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)

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Bomar:  After the Air Mail got started, how did it fare? How did it develop; how did the public take to it?

Praeger:  In the beginning, every city wanted the Air Mail service, but educating the communities to pay a higher rate of postage for Air Mail than ordinary mail, was somewhat difficult. However, the Air Mail was such a flying success and the possible expedition of the mail over long distances was so evident, that before the first year was out the Postmaster General authorized extension of the Washington—New York line into a trans-continental air route. The second lap in the service was from New York to Chicago, the third, Chicago to Omaha, and finally, in the summer of 1920 the service was completed to San Francisco.

Bomar:  But that was all daylight flying, was it not?

Praeger:  Yes. The Air Mail was carried by airplane in the daytime and at the end of each day it was transferred to the night trains, to be taken off again early next day by the mail plane. Of course, the Department realized that night flying was necessary to round out the service which the airplane could render for expedition of the mails. So, while the mail was being operated by daylight flying, extensive experiments were being made on night flying, and finally on February 22, 1921, the first experimental day and night through flight between New York and San Francisco was made in a little over 33 hours elapsed time.

Bomar:  I take it that the Air Mail operation was not without its thrills.

Praeger:  Mr. Bomar, in those early days, operating the United States transcontinental Air Mail with discarded war planes, day in and day out, winter and summer, was in fact a succession of thrills. The devotion to duty, and the great personal courage of the individual flyers, was what put the Air Mail service over. Captain Jack Knight’s exploit on the first day and night trip, when he carried the mail through snow and storm during the night is a classic that pilots still talk about, and that is only one of the many tales of our postal pilots, involving forced landings in mountain fastnesses and bringing the mails, sometimes after accidents, safely overland to the nearest habitation. And so, true to the best traditions of the postal service, the Air Mail sped on its way, day after day and year after year, and this week the nation is celebrating the twenty years of its unbroken operation in fulfillment of Postmaster General Burleson’s first instruction that the Air Mail once started must never stop, but must be developed to the fullest possibility of mechanical flight.

Bomar:  Thank you, Mr. Praeger. That was most interesting. And now let me introduce Mr. Ed Havens of La Mesa who holds Pass #72 of the Aerial Mail service dated December 14, 1918. Ed Havens has the somewhat dubious distinction of having participated in the first non-stop delivery of mail from airplane to ground. What about it, Mr. Havens?

Havens:  There were many amusing incidents in those early days of the air mail, such as the case of W.L. Smith, who took off one morning from Washington with the mail, for Newark. He never reached Newark and was not heard from for 24 hours. We assumed he had cracked up en route until we received a telegram from him up in Connecticut saying, “I over-shot the field.” But you asked about the non-stop delivery. Well, Pop Stephens and I were detailed to fly a pouch of mail and a carton of eggs on the plaza in front of the Washington Post Office. I was to hang out on the wing of the plane and release the parachute when the pilot gave me the signal. The collar of my leather coat kept swatting me in the face and I was hanging on the wing with one arm and holding the parachute with the other, so that I missed the pilot’s signal. The result was that our pouch was released too late and landed several blocks from the Post Office plaza. I am afraid our demonstration was not very successful.

Bomar:  I suppose your job of repairing engines and planes in those early days was a lot different from the present?

Havens:  I’ll say it was. In the first place the engines were mostly Liberties and repairs to engines and planes were required much more frequently than they are with modern equipment. We had a real job on our hands keeping the air mail equipment mechanically perfect in those days.

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