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:  Thanks, Mr. Havens. I wish we had time for you to tell some more of those interesting anecdotes of the early days. But I want to call on Major Reuben Fleet, president of San Diego’s leading industry, Consolidated Aircraft Corporation. Major Fleet, you were loaned by the Army Air Corps for the purpose of organizing the air mail service at the request of Mr. Praeger, were you not?

Fleet:  Yes, Tom, I was, and I want to say that the success of the air mail in its early days was due almost entirely to the dynamic personality and the determination of Otto Praeger. Every possible stumbling block was placed in his way to prevent him from starting air mail service. The reason the Army volunteered its personnel for this job was that the Air Corps saw an opportunity to secure very useful training for its pilots in carrying mail cross country, day by day.

Bomar:  Your pilots then for this first service were all Army officers, weren’t they?

Fleet:  Yes. Our first flight was on May 15, 1918. All of the dignitaries of Washington, headed by President Woodrow Wilson and Postmaster General Albert Burleson, were there for the occasion. Lieutenant George Boyle, the pilot of the plane leaving Washington, was in the air about 20 minutes when he became lost and decided to land and get his bearings. He picked a rough field and in landing, nosed over and broke his propeller. So the northbound flight ended at a little town in Maryland thirty miles north of Washington.

At the same time, Lieutenant LeRoy H. Webb, a Californian, took off from the old Belmont racetrack on Long Island and headed south. One hour and twenty minutes later he made a perfect landing at Philadelphia, having traveled 90 miles. That was the first successful scheduled air mail flight.

The mail was transferred from Lieutenant Webb’s plane to that of Lieutenant J.C. Edgerton, who then took off for Washington, 128 miles south. Edgerton really had a tough job. The weather was pretty bad, and in those days pilots flew entirely by visual navigation, that is you spotted a railroad and followed the track. If you ran into a bank of fog you started looking for a place to land pronto. You just had to be good or you didn’t get there. Well, Lieutenant Edgerton roared into Washington one hour and forty minutes after leaving Philadelphia, and the first successful air mail flight on a scheduled regular route had been completed. That was at 4 p.m. on May 15, 1918. And that was only 20 years ago. Today, our modern transports are carrying mail, passengers and express in ever increasing quantities to all parts of the world, over land and sea. Larger and faster and more comfortable planes, improved communication systems, and many other developments have resulted in making air transportation the safest, fastest, most economical and most comfortable means of travel.

Flights of the type of Lindbergh’s have demonstrated the reliability of aerial equipment; increasing familiarity with airplanes has broken down the natural fear of people for anything new; but it is my opinion that the air mail service, during the past 20 years, has been the main vital factor in bringing air transport to its present stage of development throughout the world. And I am happy to pay tribute to Otto Praeger, the father of air mail and to Ed Havens, one of the first men charged with the responsibility of keeping air mail planes mechanically fit to fly and to Jack Knight, the pioneer night flier and to the many others who have devoted their energies and in many cases their lives, that the air mail might go through.

Bomar:  Thank you Major Fleet, I am sure we all agree with you, and on behalf of our radio audience and the Aviation Committee of the Chamber of Commerce, I wish to express sincere appreciation to you and Mr. Praeger and Mr. Havens for coming up here this evening and participating in this program.


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