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This Day in History: First U.S. Airmail

On this day in 1918, the first official U.S. airmail flight departs from Washington, D.C.  Such a flight is ordinary today, but in the early 20th century, the success of such an undertaking was far from certain.

 

“When airmail began in 1918,” a USPS publication explains, “airplanes were still a fairly new invention. Pilots flew in open cockpits in all kinds of weather . . . . [They] followed landmarks on the ground; in fog they flew blind. Unpredictable weather, unreliable equipment, and inexperience led to frequent crashes . . . .”

 

Some credit Otto Praeger, Second Assistant Postmaster General, with pushing airmail into existence. Praeger was all enthusiasm for the mail: He knew nothing about planes or their limitations. However, he did have the ear of Albert Burleson, the Postmaster General.


Major Reuben Fleet with one of the Curtiss Jenny JN-4B's used on May 15, 1918.

Burleson convinced the President to make airmail happen, which is how the War Department’s order of May 3, 1918, came to be. It instructed the Army “to inaugurate an Aerial Mail Service between Washington, D. C., and New York beginning May 15th.”

 

In other words, Army Air Services had less than two weeks to make airmail a reality.

 

Army Major Reuben H. Fleet would remember his reaction when the Secretary of War told him the news:

 

“I was dumbfounded. I didn’t know how to tell this man who knew nothing about airplanes that he was giving me an almost impossible task. I said, ‘Mr. Secretary, with all due respect, we don’t have any airplanes that can fly from Washington to Philadelphia to New York. . . . [The best plane’s] maximum range is eighty-eight miles at sixty-six mph.’”

 

Fleet’s objections fell on deaf ears. He was told to make it happen, “even if your pilots have to land in cow pastures every few miles.”

 

Fleet scrambled to prepare planes for duty. Passenger seats were removed to make room for mailbags. Extra fuel tanks were attached. Test flights were made, and a route plan was created: One pilot would leave Washington, D.C. with a mail bag. He would land in Philadelphia, then hand the bag to another pilot. This second pilot would fly the mailbag from Philadelphia to New York. In the meantime, another team of pilots would fly in the opposite direction: New York to Philadelphia to D.C.

 

The Army picked four pilots to fly these routes. The best candidates were chosen because Fleet understood that the success of airmail would depend on the quality of the pilots.

 

In the meantime, the Post Office was authorized to pick two pilots of its own. Let’s just say that merit wasn’t prioritized.

 

The Post Office’s first choice, Lt. George Boyle, was engaged to the daughter of an important official. Its second choice was the son of a purchasing agent for the Post Office. Both men were newly graduated from flight school.

 

Over Fleet’s objections, Boyle was given the honor of making the first flight from D.C. to Philadelphia. It went about as you might expect.

 

Boyle hopped in the plane, but he couldn’t get the engine to start. (The fuel tank was empty.) He finally took off, barely gaining enough altitude to avoid nearby trees. He got lost during his flight and crash-landed in Maryland.

 

He’d made it only 25 miles from his starting point.

 

Fortunately, the day’s other flights operated as intended, and the public remained mostly unaware of airmail’s unfortunate opening day.

 

Would you believe that Boyle was later given a second chance? He crashed that plane, too. Fleet finally got his way and grounded Boyle.

 

Do you think anyone learned the lesson inherent in those two failed flights? Hmm. The Army remained in charge of airmail for about three months before the Post Office took over.

 

Naturally, that’s a story for another day.


Enjoyed this post? More stories of American

aviators can be found on my website, HERE.


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