How it Began
Flashback to May 15, 1918, to Washington, DC. It’s early Wednesday morning, a blustery day. President and Mrs. Woodrow Wilson are in the grandstand. So is Assistant Navy Secretary Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Postmaster and second assistant Postmaster wouldn’t have missed this day for anything. Members of Congress arose early to be there, too, pondering whether to allocate additional funds for this new service.
Lt. Boyle has just mounted his Curtiss Jenny biplane, four sacks of mail weighing 150 lbs secured in the front cockpit. All eyes are on the frail World-War-One aircraft in Washington’s Polo Grounds, anticipating the great event.
Airmail service will be inaugurated on this day. And the Army and Post Office Dept. have been jointly charged to provide that service.
In only moments flights will simultaneously disembark from Washington and New York’s Belmont Park Race Track. Each will stop at Philadelphia to deliver and pick up mail, refuel, change pilots, and then continue on to the other destination. A large crowd mills about at Philadelphia’s Bustleton field, too, excited to be part of this highly-publicized history-in-the-making.
In Washington, mechanics hover near Boyle's aircraft, ready on the signal to "prop" the plane, to bring the engine to life. Boyle gives the thumbs-up, shouts "Clear," then "Contact!" The mechanics take their cue with a swift pull on the prop ... nothing. They try again ... still no roar of the engine. Repeatedly they try, without success. The honored guests in the grandstand become restless.
A holler comes from the side "Check the fuel!"
The mechanics do and, embarrassed, find the tanks dry. Quickly filling the tanks, they again prop the plane. The engine’s roar reaches the grandstand. A cloud of blue smoke envelops all standing nearby. Worried frowns by those from the Post Office Dept. turn into broad grins. Army personnel reappear from behind the grandstand. Everybody is friends again.
In but moments, the Jenny leaves the ground, struggling for altitude, anxious to clear the trees that rim the sports park. News reporters and photographers race back to their offices to begin work on the front-page coverage planned for the afternoon editions.
Less than twenty minutes into the air on his way to Philadelphia, Boyle gets lost, lands in a farmer’s field, and severely damages the plane's prop. The Army rushes a new prop to the site. But the airmail will not go through that day. It is returned to Washington.
The press is generous with its praise of the newly-inaugurated service. It dismiss the crash in a single sentence"With the exception of an accident to one of the airplanes between Washington and Philadelphia, it was a complete success." That Boyle took off in the wrong direction and crashed south of Washington apparently was considered un-newsworthy.
The south-bound aircraft had left Belmont Park as scheduled, and flew uneventfully to Philadelphia. Six minutes were consumed there transferring mail, refueling, and changing pilots and then the Jenny successfully continued its journey to Washington, to little publicity, other than a small headline.
Three months after the inauguration of service the Post Office was delegated full responsibility for Airmail service.
The Transcontinental Route
The Washington to New York route proved a commercial failure.
Once the novelty wore off of posting an airmail letter from Washington to New York or back business dropped drastically. The distance covered, 218 miles, was too short to permit any substantial time saving over existing surface transportation. Twenty-four cents was a hefty price to pay for a few hours saved in mail delivery time.
On average mail planes were carrying only seven pounds of special airmail per trip; the rest was selected first class. The Post Office lowered the postage to 16 cents. Still expensive, business only increased slightly.
The Post Office Dept realized that Air Mail's value lay in cross-country delivery where significant time could be saved. The New York to San Francisco route was chosen to test transcontinental Airmail service. By 1920 fifteen fields spaced approximately 200 miles apart over a 2680-mile route made up the airway.
The transcontinental airmail route ran from New York to San Francisco. Intermediate stops were: 2) Bellefonte, 3) Cleveland, 4) Bryan, 5) Chicago, 6) Iowa City, 7) Omaha, 8) North Platte, 9) Cheyenne, 10) Rawlins, 11) Rock Springs, 12) Salt Lake City, 13) Elko, and, 14) Reno.
Air Mail Service pilots were the unsung heroes of early aviation. In their frail biplanes, they battled wind, snow and sleet to pioneer round-the-clock airmail service along the world's longest air route, the U.S. transcontinental. In the process, thirty-four pilots lost their lives.
Since September 1920, the Post Office Dept. had flown the mail from New York to San Francisco, but during daytime only, transferring it to trains at night. As a result, elapsed time was 72 hours at best, or a mere 36-hour saving over the fastest all-rail trip.
Flying the mail was risky business. During the nine years the Post Office Department operated the Airmail Service, there were over 6,500 forced landings. On the average, airmail pilots had a life span of only about 900 flying hours.
The Post Office Dept. increased the pressure on its pilots by announcing that the air mail flights could be conducted on a schedule 93% of the time.
Flying in open-cockpit biplanes, exposed to the bitterly cold air and harsh weather conditions, the pilots often became so numbed and exhausted that they couldn't think clearly or make decisions quickly. Not publicized by the Post Office Dept. was the fact that in order to fight the cold and the constant pressure of deadlines, with on-time delivery expected under even the worst of flying conditions, many of the pilots carried bottles of liquor along when they flew.
Carrying the mail was not the only business of aviation. In 1914 the world's first regularly scheduled air-passenger service opened up along a 22-mile route from Tampa to St. Petersburg, Florida. The service could carry only one passenger at a time and cost $5 for the 23-minute flight. It was a financial failure and lasted only a short time.
These early days of aviation presented a unique set of problems and the inability of aircraft to navigate in rough weather and darkness topped the list. The government became involved in 1926.
The first navigation-aid system consisted of flashing beacons. These high-intensity lights, located along popularly-flown airways, literally shone into the air like a connect-the-dot puzzle, winking and blinking a friendly invitation to come ahead.
The beacons, of course, did not flash, but rotated through a complete circle giving the impression of flashing.
In October 1931, D. C. Young of the Airways Lighting Sub-Committee recapped the progress of lighted airways at a lighting conference in Pittsburgh, Pa.
"Ten years ago, a scheduled night flight by airplane across the United States was only a dream. Now, such flights occur nightly, and on scheduled time. The converting of this hazardous journey into one of comparative safety ... is the achievement of constructing aerial highways for the airman.
If air travel were confined to daylight hours only, the speed and directness of route would give the airplane little or no advantage over fast trains operating on 24-hour schedules. The Post Office Dept. realized this in 1922 when it was transporting the mail by air. So it established facilities for the airmail pilot to follow at night and succeeded in showing a remarkable improvement in speed on the coast-to-coast route.
In the four years since 1926 when the government took over the airways 14,500 miles of lighted highways had been created for the airmen.
High-intensity beacons are established approximately 10 miles apart along these civil airways . The beacon consists of a 24-inch parabolic mirror and a 110-volt, 1000 watt lamp. The beacons, which rotate at 6 rpm, show a one-million candlepower flash every 10 seconds for 1/10th second duration.
Pilots often stopped at McGirr Field, on the OmahaChicago route, when they had an "emergency," knowing that the food was excellent and that they would be well cared for.
Intermediate landing fields are provided every 30 miles along these routes, in the absence of suitable commercial or municipal fields, and each is equipped with beacon, boundary, approach, obstruction, and wind-cone lights.
The beam from the airways beacon is a high-intensity pencil of light of about 5-degree beam width visible 20 to 40 miles in clear weather. The beam is aimed 1.5° above the horizon. A small percentage of the beacon’s light is reflected upward to provide close-range visibility.
Two course lights are mounted on the tower just below each searchlight; one points forward along the airway and the other points backward. These 500-watt searchlights give a 15 degree horizontal beam width.
The course lights are fitted with either red or green lenses. Every third beacon has green course lights signifying that it is on an intermediate landing field. Thus the pilot knows at a long range the availability of landing fields. (This is the forerunner of today’s airport rotating beacons which alternately flash green and white.)
All other beacons had red course lights.
As the mechanism revolved and the clear flash of the beacon passed from the pilot’s vision, the red or green flash of the course light came into view. Course lights flashed coded dot-dash signals to indicate the beacon’s position on the airway. Code signals ran from 0 to 9; thus, if a pilot received a signal for the number 4, he knew he was flying over the fourth beacon of a particular 100-mile stretch of airway. But he could not determine his precise position merely by receiving a course-light signal if he did not know independently over which 100-mile stretch he was flying.
Letters designated the airways, the first letters of their terminal cities. The order of the letters was established as south to north and west to east. Thus Omaha to Chicago was Airway O-C. LA-SF defined the Los Angeles to San Francisco airway, and so forth.
Regular maintenance of the airway beacons and intermediate fields was crucial. This duty was entrusted to Airway Caretakers. Daily they climbed the 51-ft. steel towers to check every beacon within their territory, cleaned dirty lenses, replaced burned-out bulbs, etc. Repair problems requiring more expertise or equipment and tools not locally available were referred to "mechanicians," who serviced a 175-mile route with a half-ton pickup truck.
Caretakers at intermediate fields were on duty from 6:00 pm to 6:00 am. If a pilot "dropped" in to one of these emergency fields, caretakers were expected to provide transportation to and from town, furnish them with meals, and assist in repairing their aircraft.
To "Plane Post" a letter cost 24 cents an ounce in 1918, which included special delivery.
With airways on the transcontinental route now lighted, airmail could be delivered in one-third the time of a train.
Click on the On the Beam button to learn how radio navaids further simplified the pilot's navigation chores.
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© 1999 2008, Charles Wood.