Skip to main content

Enjoy Magazine

U.S. Air Mail Celebrates Its Centennial

04/24/2018 11:00AM ● By Jon Lewis

Special Delivery

May 2018
By Jon Lewis

IT’S A SAFE BET that most people who take to the friendly skies aboard a commercial jetliner never take a moment to thank the agency that made modern airline travel possible—the U.S. Postal Service.

Addison Pemberton is an exception. The engineer and vintage aircraft enthusiast from Spokane, Wash., has a deep appreciation for the Postal Service, and in particular that agency’s perseverance in establishing airmail service.

“I’ve been a student of airmail pioneers most of my life,” Pemberton says. “Their story is just unbelievable. People really don’t understand the contributions the Postal Service made to airlines.”

Powered airplanes were in their relative infancy when the first government-operated airmail flight launched on the morning of May 15, 1918, from Potomac Park in Washington, D.C. Army Air Service Lt. George Boyle, fresh out of flight training, was trusted with 140 pounds of mail and a Curtiss JN-4H “Jenny” biplane and ordered to fly to Philadelphia. A second pilot would complete the route to New York City.

To mark the 100th anniversary of that flight and to celebrate the contributions airmail pilots made to commercial aviation, Pemberton and two other pilots this month will retrace the first West Coast airmail route in vintage biplanes. The San Diego-to-Seattle route (formally known as Contract Air Mail 8) will include a stop at Benton Airpark in Redding on Wednesday, May 16.

The 1,200-mile flight is supported by the non-profit Western Antique Airplane and Automobile Museum (WAAAM), of Hood River, Ore., and endorsed by the U.S. Postal Service.

“Our intent is to fly CAM 8 and tell the story,” Pemberton says. “We’re going to carry airmail to the Post Office. Letters will be postmarked at every stop and then delivered in Everett (Washington state) in a ceremony. Airmail fans will have letters with postmarks from all 12 stops.”

Pemberton and pilots Jeff Hamilton, also of Spokane, and Ben Scott of Reno, Nev., will fly the CAM 8 route in their lovingly restored Stearman Speedmail biplanes. Built in 1929 and designed to be airmail carriers, the planes alone will be worth a visit to Benton Airpark. 

Powered by 450-horsepower engines, the biplanes can cruise at 120 mph and reach an altitude of 20,000 feet. Stearman Aircraft manufactured a total of 41 Speedmails; nine still exist and only six are flying, “and three of them are flying on this trip,” Pemberton says. “They’re wonderful—one of the best flying biplanes ever built. They’re kind of the Shelby Cobra of the antique aircraft world.” 

Prior to the centennial flight, Pemberton, Hamilton and Scott will be sworn in as official airmail pilots and presented with vintage handbooks that instruct airmail pilots on the importance of acting and dressing like gentlemen during the performance of their duties. Pemberton says they will gladly wear ties during the flight, but for safety’s sake they’ll replace actual handguns with plastic water pistols.

More importantly, Pemberton hopes the airmail reenactment educates aviation fans about the heroic work put in by the early airmail pilots and how their efforts inspired the innovations that led to the safety and efficiencies enjoyed by today’s air travelers.

At the outset, it wasn’t always smooth flying. Pilots had to contend with rudimentary instruments, including a magnetic compass with a jittery needle that was influenced by any nearby metal, and less-than-thorough maps. In fact, young Lt. Boyle quickly got lost during that first flight, ran out of fuel, landed in a field and his plane flipped over. The work was extremely dangerous, as well: 12 of the original 40 airmail pilots died in crashes in the first two years.

Airmail service had reached Chicago by 1919 and stretched to San Francisco the following year, with flights during daylight hours only. On a wintry morning in February 1921, a pair of volunteer pilots left from New York and San Francisco and completed a harrowing day-and-night relay that took 33 hours of flight time. By 1925, Pemberton says airmail pilots were providing two-day delivery between New York and San Francisco with 90 percent certainty.

As airmail service progressed, so did the fledgling airlines. By the end of the 1920s, William Boeing and his Boeing Air Transport (which went on to become United Airlines) had the government contracts for the most lucrative of the airmail routes.

Anti-trust legislation in the 1930s broke up Boeing’s near-monopoly and airmail service was briefly returned to the Army Air Corps with disastrous results. Some 13 of the teenaged Air Corps pilots were killed in crashes in the first few weeks of service before airmail flights were returned to the more experienced contract pilots.

Demands by the Post Office Department (the precursor to the U.S. Postal Service) that the mail fly on schedule, regardless of the weather, forced improvements in aircraft and airline operations. Pemberton says the early airmail pilots quickly familiarized themselves with their routes. “They were like the Pony Express. The pilots knew every anthill, outhouse and barn. In bad weather, knowledge of the topography was his lifeline.”

Airmail pilots got an assist, starting in 1924, with the development of ground-based navigation beacons that stretched from New York to San Francisco. Stationed between three and five miles apart atop 50-foot towers, the rotating lights could be seen for 10 miles in clear weather. The towers were anchored to concrete foundations in the shape of giant arrows. To aid in visibility, the arrows were painted bright yellow.

Pemberton, a veteran pilot, remains in awe of those pioneering pilots. “Imagine flying from Redding to Portland, at night, in December. It just makes my skin crawl,” he says. The stretch through the Cascade Range, from Shasta Lake to Roseburg, Ore., known as “the squeeze,” proved to be particularly treacherous. “Hundreds of airplanes were scraped off of those hills in the ‘30s and ‘40s,” Pemberton says. “It was pretty scary, but those airmail pilots were slugging it out day and night. And all that infrastructure has morphed into what we have today.”

The airmail planes are expected to arrive at Benton Airpark at mid- to late-morning on Wednesday, May 16.