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.