Airmail Odyssey

Three historic mailplanes commemorated the anniversary of U.S. airmail by tracing the original coast-to-coast route.

(George Perks)

One chapter of American history has everything you could ask for in a national epic: visionary leaders, triumph over technological hurdles, exploration of the unknown, heroes skillfully battling an implacable foe. The action wasn’t directed by the military or by NASA, however, but by the U.S. Post Office. The establishment of airmail service in the United States, 90 years ago last May, is a whopper of a story, yet it hasn’t had the attention that historians and filmmakers have paid to the U.S. space program, say, or the expansion of the West, or World War II. Somebody call Ken Burns.

In a way, that’s what Addison Pemberton is doing this week as he retraces the first U.S. coast-to-coast airmail route, flying a mailplane built only 10 years after the first mail flights of 1918. Pemberton will carry 700 envelopes that will receive special cancellations from postal representatives to commemorate the flight. With a daily blog and historical features drawing from Smithsonian archives, this Web site will follow his group’s progress—from the first stop in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, on September 10, to the last stop in San Francisco on September 15.

Pemberton, owner of a Spokane-based manufacturing company, has been flying since he was 15 and is a collector of vintage aircraft. (He has restored 19.) He likes all open-cockpit, round-engine varieties, but his favorites have always been the machines that carried the U.S. Mail. On the reenactment, he’ll fly his Boeing Air Transport, one of the early companies awarded a government contract to deliver mail. It is the great grandaddy of today’s 747s, one of the first aircraft to carry paying passengers along with a load of letters, and key to the Boeing Company’s eventual success. Pemberton’s is the only one flying today.

Two other pilots will fly mailplanes on the cross-country trip: Larry Tobin of Colbert, Washington, will fly the oldest airworthy Stearman biplane, a 1927 Stearman C3B, and Ben Scott will fly a 1930 Stearman 4E Speedmail. (Scott and Pemberton, who also owns a Speedmail, flew the pair on a reenactment flight in 1993 to celebrate the 75th anniversary of airmail.)

Pemberton inherited his enthusiasm for mailplanes from his dad. “My father grew up in Greenfield, Iowa,” he says, “a town between Omaha and Iowa City”—two stops on the transcontinental route the early mailplanes flew. “Every bedtime story I heard had something to do with the airmail.”

There could hardly be a more colorful crew than the pilots who flew for the Post Office during the first years of airmail. There was Frank Yager, who once flew in fog so heavy that he landed and taxied for 35 miles across the prairie, getting airborne only to hop fences; Slim Lewis, who was said to have been able to fly better drunk than most pilots could sober; and Homer Berry, who, until he got caught, ran an unauthorized taxi business from Laramie to Rawlins, Wyoming by charging passengers $50 to ride in the mail pit.

To get a good idea of the personality types attracted to the job, look at Nathaniel Dewell’s photograph of pilot William “Wild Bill” Hopson, one of the most iconic portraits in American art, or read Dean Smith’s memoir By the Seat of My Pants. Of a two-ship mission he once flew with William Hopson he wrote:

Not long out we noticed a film of ice forming on the struts, wires, and entering edges of the wings; but it built up slowly…. I saw Bill signal that he was going to land, and I followed him into a large pasture.

Since it had taken over half an hour to accumulate that much ice, if we could get the ice off we ought to be able to go another half hour and land again. We found some clubs along the fence row and beat off the ice as well as we could, organized a team to crank our propellers from the inevitable spectators, and took off. It went as planned.  Ice slowly formed…, Bill pointed to a pasture; we landed; we hacked off the ice, and soon we were again in the air.

Pemberton’s childhood hero was mail pilot Jack Knight. Of the many courageous fliers, why Knight?

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