John McIntonsh – Pioneer of Land and Sky

Every era has a generation that it is fast disappearing. Today, it is veterans of Korea and Vietnam. The World War II generation, including soldiers and holocaust survivors, is mostly gone. Before that it was World War I. In the 1810s it was the founding fathers. During the 1920s, in Nebraska and other western states, obituaries of early settlers, in their 60s or 70s or older, dot the page of the newspapers. I have often noticed them while seeking references to crashes or the building of airports.

Appropriately, the May 17th issue of the Sidney telegraph headlines National Air Mail Week’s 30th anniversary mail flight into town next to the headline “Rites for John T. McIntosh Saturday.” In 1871 McIntosh became, according to the Potter Review, the first white child born in Potter. His father had worked for the railroad and was the station agent at the time. Potter had only been an established town for a year, and Sidney had been around for less than five years. And just as these men helped a town rise from the prairie, McIntosh did his part to help planes rise above it.

John’s father moved the family to Sidney in 1875. After grade school, McIntosh went to Notre Dame’s preparatory department. He finished there in 1889, and returned to Sidney. The 1900 census lists him as a bank cashier. The 1910 census has him cashiering for the railroad. The 1920 census refers to him as a lawyer. The 1930 census has him as clerk of the district court. In addition to these records, his obituary mentions that he worked for a drug firm out of Denver. Generally speaking, John was a businessman who remained a faithful promoter and supporter of Sidney. He and his wife, Mary, raised two children.

John’s tie to the air mail likely starts in 1910, when he became the Postmaster for 10 years. His term ended just as the air mail began flying through the town. His obituary also notes “in the early days of air mail, Mr. McIntosh was in charge of the old emergency landing field south of town. He became a close friend of most of the pilots who pioneered day and night air mail transportation across the route.” Given the importance of Sidney’s role as a halfway point between North Platte and Cheyenne, this role was not insignificant. Details on when or how long John manned the light beacon are scarce, but in February of 1928, the telephone operator from Potter reached him at the airport when pilot Allie Allison began circling town during a snowstorm. McIntosh instructed Potter residents to use flares to mark a safe landing spot, which they did.

John McIntosh was another local resident who did his part to ensure that air mail planes safely passed overhead, and occasionally in town. He likely helped out in other ways…promoting flight, raising awareness, and perhaps being around when Sidney helped with a night flying experiment in 1924. Here’s to John McIntosh…another ordinary citizen who became another link in the chain that pushed the air mail service to greater heights.

Buchanan, Michigan and “Sky” Knight

Jack Knight is best known for his dramatic night flight in 1921, contributing to transporting the mail across the country in a record 33 hours. The one flight made him the most famous air mail pilot ever to fly for the Post Office. He had other noteworthy achievements, including testing early plane to ground radio. He also had his share of forced landings and flying adventures.

A trip to Knight’s hometown of Buchanan, Michigan serves as a reminder that Knight had a career after the “seat of your pants” era. The dramatic decade of the 1920s is only one piece of a bigger picture. The library in Buchanan Michigan holds the town’s archives, including three boxes and additional photographs of Jack Knight. These papers did wonders for expanding my understanding of where Knight came from, and the significance of his career as he became a leader in United Airlines.

Buchanan, Michigan

Buchanan is a town of about 5,000 residents on the banks of the St. Joseph River. It dates back to the 1830s. Knight was born in Kansas in 1893, but his mother died less than two years later. His father took Knight and his older sister to Buchanan, Michigan and turned them over to his mother’s sister and her husband. Henceforth, this couple would be referred to as Jack’s parents.

Jack received a prophetic nickname as a youth. The name likely started with classmates adding “Ski” to the end of his name as part of a game they were playing during the Russo-Japanese War. Another explanation was Knights early love of climbing trees. Either way he became known as “Sky” Knight. It would be prophetic.

Knight joined the Signal Corps in World War I and learned to fly. Following the war he returned home, continuing his pre-war job as a mechanical engineer. The Buchanan archives has a letter written in May of 1919 on Knight’s behalf from the director general to the Federal Director of the United States Employment Service asking for assistance finding Knight a job. Whether Knight found a job with the air mail service through this or other means is not clear, but little more than a month later “Sky” Knight signed on with the Postal Service.

Knights exploits with the service are well recorded, particularly his leg of the first cross country day/night flight in 1921. Knight became the posterboy of the service. He advertised Camel cigarettes and watches. When Boeing took over the air mail route in 1927, Knight, like several other pilots moved to the new company. And when Boeing spun off United Airlines, Knight moved to United. He retired from flying in 1937 after 2.4 million miles in his illustrious flying career.

Knight stayed on with United as their Director of Public Education. And he continued traveling. He had an office on LaSalle and Wacker in Chicago and a home in Chesterton Indiana, but didn’t settle in to either one. A letter from 1938 to Max Karant of Popular Aviation says that he just returned from a three month tour of the United States, and would leave for another in two weeks. Letter were directed to his attention in Spokane, Washington and California. He continued to keep busy.

What did he talk about while traversing the country? A copy of a speech around 1938 has Knight discussing the relative safety of aviation. He points out that people are more likely to be injured in car accidents or falls at home than in a plane. As the war broke out, he continued to tout the value of airlines. A 1942 radio interview has him discussing the value of aviation, and reminding potential fliers that although they could be asked to be removed from a flight if the government needed seats, there were so many flights that little delay would occur in reaching their destinations.

It was perhaps his travels that led to his early death. During World War II Knight worked for the Defense Support Corporation and went to the Amazon to look for rubber (Rosenberg and Macaulay, Mavericks of the Sky). Knight contracted malaria. He died in 1945 at the age of 53 in Niles, Michigan, ten miles from where he grew up.

Per his wishes, Knight was cremated and his ashes scattered over lake Michigan. Buchanan remembered their hero. In 1967, the town attempted to name an elementary school in his honor. The effort failed, but in 1977 a chapel at the cemetery, near his mother and adopted parents, was built in his honor. It was a fitting tribute to “Sky” Knight…who served a key role in turning aviation to what it is today. And the tribute continues in a handful of boxes keeping the story in the Buchanan library.

Knight Chapel, Buchanan, Michigan
Plaque at Knight Chapel

The Air Mail and Peony Park

Peony Park, known for its ballroom, its swimming pool, and it’s amusement park is embedded in the memories of many in Omaha. The bands, its fight against desegregation, and dozens of events tell pieces of its story. Another piece is Jerry Malec, park owner and mechanic for the air mail service.

Jerry Malec was born in 1891 in Austria or Bohemia or Moravia or the Czech Republic or Czechoslovakia depending on what record you are looking at. But the subject of European border changes is getting a bit far afield. Suffice to say, the Malec’s were among a large central European population in Omaha. Malec and his family immigrated to the United States in 1904. His father died in 1910, leaving his widow Agnes and several children, and was buried at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Omaha.

Agnes Malec was well provided for. The 1910 census has her living with five children, including two adult sons and one who was 17 and working. Additionally Jerry worked in Plum Creek township in Butler County as a farm laborer. When World War I approached, at least three sons, including Jerry, attempted to get draft exemptions for having to care for their mother. The three also had filed paperwork for naturalization but were not currently citizens. Jerry did wind up in the army where he served in the signal corps with the 44th Aero Squadron (Omaha Bee, June 13, 1920).

In 1916 Joe Malec, on behalf of himself and his three brothers, bought 10 acres of pasture land and a general store. Such were the beginnings of Peony Park, a major landmark in Omaha until 1994. By 1919 the Malec’s ran a garage. Joe may have been the face of the new venture, but he had help. An Omaha Bee advertisement lists the Malec Brothers as a seller of Kokomo tires. The 1920 describes Jerry as an automechanic. However in 1920, he also served as a mechanic at the Aksarben Airfield. A 1921 Omaha Bee Article has him going to Kansas City to assist with an aerial display at a convention for the American Legion.

It’s difficult to pin down exactly when Jerry Malec quit the air mail service or why. It could be that the new Peony Park venture came to dominate his time. It could be that he left when the airport moved to Fort Crook in 1924 or when the line was contracted out in 1927. What is clear is that the 1930 census declares that Malec is the secretary for Peony Park, and by his death in 1937 Jerry Malec was the President of Peony Park, Inc. He died after fighting an unspecified illness for more than a year (Omaha World Herald). He went to Rochester, Minnesota in an attempt to fight the disease, but doctors would not operate and he succumbed.

Malec left behind many legacies…the legacy of the park which became synonymous with Omaha music and entertainment, the legacy of a family’s immigration to and success in the United States, the legacy of a soldier in the signal corps in World War I. We should not forget that he was also part of the legacy of the Post Office’s Air Mail Service.

Names to Know: Billy Mitchell

Understanding the full importance of the Air Mail Service can only be done when reflecting on its position in the larger world of aviation. The most vocal person regarding military aviation during the 1920s was General/Colonel/private citizen Billy Mitchell. Mitchell had a visionary view of what aviation could become, but his occasional lack of grounding in the current reality and uncompromising positions would become his undoing.

Billy Mitchell was the son of a Senator from Wisconsin. He joined the army during the Spanish-American War, was quickly promoted, and was assigned to the Signal Corps. He strung telegraph lines in Cuba, and after the war Mitchell accepted an assignment to take charge of establishing a telegraph line across Alaska. Gold fever had taken over, leading to an influx of prospectors and a need for faster communication. Next Mitchell went to the Philippines during US war there.

Mitchell had become a veteran officer by the time World War I came around. Aviation fell into the realm of the Signal Corps, primarily since its initial use was to survey behind the enemy lines. In today’s world of aerial maps, where planes and satellites allow us to see remote parts of the world in great detail, it is hard to imagine not being able to know about anything going on beyond our field of vision. Sending a balloon up to gather data on enemy positions was quite revolutionary. And World War I stimulated aviation advancements as only a war can.

World War I made Billy Mitchell a believer in the necessity for air supremacy in any future conflict. In large part his assessments held merit…was would never be the same. He also developed a devoted following who, especially after the plane proved to be a decisive element in World War I, became determined to point out how Mitchell was right.

The problem is that Mitchell began believing in his ideas, without seeing how they fit into a larger picture. He talked to Congress, the newspapers, and anyone else who would listen if he felt it would help his cause. Unfortunately in the process, he attacked anyone who he felt stood in the way of his goal of an independent Air Force and a building up of air power. He also failed to take into account the realities of the current situation.

The United States was trying to downsize all branches of the military after the war, so the cuts to the army air corps were not unexpected. Mitchell also attacked his perceived lack of planes supplied to his aviators during the war. While there were legitimate issues, he did not seem to take into account the challenges that the government faced…he focused on the challenges of aviation without regards to General Pershing’s challenge of establishing the entire American army in France.

For all of his foresight, Mitchell did have some misjudgments about the details of how aviation supremacy would look. Mitchell saw a role for dirigibles…a steerable lighter than air craft like a blimp…because at the time they had more range than the current available aircraft.

Mitchell felt that, despite difficult flying conditions, the army needed to focus on centering bases in Alaska because he didn’t think that aircraft carriers would be advanced enough to be particularly useful in the next war with Japan, which he correctly saw as eminent. It is possible that Mitchell’s persuasive personality led to the navy being more focused on aviation. This theory would have to allow for Mitchell’s lack of perspective and also lack of understanding when things did not happen as fast as he would have liked.

Mitchell’s determination to express his views, eventually bypassing other military leadership to go straight to the press caused his ideas to take hold with the American public, but also led to his losing his war rank of General (which was not uncommon…see Colonel George Custer) being assigned to a post in Texas with little responsibility and ultimately his court martial where he was demoted to the rank of private. He subsequently resigned and began crusading for air power as a civilian before dying of heart failure in 1936.

The story of Billy Mitchell is that of an intelligent, dynamic, and complex personality. It also provides insight into the challenges that the military faced after World War I. In 1920 Air Service appropriations dropped from 60 to 27 million dollars. In 1921 the Air Service dropped from 16,000 men to 10,000 (the army dropped from 280,000 to 150,000). Mitchell’s concerns that the United States might fall behind in aviation development were justified.

The state of affairs of the military emphasizes the value of the air mail service during this critical time. This was one area that managed to continue to grow and develop with solid goals. As aviation companies grew and the Post Office turned mail delivery over to private contractors, civilian aviation was able to take off and in large part make up for the military shortfalls. There were other factors, of course, but the value should not be understated.

Hurley, Alfred F. Billy Mitchell: Crusader for Air Power. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1975.

Gauvreau, Emile and Cohen, Lester. Billy Mitchell: Founder of Our Air Force and Prophet Without Honor. The War Vault. 2019. (originally published 1942).

Mitchell, Ruth. My Brother Bill: A Biography of General Mitchell. New York: Harcourt Brace and Company. 1953.

Transcontinental Endurance: The Test Run

Although the Post Office became the cornerstone of cross country flying, the military also made contributions. The transcontinental endurance race which took place in October of 1919 stands out as a statement of the possibilities and dangers of aviation. This test was the brainchild of the famous (or infamous) General Billy Mitchell, and consisted of 48 pilots attempting to fly from coast to coast and back again. Some started in New York and flew to San Francisco and some reversed the process. The race itself had military origins, but it became the first trial run for many airports west of Cleveland. Some of these existed because of the prior efforts of the Post Office.

The race did not follow the Post Office route precisely and it had additional stops, both for safety and to accommodate the fuel range of multiple types of aircraft. For example, while the Post Office flew through Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, the race flew through Birmingham, Rodchester, and Buffalo, New York. This route skirted the Appalachian Mountains, making it less hazardous. The route also stopped in Rock Island, IL and Des Moines, Iowa rather than Iowa City. This provided two evenly spaced stops between Chicago and Omaha instead of one. Despite the differences, many airports got their first chance to demonstrate their capabilities.

Omaha had not yet constructed a hangar, but seeded a landing strip, and maintained it by keeping brush and debris off the field. In preparation for the endurance race, the city removed wires or signs that could interfere with landing (Omaha Chamber of Commerce Journal). It also had supplies on hand such as gas, oil, and the occasional fresh spark plug. Cheyenne, Wyoming was located at the base of Sherman Summit, the highest crossing point along the way. In addition, it was the largest town in the area, the state capital, and along the railroad tracks pilots which guided pilots from coast to coast in an area with few rivers and other landmarks to guide them. The city of Cheyenne worked closely with the governor, which included borrowing graders from the state highway agency to prepare the field.

Although pilots had flown from coast to coast before, starting with Cal Rogers in 1911, it remained a difficult and hazardous undertaking. Navigational instruments and weather reporting did not exist in any reliable form. Although aviation activity increased following World War I, this cross country test would be the first time most of these fields had been used in such a widespread aviation feat.

The race was not a total success. Seven pilots died and it took vastly different amounts of time for them to cross the country, which led to negative publicity. But the race undeniably demonstrated the ability of pilots to travel cross country, and it demonstrated the devotion of individual towns to become part of this larger endeavor. The fields used were primitive. Many were level pieces of ground with limited services, but the feat of having an actual aerial road across the country was amazing. Many towns which would not host scheduled landings on the airmail route would regularly see pilots flying overhead and be available when those pilots had to make emergency landings. Towns like Sideny, Nebraska or Rawlings, Wyoming assisted more than one pilot due to weather or mechanical difficulty.

Military and Postal aviation are separate fields of study, but they do intersect. Many airports used during the military endurance race existed due to the efforts of the Post Office. And without the Postal Service seriously planning a cross country route, the race would have been much more difficult or impossible. But credit should be given to the military for first showcasing the logistical reality as well as the possibilities of an aerial road from coast to coast.

McMullen: Hitting the Wires

Bryan McMullen, like several other pilots in the early days of the air mail service died due in large part to bad luck. The Omaha Bee tells the story in some detail. McMullen left Checkerboard field near Chicago just before 6am on October 16, 1920s. It seems that the weather was creating difficulties, and McMullen attempted to land in a field. A farmer and his wife saw the plane head towards the field before hitting a telephone wire, flipping over, and bursting into flames. They were unable to reach the McMullen and he burned, along with a large portion of the mail. He left behind a devoted wife who met him at Omaha’s Aksarben field almost every morning since he had been stationed there in October. His mother took over the funeral details, and he was buried near his home in Dallas Texas.

While it is true that the weather played a roll, had McMullen not hit that stretch of wire, had he been a couple of feet higher, it would have been your run of the mill, this is 1920, emergency landing. If you were lucky the farmer’s wife would make a cup of coffee and offer you breakfast while you waited for the weather to clear or the farmer would have given you a ride into town so that you could report your predicament. This time things took an unfortunate turn.

McMullen was born in Texas in May of 1893. According to census records in 1900 he was living in Gatesville, Texas with his father, mother, and sister. Ten years later he was 16, and living with his grandfather, a publisher, and his mother in Palo Pinto, Texas (about 20 miles west of Dallas). His mother and grandmother worked as milliners, meaning they sold and possibly made women’s hats. In the 1920 census, he was working as a salesman and sewing merchant in Dallas Texas. He and his wife, Eva, were boarders. Texas World War I records indicate that McMullen had served overseas from July 1918 to July, 1919. He likely learned how to fly in 1916 when he had been sent to flying school in Newport News Virginia due to being a Lieutenant in the 4th Texas infantry (El Paso Herald—March 24, 1916).

A basic internet search does not indicate what McMullen did overseas, specifically whether he was in the Army Air Corps. Regardless of his service duties, it is easy to imagine a young man, just home from the war, finding temporary quarters and selling sewing supplies while figuring out what he was going to do with the rest of his life. He began flying for the Air Mail Service in August of 1920, only two months prior to his death.

McMullen’s mother died two years later in 1922. Although his father appears to have exited the scene sometime between 1900 and 1910. Daniel McMullen didn’t have an occupation listed in the 1900 census. He died in 1923 in Davenport, Iowa where he worked as a salesman (Iowa Death Records).

Frank Burnside: All Around Aviator

Sometimes when seeking out information, I find it best not to work myself into a frenzy trying to pin down every last detail. Part of history is working with the information available, and even with the incredible amounts of information available on the internet (which is how I do most research these days), it is difficult to know everything. Some people have holes in their history.

The basic facts regarding Burnside’s life are fairly easy to find. He died on August 26, 1935 at the age of 47 after a career in aviation that included working with Charles Lindbergh and Will Rodgers. (Rochester Journal Aug 27, 1935). The Nevada Aviation Hall of Fame has a more extensive biography. Burnside was born in Oneonta, New York, on August 7, 1888. He went to college to study music, then became interested in flying in 1911 after seeing a plane at a county fair. He and a friend signed up for classes at the new Thomas Brothers Flying School in Bath, New York, where Burnside eventually became an instructor. The company (and Burnside) moved to Ithica, New York, eventually becoming the Morse Thomas company. During World War I, Burnside served as their chief test pilot. In the 1920 Census, Burnside was living in Ithica. HE often flew in the movies of the Wharton, Incorporated and Grossman Picture Corporation. This was a small movie company based out of Ithica. According to Wikipedia (not the best source, but movie history is not the rabbit hole I am jumping down), the company left Ithica in 1920.

Less information is available about what Burnside was doing between 1920 and 1927, when he flew one of the first legs of the air mail between New York and Chicago after National Air Transport took over that leg of the mail route. The Nevada Aviation Hall of fame doesn’t say anything about this time period. The Post Office says that he began flying in 1923, and flew until 1927 when private corporations took over the service. He was at various times stationed in Maywood and Cleveland. There is no mention of why Burnside chose to fly the mail, and the only mention I have found of him is from a 1924 Omaha World Herald Article that says he was a troubleshooter for the newly instituted night air mail route.

The 1930 Census has Burnside living as a boarder in Rocky River, Ohio. This is located on the west side of Cleveland, a logical place for an aviator to be. Despite the relocation, Burnside kept his New York ties. He died in 1935 in Bath, New York. Burnside’s career with the Post Office was quiet, and, as I said, little is mentioned about him in that context. But he was widely respected as an aviator, and a reminder that it took many people to propel the air mail service forward into the future.

A Hundred Years from Coast to Coast

In September of 1920, a hundred years ago, this month, the Post Office began flying mail from New York to San Francisco.  Although the feat was revolutionary at the time, in some ways it felt closer to the Wright Brothers bouncing along a beach in 1903 than it did to the five hour coast to coast flight that we see today.

I’ve mentioned before just how critical this route was to aviation’s development.  It wasn’t until 1930 that another cross country route, from New York to Los Angeles, through Kansas City, was created.  So practically everything going east, west, north, or south touched this single artery.  Of course it helped that New York, Chicago, Cleveland, and San Francisco (the 1st, 2nd, 5th, and 12th most populous cities in the US respectively), had been linked together.  Flights began between Minneapolis, Chicago, and St. Louis, which later extended into Texas.  Planes flew south out of New York to Philadelphia, and later Atlanta.  Salt Lake City, became a jumping off point for planes flying northwest to Seattle.  In 1927, Calvin Coolidge spent the summer in the Black Hills and army pilots flew his mail from North Platte, Nebraska to Rapid City, South Dakota.

Much of the route was through rural America, and stopped in towns few people outside of those who live there see a need to pay much attention to…Bryan, Ohio; North Platte, Nebraska; Rock Springs, Wyoming; and Elko, Nevada.  Even towns like Omaha, Cheyenne, and Salt Lake City did not compare to the larger population centers.  But without them, the visionary route of the Post Office could not have happened.

Our history is a mosaic of stories…and the story of the Post Office is no exception.  Pilots, crashes, field managers, telephone operators, fundraisers, community leaders, and random farmers all play their role.  The crashes and near misses stand next to the spectacular successes.  The brilliant ideas and the “what were they thinking” moments stand side by side.  Radio, navigation, aerial photography, air traffic control, and other fields were all profoundly impacted by the goal of a determined Post Office.

So let’s celebrate a century of coast to coast flight…and here’s to 100 more years.


Reviewing the Numbers: 31 of 40


Every so often a statistic comes up in various air mail articles. Thirty one of the first forty pilots hired by the Post Office died while flying the mail. I’m not exactly sure where this number originated. I first came across it in a book on Nebraska flying history/reminiscing written by an amateur historian that was published in 1994. I have seen it in other places. A PBS site on Charles Lindbergh (referenced below) repeats the claim.

The Smithsonian Postal Museum website has a page listing all of the airmail pilots that also provides information on when they were hired, when they left the service, where they were stationed, and other details based on records found in their archives. This site is a treasure trove of information. I put the pilot information into a data base, and ran the numbers. The 31 out of 40 statistic does not appear to be correct. When the data is organized by hire date, three of the first 40 pilots died while flying the mail. Another pilot died in a crash a year and a half after leaving the service.

As in most circumstances, the stories that the data tell are more important than the raw numbers. Some pilots were hired, but failed to perform well in training, meaning the Post Office fired them prior to any air mail flights. Numerous others lasted for three to six months before they decided that the job didn’t work for them. According to the Post Office documentation, several pilots who resigned later requested the job back. Usually the request was not granted, but there are some exceptions.

Attempting to determine where the 31 out of 40 came from is an exercise in counting. But I do have a guess. An appendix in William Leary’s book Aerial Pioneers: The U.S. Air Mail Service, 1918-1927 lists all Post Office employees killed in crashes. There were 31 fatalities prior to January 1, 1923. This includes pilots, mechanics, clerks, airport helpers, and a division superintendent. This may seem like a random year, but for the most part 1922 marked the end of the era of air mail pilots being a “suicide club” and the beginning of mail service becoming safe and reliable.

There were forty pilots who worked for the Post Office between the end of June and August of 1927 when the final routes were turned over to private contractors. Some of these pilots continued flying over familiar territory with Boeing and National Air Transport, the two companies who took over the transcontinental route. Others quit flying the mail and moved on to other endeavors.

The point of quoting the 31 of 40 number is to emphasize the risks involved in flying the mail cross country in the early 1920s. I have not questioned the number prior to now because flights could be incredibly dangerous. Aviation was a new field of study, and a variety of issues were still being worked out.

The fatalities were real, and close shaves that don’t make it into the final numbers abounded. Mavericks of the Sky by Barry Rosenberg and Catherine Macaulay tells a story about Jack Knight writing a will while flying through the fog above the Appalachian Mountains because he had no way to determine if he would hit a mountain when forced descend to land at Bellefonte. Dangers of fog affected most pilots. Nearly all pilots who flew the mail for any length of time faced one or more emergency landings in uncertain terrain. Some got lucky when hitting trees or uneven fields. Some narrowly missed buildings, wires, or other objects that killed their comrades.

My brief overview of the pilot stories did lead me to the conclusion that flying the mail was a little safer then is generally portrayed, especially when specific crashes are analyzed. When the service started, the pilot often flew with a mechanic. Two of the crashes prior to 1923 killed two people, and one killed three. While it isn’t a major improvement, this means that there were only 27 fatal incidents, not 31. Several crashes involved similar plane issues, such as Junkers that caught fire when oil leaked on the engine. Once those issues had been resolved (the Junkers were removed from service), safety improved. A couple of crashes involved pilots doing stunts with the planes, and two more happened on the ground when someone got struck with a propeller.

Looking through the numbers gave me a better picture of what the Post Office looked like during its first two or three years of service. Pilots came and went. Some that left did get rehired at some point. Some were fired, some left for family reasons or other opportunities. Most continued to fly in some capacity or another. Only five pilots hired prior to 1920 flew continuously with the Post Office until it pulled out of the flying business. By that time Lester Bishop, E. Hamilton Lee, “Slim” Lewis, Jack Knight, and Robert Ellis had become the bedrock of the service.

Numbers and statistics are very subjective. Why make 1923 a cutoff year, not 1922 or 1924. Why count all employees and not just pilots? Why not? Statistics alone can be next to worthless. But statistics can become an excellent starting point for discussion, observations, and understanding.

Boeing: The Basics

The Wright and Curtiss corporations spearheaded aviation development in the early teens, but Boeing was not far behind.  The book the company published for their 75th anniversary, Year by Year:  75 Years of Boeing History, provides a good overview of how it began, and how it took over a nearly 2,000 mile air mail route in 1927.

In 1916, William Boeing piloted a seaplane designed by himself and a friend, Navy engineer Conrad Westervelt, over Lake Union in Washington State.  A month later, on July 15th, Boeing incorporated the Pacific Aero Products Company of Seattle.  During World War I, the company sold planes to the Navy.

Like many airplane companies, Boeing struggled after the war and managed to stay in business by producing furniture.  Following the war, the military ceased purchasing new aircraft, and the planes that they did have hit the market at rock bottom rates, making it difficult to sell new planes.  The romantic image of the barnstormer, purchasing a war surplus Curtis “Jenny” for $100, then traveling to towns across the country giving rides and performing aerobatic feats did not help the  up and coming airplane manufacturers.  Even the Post Office preferred to purchase war surplus planes and bargain rates rather than invest in new aircraft.  This is why the DeHavilliand DH-4 became the workhorse of the new service.

Boeing survived, and managed to keep its hand in aviation by modifying existing aircraft for the army, for example switching the engine and the pilot’s cockpit in the aforementioned DH-4.  It also received contracts to build planes from other designers.  By 1924, Boeing had survived the worst of the postwar oversupply slump, and began receiving contracts to build and design their own planes.

In January 1927, when Boeing won the bid for the contract, his friend Eddie Hubbard was already flying mail from Seattle, the company’s headquarters, to Victoria, British Colombia.  But the segment of the route from Chicago to San Francisco solidly established Boeing as an aviation powerhouse.

In 1929, Boeing demonstrated the significance of the continual changes in aviation by creating United Aircraft and Transport as a holding company which handled the air mail and passenger service, while the main company continued to focus on airplane development.  The split became complete in 1934, after all commercial airlines briefly lost air mail privileges due to accusations of collusion with the Post Office, rather than open bidding for routes.  The Army Air Corps took over flying the mail with much  less reliable and disastrous results…leading to the initial companies temporarily getting their routes back.  Companies were forced to reestablish themselves with new names and new leadership before rebidding on contracts.  Under the new guidelines, a company could not build planes and operate commercial airlines, so United officially became its own company.

Of course Boeing continued to develop planes.  When the companies split, some of the air mail pilots who worked there continued to fly for United, and some continued with Boeing as test pilots or company managers.  As I have stated in previous blogs, many air mail pilots test flew bombers for the company during World War II, either because they still worked there or they came back.

But my primary interest in the Boeing timeline is the air mail service…the years between 1927 and 1934.  Seven years seems like such a short time, but Boeing, and later United became crucial to the development of civilian aviation.

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