The Father of Airmail Looks Back

On the 20th anniversary of airmail service, three key players recalled the early days.

Otto Praeger (Smithsonian National Postal Museum)

In May 1938, the United States celebrated National Air Mail Week, a campaign promoted by postmaster general James A. Farley. The festivities included essay and poster contests, and each American town was invited to create a cachet (a commemorative design or slogan) that would be printed on envelopes mailed on May 19, the highlight of the celebration.

During the weeklong commemoration, many of the figures associated with early airmail service were interviewed in print and on the radio. Following is a transcript from an interview broadcast on KFSD, a San Diego, California, radio station. Featured is Otto Praeger, the assistant postmaster general; Major Reuben Fleet, the first operations manager of the airmail service; and Edward Havens, one of the first airmail mechanics.

Radio Station KFSD—8:15 p.m., Wednesday, May 18, 1938.

Interview with Mr. Otto Praeger, Major Reuben H. Fleet and Mr. Ed Havens, in regard to early air mail, by Tom Bomar, manager aviation department, San Diego Chamber of Commerce.

Bomar:  This is National Air Mail Week, celebrating the 20th Anniversary of air mail service in the United States. We have here in the studio off KFSD tonight three residents of San Diego who were the leaders in the establishment of the original air mail service 20 years ago. These men are Mr. Otto Praeger, Assistant Postmaster General in charge of the first air mail, Major Reuben H. Fleet, first operations manager of the air mail service and now president of Consolidated Aircraft Corporation, and Mr. Edward D. Havens, one of the first mechanics in the air mail service and now a civilian employee of the Naval Air Station at North Island. I am going to ask these gentlemen to tell you about those early days of air mail. Mr. Praeger, what were your instructions in establishing the air mail service?

Praeger:  When Postmaster General Albert Sidney Burleson assigned to me the task of organizing and operating the U.S. air mail he added the specific instruction that the air  mail once started must not stop, but must be constantly improved and expanded until it would become, like the steamship and the railroad, a permanent transportation feature of the postal service. And so it was with this in mind that we began organizing the service early in 1918. Postal air fields were promptly established, the personnel selected, the equipment bought, the date for the opening set for May 15—and the air mail was off.

Bomar:  Was it really as easy as that?

Praeger:  Well, the job was hardly easy. While the pioneer pilots, with many hours of successful flying to their credit, felt that the airplanes could be flown successfully on schedule, there was a rather general feeling that aviation was not yet sufficiently advanced to maintain mail schedules by airplanes. Strangely enough, some well known aircraft manufacturers themselves doubted the advisability of embarking upon a regular air mail service, and a number of them came to Washington to urge me not to undertake the project. However, with a staff of some of the best civilian flyers and thoroughly competent mechanics at our command, we went ahead with the preparations for the service.

Bomar:  Wait a minute, Mr. Praeger. I thought you began with Army pilots.

Praeger:  True. At this point the United States Army stepped into the picture with the suggestion that air mail flying would fit in excellently with its training program and it offered to operate the service without cost to the Post Office Department during the period of the war. This was gratefully agreed to, but soon the Army had a change of heart, and a Colonel in the Air Service called upon me to urge the Department to give up the idea of operating an air mail, citing the usual line of objections set forth by doubters. The Colonel was not so certain that he could dissuade the Post Office Department from starting the air mail, for he brought with him a Major of the Air Service, young, unusually capable, and full of pep. And that is where Major Reuben H. Fleet, now President of the Consolidated Aircraft Corporation of San Diego, entered the picture of the air mail. The Colonel, seeing that the Post Office Department would not change its intentions, turned sharply to Major Fleet and said, “All right, Major, it’s your baby,” and left the room. The Postmaster General officially designated Major Fleet as Superintendent of Air Mail Service. With great energy he organized his staff and assembled his equipment, and with military precision started the actual flying operations of the Air Mail promptly on the hour set on May 15, 1918.

I might add that the Army operated the Air Mail for three months, and then turned it back to the Post Office Department as a smooth running service between Washington and New York.

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