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.

The Big and the Small–So many pieces

I’ve talked about this before, but given everything going on in the world right now, it seems relevant to focus again on how the success of the Air Mail Service depended on a lot of people on a lot of different levels.  Federal, state, and local governments all played their roll.  Additionally, social organizations like the American Legion and Chambers of Commerce were invaluable.  Finally, there were individuals who either took time for the service or stepped up at a critical moment.  The air mail service is made up of all of these stories, and would not have been possible without them.  It is also comprised of less than stellar performances and failures, which are present in any endeavor.

The Air Mail Service began when Postmaster General Albert Burleson finagled some money from Congress to start a daily aerial postal run between Washington DC and New York City, with a stop in Philadelphia.  This was initially done by the army air corps and Major Reuben H. Fleet was tasked with finding planes and creating air fields in three weeks.  He was able to special order a JN-4 plane, or Jenny, with some modifications to allow it to transport mail.

The star pilot, Lt. George Boyle, was selected because he was engaged to the daughter of an Interstate Commerce Commissioner, rather than for his aviation skills.  When he initiated the service in May of 1918, Boyle immediately followed the wrong set of railroad tracks, got lost, and found himself south of Washington DC.  It was a comical beginning to what would become the foundation of American Aviation.

The Army and the Post Office didn’t always get along, which led to the Post Office hiring its own pilots (mostly from the Army Air Corps) and running the service directly.  Burleson and his Second Assistant Postmaster, Otto Praeger, wanted to create a transcontinental air mail route.  Representatives went to potential landing sites, and convinced locals that aviation was the future, and that they didn’t want to miss out.  In most cases, individual towns shouldered the costs of a landing field and airplane hanger to bring the new service to town.  Organizations led fund drives to bring air mail to their respective towns.

The pilots faced a dangerous and often deadly task.  They flew by sight, so a patch of fog could easily get a pilot lost or cause them to run into a mountain.  Elmer Sperry became one of the earliest inventors of aircraft control and navigation equipment.  By the mid 1920s, pilots were experimenting with and using his bank and turn indicator, making the fog banks less dangerous.  This helped cement the permanence of air mail, as annual battles with Congress over funding threatened the continuation of the service more than once.

James Edgerton was tasked with erecting radio equipment at the airfields, allowing pilots to get some indication of what the weather was up ahead, and allowing staff to know when a pilot should arrive at specific locations.  This became a critical part of the big picture.

Individual pilots ultimately made the decision to get into the planes and fly.  Actually, sometimes they made the decision not to get into planes and fly, pushing for the ability to make their own determinations regarding the weather conditions.  The pilots found the best path from field to field, and getting the mail from coast to coast with increasing speed.  And the wives who put up with them.

And there are of course the people who inadvertently got caught up in the action.  The farmers who drove pilots and mail to the nearest town when a plane crashed or a pilot landed due to bad weather.

The list of people invaluable to the service could go on for pages.  Airport managers, mechanics, office staff, light beacon operators, and the like each played their role.  And without any of them the Air Mail Service could not have succeeded.

“Tex” Marshall Looks Back

There comes a time when all of us face decisions regarding the future.  For many airline pilots, that decision came in 1927, when the Post Office transferred the remaining air mail routes to private corporations.  From Chicago to San Francisco, this was Boeing.  And RC “Tex” Marshall decided that rather than transfer to Boeing, which many of the pilots did, he would strike out on his own…and did rather successfully, but that’s another blog.

Marshall, one of the few pilots who was not in the Army Air Corps in World War I, began flying the mail in 1920 and at one time or another flew every route between Cleveland and San Francisco.  But from 1924 to 1927, he lived in Reno, flying between there and Salt Lake City.  And in February of 1958, Flying magazine featured an article where he describes flying over the old route on the way to a pilot’s reunion.  At the time he lived on a ranch near Milnesand, New Mexico.  By most people’s standards, this would qualify as “the middle of nowhere.”

Marshall’s article describes how times changed.  Instead of craning his head out of the window with a helmet and goggles he sat looking through “a bay window into heaven.”  The Great Salt Lake was getting smaller.  A control tower gave directions instead of a pilot just locating the wind sock and landing at will.  When landing at Elko he talks about the paved runways replacing the dirt strip with a wooden bridge in the middle.  

But the article also highlights how much these early pilots relied on their observations and how much they remained tied to the earth.  Marshall notes many specific landmarks learned over dozens of flights through the same terrain.  Like visiting an old friend he talks about a particular ravine in the Ruby Mountains that he flew through to avoid the worst of the wind and weather.  He once flew so close to the ground during a storm that he saw a woman come out of her house and watched him go by.  He spoke of scaring coyotes and shooting brown bears with the issued .45 (with no hope of actually hitting one).  He found the valley where he landed once, which was 70 or 80 miles by trail from the nearest community.  Only the heartiest souls lived out that way.  He also found a cave where an old man would sit and watch him fly by.

Marshall’s recollections are a tribute to the air mail pilots, both the survivors and those that he pays tribute to as he flies across the desolate landscape.



Lester Bishop – Tales of the Snow

Pilots landed in fields across the country, and the stories of their tales abound.  Frightened livestock, startled farmers, crowds of curious individuals, and other adventures often met them.  But the most adventurous stories in my mind are those of the pilots who crashed in the western United States during the winter.  Lester Bishop began flying in 1918, and ended up on the western route.

In December of 1922, Bishop was the first pilot to spot the downed plane of Henry Boonstra.  Boonstra had crashed on Porcupine Ridge near Coalville, Utah.  His assertion that he saw a flying suit near the airplane was seen as evidence that Boonstra survived the crash and would be found.  A day later he was found safely.

The following year it was Bishop’s turn.  He crashed about ten miles west of Lymon, Wyoming in three feet of snow.  According to the Omaha World-Herald he walked ten miles in search of help before being spotted by Robert Ellis, who picked him up and took him to Rock Springs.

Landing in the snow was always a tricky business.  Even if a pilot landed safely, reaching civilization or at least a house could be a trek of many energy sapping miles.  Their best hope was when they missed their arrival time and their fellow pilots went looking for them.

Walter Hunter – Some Days You Get Lucky

Research is a fickle thing.  Some days you are digging and searching and retyping keywords for searches and following scant threads for hours just to get anything on what you set out to find.  And sometimes, someone is kind enough to do all of the work for you.

A couple of hours ago I was scrolling through my pilot list looking for someone to write about.  I picked out Walter Hunter, who flew for Universal Airlines between Omaha, .Kansas City, and Saint Louis.  In May of 1929, he flew the last Universal Airlines flight out of Fort Crook Airfield.  He was, according to the Omaha World-Herald, scheduled to take the first flight out of the new municipal airport, but when weather delayed the flight he handed the honor off to a colleague.  In October 1929, he made the first night flight between Saint Louis and Omaha.

A quick Google search revealed an extensive article by Robert H. Hayes on Walter Hunter and his three brothers.  It was originally published as a series of four articles in Sparta’s County Journal, a weekly newspaper.  It seemed well researched, he mentions some of his sources, and the facts correspond with what I have, what I was able to find in a brief internet search, and with the history of aviation at the time.

When their father died in 1912, the oldest, Albert, was 15 years old.  He went into Sparta, Illinois to work at the Ford garage.  The boys all ended up working at local coal mines and earned enough to purchase motorcycles.  Every year they rode to Saint Louis, about 60 miles northwest of Sparta, and traded their old ones in for the latest model.  In 1924, on their trip, they spotted several biplanes by the airfield, so they bought one.  John, the second oldest, took flying lessons for a couple of hours then flew the plane home where he taught his brothers.  After practicing, they started a flying circus and went to the surrounding towns to perform tricks and give rides.

I do want to point out that this is a fairly typical story of the time.  A man or group of men would get together with a plane and start flying.  It is also one reason that regulations needed to be established.  Although the Hunter’s proved themselves to be good fliers, they were a group of self taught men who weren’t asked to show credentials.

The story of the Hunters demonstrates another fairly common feature of the early air mail service:  the tendency of some pilots to float in and out of air mail according to circumstances.  Walter began working for Universal Airlines in 1927 or early 1928.  He remained associated with the airline through its incorporation into American Airlines and retired in 1966 as American Airline’s senior jet captain.  This however, did not prevent him from also working with his brothers either with their flying circus.  Also, in June of 1930, the four brothers set an endurance record over Sky Harbor Airport in Northbrook, Illinois by keeping a plane in the air for 553 hours, 41 minutes and 30 seconds.  John and Kenneth flew the “City of Chicago,” the feature plane, while Albert and Walter refueled.  This accomplishment came with a lot of notoriety.

In 1931, Walter was seriously injured while participating the the Cleveland air races.  But in the end, he outlived all the rest.  John died after being hit with a propeller in 1932.  Albert retired from professional flying and died in a roofing accident at his ranch in   Kenneth died while piloting a plane into Oklahoma City in 1974.  Walter died in Saint Louis in 1983.  The legacy of the four brothers can still be found in the Sparta Community Airport – Hunter Field, which they helped establish in 1931.

The biggest piece of luck in finding Walter Hunter was that he and his brothers remained attached to one small town in Illinois, and also the endurance flight record.  The boys were born in that area, they kept returning to that area, and they died with ties to that area.  And in a small town, some things take much more time to fade into history.  Many of my pilots started out either back east or on a farm someplace, and moved onward…usually west or south, to bigger and better things.  Even if they remained attached to their hometowns, they didn’t keep the close association that the Hunters did.

The story of the Hunter brothers involves several themes common to the era:  young men with mechanical interests taking an interest in flight, creating a small flying business, finding a steady job, trying to push boundaries.  It also contains stories of near misses and tragic accidents, both for the fliers and passengers.  And it is one of many stories in the patchwork of American Aviation.


James Duffy: Recording the Story

On September 5, 1925, The Nebraska Farmer magazine featured an article about flying the night mail which was authored by James J. Duffy.  I have used this article many times in my research, as it is well written and contains valuable information on the technical aspects of flying the mail at night.  But I have maintained a curiosity about James Duffy.  Who is he and what qualified him to write about this subject?  He is not listed as an air mail pilot on the Smithsonian Postal Museum website, and the name is not familiar to me.

A quick review of my notes shows that I found one mention of Duffy in the Omaha World-Herald newspaper.  Pilot Clarence Gilbert died in a crash in Illinois in December of 1924.  The article on his death notes that Duffy accompanied him several times since he began flying the mail the prior August.  The article also said that Duffy was an electric light and field foreman during the summer, and that he inspected air mail fields east and west of Omaha.  At the time Duffy was a junior at the Creighton College of Medicine.

On November 10, 1930, the World-Herald announced that Duffy had married Florence McIlnay, an attendee of Omaha Central High School and the Methodist School of Nursing.  The 1940 census has the Duffys living in Los Angeles.  James is listed as J James Duffy who is a physician and surgeon in private practice.  In 1935 he lived in Dennison Iowa.

Tracking Duffy back from 1925 gets tricky because there were several James Duffys running around Iowa.  A 1928 record of United States Citizens returning from Cobh, Ireland on the ship Dresden mentions James Duffy, born in Holbrook, Iowa in 1902.  The record also lists an Omaha address about a mile from Creighton, so this is likely the Duffy I am tracking.  A James Duffys in the 1910 census is John James Duffy from Troy, which is less than 10 miles from Holbrook.  He is living with two older sisters and his widowed mother who is listed as a farm hand and head of the household.  This may or may not be the correct Duffy, but the information fits.  At the moment it is my working hypothesis.

After sorting through the data, I will return to my original question:  who is James Duffy?  He appears to be the son of Irish immigrants, likely farmers, who were living in Iowa.  He seems to have been born in 1903 or 1904.  In the early 1920s he decided to go to medical school at the Jesuit college in Omaha.  He had some mechanical talent, at least enough to satisfy the Post Office, and began inspecting fields and light beacons.  Most likely this would have earned him a little extra money while in school, and it may also have provided him a way to get home to visit his mother.

In August of 1924, Clarence Gilbert began flying the mail for the Post Office, and Duffy frequently rode with him.  Duffy decided to write an article about his experiences “after being deluged with all sorts of questions” from friends and “during my many stops on maintenance.”  Specifically he focused on the nuts and bolts of how the system operated.  I, for one, am glad that he did.

Edward Maroney–Peeling back layers

Edward Maroney is one of those pilots who make me wish that I had unlimited time and resources to go gallivanting about the United States.  Internet research, remarkable as it is, only takes one so far.  But, every story has a beginning, so I’ll start with what I have.

Maroney was born in Wyoming in 1898–the only son of Irish immigrants who moved to Cheyenne in the early 1880s.  His father, Patrick, spent 30 years working for Union Pacific as a carpenter.  The earliest mention I could find of Maroney was in the Wyoming Tribune which mentions that he participated in a violin recital in 1908, which would have made him ten.

Maroney’s draft card from 1918 has him employed as a clerk for the Union Pacific Railroad.  I wonder if this was considered to be an essential civil service, since I have not come across a mention of his having served in the military.

In June of 1920, Maroney and Captain Collin MacKenzie flew into town with a plane for the Southern Wyoming Aircraft Corporation.  I haven’t been able to find out much about the organization.  I would guess that it was one of the several flying companies that sprang up following World War I as planes and pilots became more readily available.

Maroney ran into some legal trouble later in the year.  That August he, MacKenzie, and a third man were found drunk with a 16 year old girl in Laramie.  Maroney was fined $200 for liquor possession (this was Prohibition after all), and MacKenzie would be in jail for over a month before a prosecutor dropped  rape charge.  The company was still operating in September when, according to the Wyoming State Tribune, Maroney and Frank Yager test flew the company’s new Curtiss airplane and ran into a flock of ducks.

Maroney’s hook up with Yager is the first sign of contact with the air mail service.  Maroney first signed on with the service, according to the Smithsonian’s Postal Museum Website, in August of 1921.  He left in February of 1922 before being rehired that April and remaining with the Post Office until it turned the service over to private contractors in 1927.

If I was writing a screenplay based on the above facts, I would have MacKenzie teach Maroney, who was a pretty good mechanic, how to fly.  Then the company would have some trouble–financial, poor management, or personality differences seem like good choices.  Maroney’s friend Yager would put him a good word for him with the Post Office and he would try that out.  Then there would be one more go with the old company before the whole thing fell through, and Maroney was left with the Post Office, the best game in town.

Going back to what I know…Maroney bounced around between Cheyenne and Rock Springs.  I would guess that his Wyoming ties made him ideal…Wyoming, unlike Chicago or San Francisco, was not a prime destination.  Also, its rugged terrain made it more dangerous than the Great Plains.  Maroney had a wife, but the census records never mentioned any children.

Sometime after 1930, Maroney left Wyoming.  According to the 1940 census he was in Portland Oregon, but had been in Seattle in 1935.  It is possible that his move to Seattle had something to do with Boeing, since that was their headquarters at the time and they controlled the Wyoming portion of the air mail route.  I have no idea why he moved to Seattle, but the last newspaper mention that I could find was from the Nyssa City Gate Journal in 1945, which mentions ES Maroney, from the board of the Civil Aviation Authority, speaking in Baker.

I wish I could spend a month in Wyoming finding out about the Southern Wyoming Aircraft Corporation, and see if someone in Rock Springs has any information on Maroney.  I wish I could go to the Oregon historical society and see what they have on aviation.  I wish I knew when and where Maroney learned to fly.

“Slim” Lewis, Still in Cheyenne

I am beginning to notice a pattern with my air mail pilots.  Almost none of those who flew over the Great Plains stayed there.  They moved on sooner or later.  Some went to Florida, some to California.  The most noteworthy exception is HT “Slim” Lewis, who bought a ranch near Cheyenne and died there in 1965 at the age of 70.

Lewis was one of the early air mail pilots.  The most colorful tale about him comes from Dean Smith’s book “By the Seat of My Pants.”  Smith claims that once Lewis got drunk, then pushed aside a couple of mechanics who tried to prevent him from getting into an airplane.  Smith said that Lewis could “drink more and fly better than anyone else I knew.”  Historian William Leary discounted the story as exaggeration.

At any rate, Lewis, having been one of the first half dozen licensed pilots in the country, continued to gain experience.  By 1930 he had flown more than 7,000 hours.  He became one of several air mail pilots to test fly bombers for Boeing during World War II.  According to his find a grave obituary, Lewis felt that as planes improved, part of the fun went out of flying.  Perhaps he is right, although most people flying today would probably forgo “fun” that included landing in rivers, blindly groping through fog, or landing a plane miles from the nearest house.

Perhaps that’s why Lewis stayed in Wyoming.  California or Florida had more people, more civilization.  Lewis continued to enjoy the rugged individuality and challenges of the western world.


William Votaw: From Rail to Air to Sea

For some men, the air mail service became their career for at least a good chunk of their life. For a decades they devoted their lives to the air. But for others, flight became a stepping stone on a larger career path. Such is the case of William Votaw, who ended up preferring the sea to the air.

Votaw was born in 1888 in Indiana. His father, Clarence, taught school at one point (at least according to the 1880 Census), but an 1889 register of government employees (thank you Googlebooks) and subsequent Census records record his career as a railway mail clerk. Young William grew up the son of a career Post Office employee. Apparently he decided to follow suit since the 1910 census lists both father and son living in Indiana and working for the US government as mail clerks.

At some point, William Votaw must have decided to expand his horizons. In 1913 (Ellis Island Passenger List) he was living near the Hudson River in New York. He married in 1914, took at least one trip to England and one to Puerto Rico, and by 1918 (draft card) he was working at Penn Station as a railway mail clerk. He claimed exemption from the draft as he was a member of the Society of Friends.

Votaw must have impressed someone, because the Post Office decided to send the 32 year old, to Omaha, Nebraska to manage the new airport at Aksarben. For two years, Votaw became the face of Omaha aviation. He spoke to the newspapers about the latest happenings, such as the removal of Junkers from the air mail service and how the service might be affected by a pilot’s resignation. Official comments from Aksarben’s airport had his name attached.

Votaw dealt with the tragedies. In May of 1920, he investigated the crash in Iowa that killed William McCandless, and escorted the body back to Washington D.C. When Walter Bunting died in a crash in Wyoming, Votaw met the body in Omaha as it passed through on its trip to New Jersey.

And of course Votaw handled day to day operations at the airfield. He lit bonfires to help pilots land when weather made it difficult to see the landing field. He probably rolled his eyes when Kimball, Nebraska sent a request to have mail pilots throw the town’s mail out of the plane as they flew over. He oversaw radio communications, and received permission to transmit non aviation information, such as weather reports.

But the air mail service became just another rung on his career ladder in November 1921, when William Votaw returned to New York to work in the Sea Service. J.T. King, chief mechanic, took his place at the airfield. No clear reasons are given for Votaw’s leaving. I would speculate that Omaha was a small city at the time, and perhaps New York and the ocean were in his blood. Perhaps there were differences of opinion between him and higher management. In any event, his time in Omaha helped shape the course of the airport.

Ellis Island is, with good reason, strongly associated with immigration, but citizens on the boats are also recorded on passenger lists. I assume that Votaw’s work involved the Caribbean, since he made at least 10 trips to Puerto Rico in 1922 and 1923. At least once his wife accompanied him.

In 1929, Votaw became a special representative with the US Merchant Marines. And he traveled, probably mostly for work and occasionally for pleasure. He regularly shows up on the Ellis Island passenger lists until 1955. He died in 1984, and his wife lived until 1988. Despite having spent 75 years of their lives in New York, the Votaw’s returned to Indiana and were buried in Indianapolis. It appears that they are buried with Mrs. Votaw’s relatives.

In my mind, I compare William Votaw to Carl Egge. Both were long time Post Office employees, who did the important ground work required to keep pilots flying. Egge’s brief stint with the air mail service capped off the end of a solid career as a Post Office employee, and Votaw’s time be came a stepping stone fairly early in his career as he move on to other things. Such men remind us to thank the managers, the pencil pushers, the organizers who have to see the entire picture in order to keep everything moving.

L.L. Bowen – Answers and Questions

With many air mail pilots, I find that the more I learn the less I know. Or rather, I gain enough knowledge to expose the holes in the story. The Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum site shows that he worked for the Post Office from July 10, 1925 to April 5, 1927. He flew 946 hours and 93,948 miles and “little is known of L.L. Bowen’s career other than his dates of service.” In terms of his Post Office career, I agree. Which probably means that he showed up for work flew his route, and came home. It is likely that he was based in Omaha, possibly flying from Omaha to Cheyenne. But this is purely based on Omaha World Herald articles mentioning him flying that route for Boeing later on.  Census records and articles from the World-Herald and Chicago Tribune begin to paint a picture of his career, but there are several holes not filled in.

In the late 1890s, Bowen is born in Mount Sterling in Brown County, Illinois to a barber and his wife. The 1900 census shows them living in a rental house. Ten years later the family owned their own farm.  During World War I Bowen joined the army, learned to fly, and became a flying instructor at Kelly Field.  When did his interest in the air start?  What caused him to pursue such a dangerous career?  As I said, there are a lot of questions.

After the war, Bowen came home to Brown County and married Miss Naomi Jones. They prepared to settle down. In 1920, Bowen had his own garage, indicating an interest in mechanics.  Sometime between 1920 and 1925 Bowen heard about the opportunities available with the Post Office, and in 1925 joined their ranks.  In 1927, when the Post Office contracted the San Francisco to Chicago route to Boeing, Bowen began working for Boeing.  If he was not it Omaha at that time, he moved there.

Generally speaking, Bowen seems to have had an uneventful career, a testament to the increasing reliability of planes.  He did have a couple of incidents which did deserve mention in the newspaper.  In 1927 he landed at Wann when fog prevented him from reaching Fort Crook. After a few hours the fog cleared and he continued on. In 1928 he flew to Marquette to pick up the mail from Frank Yager’s wrecked plane. In 1930 he served as a pallbearer for Charles Kenwood.

Bowen adapted to his new environment. In May of 1928 he was involved in discussions for an aerial taxi service based out of Omaha. The next month thieves stole his car and when they forgot to set the parking break it went over a cliff in Mandan park. His wife became active in the community, and in January of 1929 Naomi Bowen was elected President of the auxiliary Martin-Graves post of Bellevue’s American Legion.

But the married couple went through some difficult times.  Between 1930 and 1934 the couple divorced.  Perhaps the strain of the pilot’s time away from home played a roll.  Perhaps Mrs. Bowen missed family and friends.  Perhaps Mr. Bowen got a roving eye.  The incident did not reach the front page status that the earlier divorces of William Hopson and L. Garrison had, so one can only speculate.  Mrs. Bowen and the children returned to Illinois, while she seems to have tried to find work and found support from her relatives.

L.L. Bowen ended up leaving Omaha, remarrying, and working out of Chicago for Braniff Airlines (in some order).  On December 9, 1934, he lost control of his plane near Columbia, Missouri.  Some pilots speculated that ice on the wings contributed to his crashing into a road embankment, but it is impossible to know for certain.  The fatal accident ended a solid flying career.

Despite the remarriage, someone arranged for Bowen’s remains to be returned to Brown County for burial.  Although flying had become safer, it still had its risks.  So tip your hat to another aviator killed in the line of duty.





Blog at

Up ↑