Notes from the Past

Early History of the American Air Mail Service - Part I

The first experimental airmail flight occurred during an early airshow on Long Island.  The first mail was flown between Golden City Estates and Mineola on September 23, 1911. A previous Note from the Past told some of the story of the pilot, Earle Ovington.

Congress had authorized creation of an aerial mail route by appropriating $100,000 in both the 1916-1917 fiscal year and in the 1917-1918.  However, when President Woodrow Wilson announced that it would start on May 15, 1918, in the midst of World War I, it came as a surprise to many.  The new aerial mail service had become a part of the wartime technological race.

Tentative agreements for joint operation of the new service had been completed on March 1, 1918, after several months of work by the Post Office Department and the War Department.  The plan was ready whenever the time seemed ripe.  It finally got underway when an order was signed on May 3, 1918, by Secretary of War Newton D. Baker.  The order directed the air service to begin as early as May 15, 1918, daily two way carriages of mail between New York and Washington, D.C. with an intermediate stop in Philadelphia.

Major Rueben H. Fleet, who was Colonel "Hap" Arnold's officer in charge of Air Service pilot training, was selected and assigned the added task of putting together the Aerial Mail Service.  He and his assistant, Captain Benjamin B. Lipsner, were informed  in the office of Secretary Baker on May 6, that they had nine days to put the service together.  Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson squelched Fleet's request for more time by pointing out that the media had already been informed of the plan.

Before leaving Baker's office, Fleet called Colonel E. A. Deeds of Air Service Production and requested that 6 Curtiss JN-6H's be ordered.  The planes were to be modified to replace the seat and controls in the forward cockpit with a hopper to carry the mail bags and to add gas and oil capacity to extend the range beyond the 88 miles of the production model.

Curtiss accepted a telephone order and agreed to have 6 airplanes ready by sacrificing the delivery of any other trainers during the period.  They would add a second 19-gallon fuel tank to meet the increased range.

Thus, the first airmail flight was underway.

To be Continued.

 Posted March 12, 2000

Editor's Note:  This series will draw on Donald B. Holmes' Air Mail -- an illustrated history 1793-1981 which is an exceptional piece of philatelic literature and The American Air Mail Catalogue Vol. 1 published by the American Air Mail Society.

Index of 508 Notes from the Past

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