You’ve Got Mailplanes

Square-tail Stearmans, straight-wing Wacos, and Hisso Jennies top the roster of antique airplanes at a captivating grass strip in Iowa.

A Curtiss Jenny, de Havilland DH-4, and Boeing 40C stand in formation while a Sikorsky S-39 surveys the annual fly-in at altitude. (CAROLINE SHEEN)
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And then there are “crash covers.” The American Air Mail Society has offered these since 1923, when in its first catalog it included a section on “Interrupted Flight Covers, familiarly know as Crash Covers”—postmarked envelopes recovered from aircraft that have crashed, caught fire, or otherwise not made the swift completion of their appointed rounds.

Addison Pemberton’s Boeing 40C is listed in the AAMS book under 1928: “October 2. ROSEBURG, OREGON PAT—CAM 8. Pilot Harry G. Donaldson crashed his plane because of fog. Mail carried 22 lbs. A few loose covers salvaged in damaged condition but forwarded without special markings. One cover known.”

For another example, I might have taken a closer look at the DH-4 that flew into Blakesburg from St. Louis in the maroon and silver livery of Robertson Aircraft Corporation, the outfit that hired Charles Lindbergh to fly an airmail route. Lindbergh crashed two Robertson DH-4s in 1926, bailing out when he was out of fuel. A Lindbergh crash cover from the second wreck, in November 1926, is in the collection of Philip McCarty, a renowned collector of U.S. domestic crash covers. But McCarty says that the community is abuzz with the news that a cover from Lindbergh’s first bailout has surfaced.

McCarty, who has examined the cover, which has markings indicating that it had been delayed by a wreck, says it spent the last 82 years framed on a wall, the prized possession of the man who received it. (Now in the hands of a dealer, the cover could fetch $6,000 when it comes to auction.) The letter crashed to earth near Ottawa, Illinois, on September 16, 1926, after Lindbergh jumped from his fuel-exhausted DH-4 into fog. As the airplane nosed down, the last ounces of fuel trickled into the carburetor and the engine revived, leaving Lindbergh floating down while listening to his own airplane circling in the fog.

The story was a favorite at Blakesburg. Next year, there will be others. Each night the sun will set into the western corn. When the Pilot’s Pub opens, a boisterous crowd will spill out of the hangar. Off in the dusk, campers will unfold their gear under parked aircraft. Waving a balsa glider and a flashlight, a boy will roar down the wet grass runway. Overhead, a jet-black Iowa sky will be ablaze with stars. 


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