Notes from the Past

Early History of the American Air Mail Service - Part II

The stage was set for the first regular Air Mail flight starting on May 18, 1918.  The Post Office had issued a handsome 24¢ stamp with a red (Scott calls it carmine rose) frame and a blue vignette on white paper on May 13.  The vignette portrayed a Curtiss JN-6H (the training plane selected for the service).  Careful examination under a magnifying glass will reveal that the airplane bears the actual serial number of the plane assigned for the first flight -- 38262.  The 24¢ rate included 10¢ for special delivery service.

Curtiss had delivered the modified JN-6Hs.  Crews and pilots had been assigned from the Signal Corps which was responsible for the Army's Air Service.  Operations had been established at the three terminals selected for the Air Mail service.  The New York field was at Belmont Park on Long Island; Philadelphia operations were to be at Bustleton; and the Polo Grounds in Potomac Park were selected for Washington.

The selected sites were not outstanding for aerial operations.  The Polo Grounds was described by Lt. Jim Edgerton as "an area about 1000 feet long and four hundred feet wide, oval in shape, and entirely surrounded by sixty foot trees.  To make the situation more enjoyable, a covered bandstand stood out one hundred and fifty feet from the southeast end, the hangar occupying the opposite end.  Forced landings were well taken care of.  One approach was a city of barracks.  The other side of our two-way field led directly to the War and Navy Buildings.  On each side of the field was sandwiched in by water."

The plan called for departure of the northbound flight from Washington at 11:00 am with the southbound departure from New York at 11:30 am.  The day started in Washington with the arrival of the designated JN-6H from Philadelphia at about 9:30 am.  It had been ferried in by Major Reuben Fleet who led the operation.  The plane was soon surrounded by on-lookers, mechanics, and officials participating in the ceremonies.  Fleet and Lt. George Leroy Boyle, who was assigned to make the first flight, studied maps and noted topographical features which would be necessary to guide the pilot to Philadelphia.  Cross country flight was new and there was very little in the way of guidance to the wandering pilot.

Soon a police-escorted mail truck arrived bearing the sign UNITED STATES AIR MAIL SERVICE.  It brought the mail bound for Philadelphia and New York.  There was 136 pounds of mail with 6,600 covers.  Dignitaries arrived including Secretary of War Newton D. Baker, Postmaster General Burleson, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt, Members of the House and Senate Committees on Post Offices and Roads, the Postmaster General of Japan, and Second Assistant Postmaster General Otto Praeger who was in charge of transportation of all mail in the United States.  Praeger had been the spark-plug behind the effort.

As time for the flight neared, a limousine arrived carrying President Woodrow Wilson and his wife to view the departure.  Major Fleet greeted the President and was asked to join Secretary Baker in a visit to the White House immediately after takeoff.  President Wilson added the last piece of mail to the cargo.  He sent a personally autographed envelope addressed to the Honorable T. H. (the initial should have been G.) Patten, Postmaster of New York City.

Time had come to get the Jenny's Hispano-Suiza engine started.  Several attempts at starting the engine (Contact! Spin the Prop!) failed to get the engine running.  Mechanics and officers swarmed to the airplane to get it running.  Time passed and soon the wait stretched to more than 15 minutes.  The crowd, including the President who checked his watch, grew restless.  Suddenly, Captain Lipsner, Major Fleet's assistant, inquired if anyone had checked the fuel.  Voila!  The empty tank was soon filled with gasoline and the airplane's engine roared in response to the starting sequence.  The airplane was soon in the air.

To be Continued.

 Posted March 13, 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

Note:  If the link isn't returned the first try, try again.

Comments? Send me an e-mail
Please include a reference to this item.