Bear.”)

“We’re going to do a Tora Tora Tora pass,” says Addison as we approach Bellefonte. “How’s your stomach?”

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