Airmail Odyssey

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

(George Perks)

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“Because Jack Knight saved the airmail!” Pemberton says. “Jack Knight is the airmail hero.”

Under enormous pressure from Congress to prove in February 1921 that transcontinental airmail delivery was worth the money appropriated for it—that it was consistently faster than train delivery—Knight pulled the first all-nighter for the air service. Having already flown his assigned 248-mile leg from North Platte, Nebraska, to Omaha, Knight volunteered for a second leg, in weather so bad the pilot scheduled for the route refused to fly. Taking off at about two in the morning with only a compass and the conviction that the mail must get through, Knight flew over territory he’d never flown before, lighted occasionally by bonfires that ordinary citizens had set to help show the way. He fought to stay awake, he later told reporters, once trying to fend off sleep “by hammering my own face.” He flew through snow, then in rough air as low as 100 feet above the ground in order to see the railroad tracks he followed into Iowa City. Once there, he spent 10 minutes “dodging steeples” until he located the airfield and landed. He waited two hours for the weather to improve, but, facing a deadline, he took off again at 6:30 a.m. Two hours and 10 minutes later, Knight handed the mail off to another pilot in Chicago. He had been in the air for 10 of the 33 hours it took to make the coast-to-coast run. Aircraft had flown the trip in about a third of the time it would have taken the train. The demonstration secured Congressional funding that would start to build a national system of airway beacons and other enhancements that eventually made possible regular night flights.

Although Knight’s heroics stand out—and were a turning point for the air service—the conditions in which he flew were typical of what the early pilots faced. Otto Praeger, the man in charge of airmail for the Post Office, knew that the speed aircraft offered was not enough. Congressional and public support would continue only if deliveries became daily and dependable. But Praeger was not a pilot and didn’t understand that a strong will simply couldn’t compensate for primitive equipment and dangerous weather.

In August 1918, the U.S. Army backed away from the mail service, after only three months of flying, because of the tension between the demand for daily service and the impossibility of flying in bad weather. It took another year for the inevitable showdown between Praeger and his civilian force. In July 1919, three days after a fatal crash in rain and fog, several pilots refused to fly from New York to Washington in similar weather. Praeger fired two of them without investigation, and the rest of the pilots went on strike, demanding a hearing. A compromise was reached—one of the fired pilots was reinstated, and future decisions on whether to fly would be made not by Praeger or any another bureaucrat in Washington but by managers in the field—but it did little to decrease the hazards of flying the mail. Thirty-two pilots were killed during their service, most of them in crashes caused by weather.

The Post Office nursed the air mail service through a troubled infancy before handing it off to private companies in 1925. The first eight years saw a number of critical developments: a national system of airway beacons connecting lighted airfields, new navigational aids and more capable airplanes, and a corps of pilots seasoned from years of following now-familiar routes. These are the accomplishments that Addison Pemberton is celebrating this week in his six-day reenactment flight.

“My father used to say that that the mail flights were so regular you could set your watch by them,” Pemberton says. And the mailplane his father saw in the early 1930s flying over Iowa City and Omaha on Contract Mail Route 18 was the Boeing 40.

“I guess that planted the seed,” Pemberton says. In 1982 he visited the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, and saw for the first time the airplane his dad had watched above the Iowa farm. “I studied the airplane for two days,” he says. “It was made of flat stock and round tubes. There were none of the forgings and castings that would have been prohibitive to a small operator like me.”

He came to the conclusion: “I can do this.” That year he started searching for a Boeing 40 to restore; 17 years later, he found one.

When Pemberton and his friend Ben Scott flew their Speedmails from Reno to Iowa City in 1993, they were greeted at stops along the way by anywhere from a hundred to a thousand people. “The amazing thing is that people would bring pictures of family members” who had been on hand when the airmail pilots first connected those cities.

Pemberton expects to see more photographs on next week’s cross-country trip. The photos are likely to express a little of the wonder people felt at the sight of an airplane in the early 1920s, when Charles Lindbergh was not an international celebrity but just one of the pilots who flew the mail. And who knows?  Maybe somebody will collect the photographs and make a documentary.

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