Crossing the Alleghenies in 1919

The man who saved the airmail describes “Hell Stretch.”

After his career with the airmail service, Knight flew for United Airlines between 1934 and 1937, when the airline was still flying single engine Boeing aircraft. By the time Knight retired, he had flown more than 2 million miles. (NASM (SI-81-4954))

Jack Knight became famous in February 1921 for flying the first overnight trip to carry the mail from North Platte, Nebraska, to Chicago. But the more harrowing journeys he and his fellow airmail pilots faced were the flights over the Allegheny mountains between Cleveland and New York. The pilots developed a coffin humor about this leg of the trip, which they called “hell stretch.”

In Knight’s notes recalling the experience (see the photo gallery at right to view his handwritten pages—typescript below), the pilot refers to the “variety of weather, ranging from dense fog, to sleet and freezing mist—interspersed with terrific blizzards.” In an open cockpit biplane, the trip must have been at best a miserable experience; frequently it was a fatal one.

The notes appear to have been written in hotels where Knight stayed when he flew the mail on the central part of the transcontinental route. After he became famous, he was probably urged by newspaper editors and others to tell his stories of flying the mail.

The notes are part of the James H. “Jack” Knight Collection donated to the National Air and Space Museum archives in 1988 by J. Ted Beebe.

Flying the U.S. Mail: Hold Everything—1919 Version

Introduction, Part 1

Our business of flying the U.S. Air Mail has changed considerably, since 1919.

    In the old days—the motto was—The mail must go—regardless of fog, sleet, etc. We were flying Liberty motorized DHA ships, and in those days the Liberty Motor had many bad faults, such as burning out bearings—breaking connecting rods, stripping cam shafts, gears, etc.

    It was truly a survival of the “fittest” (and luckiest) because any of the pilots in 1919 would pull out of a terminal field in fog and practically impossible weather rather than risk the possibility of another ship flying in while they were held up for weather.

    The Allegheny Mountains between Cleveland and New York have a choice variety of weather, ranging from dense fog, to sleet and freezing mist—interspersed with terrific blizzards.

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