Notes from the Past

Early History of the American Air Mail Service - Part III

Finally, the first Air Mail flight got off the ground in Washington on May 15, 1918, after what seemed to be a Keystone Cops comedy of errors.  The pilot, Army Lt. George Leroy Boyle, took off from the Polo Grounds in Potomac Park on the south side of the city in the modified Curtiss JN-6H.  He had a large load of 6,600 covers.  3,000 were addressed to New York, 600 to Philadelphia, and 3,000 to other destinations.

The day's entertainment was not yet complete.  Despite the extensive preflight discussions concerning cross-country navigation with Major Fleet, the pilot, Lt. George Leroy Boyle, lost his way soon after takeoff.  He followed the wrong set of railroad tracks leaving the capital.  He soon realized that he was hopelessly lost over unfamiliar terrain.  He made a forced landing near Waldorf, Maryland, in hope of getting directions from a passerby.

As luck would have it on this day, he managed to splinter the airplane's propellor in landing on the rough ground he had chosen.  This ended his plans for lunch in Philadelphia.  He was some 20 miles from his starting point.  Still another irony remained.  The forced landing occurred next to the rural home of another important character in the melodrama, Second Assistant Postmaster Otto Praeger.

Meanwhile, events in New York at Belmont Park went smoothly.  The first successful regularly scheduled Air Mail flight was flown by Lt. Torrey H. Webb who took off promptly at 11:30 after the obligatory ceremonial speeches.  He was given a Hamilton watch during the ceremonies as were all the pilots.  He arrived at Bustleton in Philadelphia in just over an hour.  The airplane was JN-6H #38278.  The mail load was 144 pounds comprised of 2,457 covers and several packages and newspapers.

At Bustleton, Lt. James Clark Edgerton took the mail from Webb and promptly left in his JN-6H #38274.  He arrived at the Polo Grounds in Washington, D.C., with 136 pounds of mail promptly at 2:50 pm where he was met by a small crowd of enthusiasts.

To complete the northbound run to Belmont Park from Bustleton, the officer-in-charge, Lt. H. Paul Culver flew a delayed last leg in Jenny #37278 that Webb had flown in from New York earlier in the day.  His load, of course, included only the mail which originated in Philadelphia which explains the contemporary accounts of his arrival in New York with only 350 letters with about 200 addressed to New York City addresses.  He was welcomed over Long Island by several planes flying from the Mineola Army air field.  School children who had been dismissed from school to see history in the making were also at the field for his arrival.

The ill-fated mail from May 15 in Washington was recovered and was sent on its way on May 16.  The pilot from Washington to Philadelphia on May 16 was Lt. J. C. Edgerton and 1,300 letters were added.  Airmail letters were collected in special red, white, and blue letter boxes after completion of the regular collection.  Covers dated May 16, 1918, are quite rare.  A handful of covers were postmarked "May 16 -- First Trip."

Major Reuben Fleet later discussed the challenges of the flight.  One of the principal difficulties was cross country navigation with poor maps and few good landmarks for guideposts.  The magnetic compasses were uncompensated and various masses of metal on the airplane made them mislead the pilots.  It was not surprising that Fleet said, "We should, therefore, not criticize Lieutenant Boyle too severely."

 Posted March 14, 2000

Editor's Note:  This series has drawn 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.

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