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.

Earl Woodgard: The New Analysis of the Crash

While reviewing Earl Woodgard’s history, it struck me how his crash demonstrates how far crash investigation and reporting had come since the beginning of the age of flight.  Fundamentally, the question is the same…why did the plane fall out of the sky.  However in 1920, pilots had few instruments, and nothing recorded information.  So the logical deductions, such as that “Dinty” Moore crashed into a Wyoming mountain in 1923, the best information was that visibility was low and he was focused on the train tracks that he was following.

By 1938, however, much more information was available, both from inside and outside the plane.  The full report from the Civil Aeronautics Bureau is available at

Radio communication had become a standard part of transportation by that time, so the investigation was able to track the plane’s progress fairly closely.  The cockpit information included the plane’s altitude, so investigators could verify that the plane was flying consistently at 10,000 feet.  It also noted that one of the light beacons was not functioning and that radio transmissions were spotty in the mountains.  The verdict was that the plane was 15 miles off course and crashed into a mountain.

The report includes information that we are accustomed to seeing today, such as when the pilot had their last physical, and mechanical details of the aircraft.  It also notes witness reports and specific radio contact with Cheyenne and Salt Lake City.  The weather may have caused some radio static, particularly at the checkpoint shortly before the plane crashed which might have let Woodgard know that he was off course.

There are probably some reports on the crashes of the early air mail pilots in the National Archives in Washington DC.  But crash investigations weren’t as comprehensive before the 1930s.  Knute Rockne’s plane crash in 1931 helped bring the need for investigations to national prominence.

Comparing information once again demonstrates how the air mail service serves as a link between rudimentary flight practices, and something more sophisticated.  Most crash after about 1934 have a report with a detailed analysis of what might have gone wrong.  It is just one more sign of the modern age.

Earl Woodgard: The Second Wave

Earl Woodgard didn’t make the first round of air mail pilots.  He never flew for the Post Office, but was hired by Boeing when it acquired the Chicago to San Francisco portion of the route in 1927.  He was born in Ohio in 1898, and he ended up in Cheyenne, where he was based out of when he crashed into the mountains of southeast Utah in 1937.

Earl Woodgard, like many of the original air mail pilots, served in the US Army Air Corps in World War I.  According to Findagrave, he served with the 91st Aero Squadron.  Prior to the war he had been working in Frederickton, Ohio for the Ohio Mining Company as a weighmaster.  After the war, he apparently continued some military aviation training.  The 1920 census lists him at the Air Service flying school at March Field in Riverside, California.  After his army career, he was one of hundreds of men across the country who purchased a Jenny aircraft and began a life of barnstorming and miscellaneous aviation activities.  Various newspaper articles have him wing walking in Oregon in 1921, setting a parachute record with four men jumping from the same plane in California in 1921, dropping campaign material for an Ohio Secretary of State Candidate in 1924, and flying a pleasure craft for a Mr. Hinder in Ohio in 1924.

Although Woodgard’s life seemed anything but geographically stable, he married Ester Johnson in 1922.  Whatever aerial activities he became involved in must have been enough to support a family.   I’m not sure when and where Woodgard decided to fly for Boeing, but the Post Office’s contracting of the air mail routes was big news at the time.

There isn’t a lot of information about many details of Woodgards life, just pieces here and there.  An Omaha World Herald article in 1929 mentioned that he barnstormed in 20 states and had over 2,000 hours in the air at that time.  In 1931 engine problems while taking off at North Platte, Nebraska led to him making a forced landing in the Platte River, which ran along the edge of the field.  Apparently undeterred, he got in a reserve plane and continued on to Cheyenne.  In March of 1932, he averaged 192 miles per hour from North Platte to Omaha, with three passengers and 970 pounds of mail.

Woodgard liked photography, telling jokes, and apparently wide open spaces.  According to a World-Herald article from the time of his death, he planned to retire to Jackson Hole Wyoming and continue his photographic endeavors when his flying days were done.  But it was not to be.  Woodgard, along with three other crew members and 15 passengers died when he got a few miles off course during the flight from Rock Springs, Wyoming to Salt Lake City and crashed into a mountain.  His wife returned to Ohio.  The 1940 census has her living with her brother.  Woodgard was buried in Cheyenne.

Woodgard’s life is one more piece of the mosaic which is the development of flight.  One piece that talks about moving from place to place, wanting to settle down, keeping long distance ties with family, and day by day, flight by flight, moving the idea of aviation from a technology with unknown possibilities to a fact of every day life.

Harvey Weir Cook: Looking for the Action

Much of the leadership in World War II came out of the destruction of World War I.  Dwight Eisenhower was running a tank training camp in Pennsylvania.  Chester Nimitz was chief engineer of a ship, then became an aide to a rear admiral.  During the next war, most of these men contributed their invaluable wisdom and strength behind the scenes, although there were exceptions like Theodore Roosevelt Jr, who had volunteered in World War I and fought in France.  During the second World War, General Roosevelt let troops in battle in North Africa then insisted on landing at Normandy with his men.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, many of air mail pilots and former pilots came to serve their country during World War II.  Most served in civilian roles, such as test flying the bombers coming out of the Boeing plants.  Several already worked for Boeing, and others hired on to perform the task.

Harvey Weir Cook was not content to stay at home.   He was born in 1892 in Wilkinson, Indiana, a small town about 30 miles east of Indianapolis.  In 1917, Cook went to France and enlisted in the French Army as an ambulance driver.  When the United States entered the war, Cook was assigned to the 94th Pursuit Squadron, better known as the “Hat In The Ring” Squadron which included Eddie Rickenbacker.  He became an ace and earned the Distinguished Service Cross.

Cook joined the air mail service in August of 1920, as it was preparing to launch the new transcontinental route.  He only flew the mail until December of 1920.  I can’t find information on why he only served for a few months, but I have a couple of thoughts.  Cook served in the western division, flying west out of Cheyenne.  This was a difficult section of the route with few natural landmarks.  Combat flying during the war was no easy feat, but I can imagine flying over the desolate Wyoming landscape going into December and wondering if this is really the best career option.  Also, Cook had strong ties to Indiana.  He was a member of the Indiana National Guard, worked in aviation, and spent his spare time promoting aviation in Indianapolis.  He helped the city create its first airport and successfully pushed for Indianapolis to be a stop along the transcontinental air mail route.

Cook had devoted his life to aviation.  So when World War II erupted, it is not surprising that Cook wanted to be involved.  He took after Theodore Roosevelt Jr., in that he refused to sit behind the scenes.  He lobbied for a front line assignment and was sent to New Caledonia, an island northwest of Australia where the United States had an air base.  He died in a crash on the island in 1943 and was buried in Hawaii.

Cook’s legacy lives on in Indianapolis, the place where he devoted so much of his time.  The Indianapolis airport was initially named after him.  Although it was eventually renamed the Indianapolis National Airport, a terminal is named after him and it is located on Col. H Weir Cook Memorial Drive.   Although Cook was one of many aviators who passed through the air mail service en route to other achievements, his experience helped the Post Office ensure that they had the manpower to carry the mail from coast to coast during the launch of that endeavor.  In 2015 a statue of Weir Cook was erected near the entrance to the Indianapolis Airport.  It is a fitting tribute to a man who devoted his life, and eventually gave it up, in the name of flight.


Where you’re from and where you’re going

The sample size is pretty small, but growing.  And the interesting thing is seeing who left home and never looked back, who maintained ties, and who found their way back home.  Flying the mail, especially early on was a tricky business.  Stanhope Boggs was fortunate enough to be from San Francisco, the terminus of the route.  Most fliers weren’t so lucky.

Clarence Brauckman flew the mail for three months in 1920 before returning to Denver.  However, in 1926 when an airmail route was created between Pueblo, Colorado and Cheyenne with stops in Colorado Springs and Denver, Brauckman flew that route. (Colorado Magazine, May 1943).  Now, returning to Denver may not have been his primary objective.  He could have decided that flying the mail in 1920 was just a little too crazy even for a flier.

Jack Knight was from Buchanan, Michigan, and although he never lost touch with Michigan, he spent most of his time between Omaha and Cheyenne.  Although in some cases, such as his father’s death, his plane could get him home pretty quickly.

Then there were those who left home and didn’t look back.  According to William Leary’s book “Aerial Pioneers” E. Hamilton Lee described himself as a North Dakota wheat farmer who didn’t drink.  Apparently North Dakota didn’t appeal to Lee.  He ended up in California.  Although, according to findagrave and online articles, Lee did have his ashed buried in North Dakota next to his parents.

I find it interesting that when “Dinty” Moore died he was buried next to his wife’s family in Utah rather than his own in Texas.

In short, air mail pilots are like any other group of people.  Some tried to stay home, some didn’t seem to care, some probably wandered as far away from home as they could get.  I have sometimes wondered if “Allie” Allison’s ventures to China weren’t in some way related to the deaths of his young son and his wife.  At any rate, he had little to tie him to Omaha, Nebraska at that point.

So pilots enjoyed flying, but not always because they were trying to fly away from something.  Some maintained happy and successful careers near their friends and family.  Some didn’t, either because the job opportunities didn’t suit them or because they didn’t feel the ties that others did.



To my Scouting Friends: Edmund Allen

Growing up, my brother and I each got one magazine. I got National Geographic World and he got Boy’s Life, the magazine of the then Boy Scouts. And when I was done reading my magazine, I would read his. The magazine has had articles covering a wide variety of topics since 1911, and fortunately in July 1929, Edmund Allen contributed with a detailed account of the potential dangers of flying through the mountains.

Allen began flying west out of Cheyenne with a puppy that was insulated from the cold as best as possible with sacks and the mail. He describes circling the field several times to allow himself to become accustomed to the darkness, then hitting a patch of fog on the snowy night. Radio reports between Cheyenne and Rock Springs indicated clearing skies, so Allen thought that he could make it through.

Allen describes fighting the fear of flying without being able to see beyond his plane or knowing precisely how much distance lay between him and the ground. He describes using a combination of his altimeter and his bank and turn indicator, as well as his knowledge of the route, to remain on course. He also discusses the challenges and interpretation required while flying with instruments. The compass needle would continually swing back and forth. A bank and turn indicator determines if the plane is turning, but not how far or if you are on course. The altimeter indicates how much the plane has risen compared to where it started, but not how high above the ground it is. Allen was concerned because when he last spotted the ground he was only 30 feet above it, and although he had climbed 200 feet, the ground was rising at roughly that rate.

Allen describes how he dismissed the option of turning back, since it was probably more likely that he would crash while attempting to turn around than that he would crash while continuing to fly forward. Also, going forward he could make an educated guess as to where he was…he had no such assurance if he took the plane off course. He also discusses the dangers of ice on the plane…accumulation preventing his plane from gaining altitude as fast as it usually did by adding about 500 pounds of weight.

Allen finally saw the stars, indicating that he had risen above the fog. Since he was out of the moisture, the ice evaporated, and Allen continued on his way.

Allen began flying the mail in 1925, and went on to work for Boeing. He became a well respected test pilot in Seattle. Unfortunately, in February of 1943, he was test flying an XB-29 prototype Superfortress bomber (Smithsonian Postal Museum website) when a fire broke out. According to the Seattle times, Allen continued to pilot the plane, attempting to fly it away from buildings on the ground. However, he crashed into the Frye and company packing plant killing himself, ten other crewmen, and nineteen workers in the packing plant. Allen left behind a wife and two children. It was a tragic end for a man who had been able to fly blindly through the mountains to deliver some packages and a dog.

Stalking Irwin Amberg

As with many air mail pilots, stalking Irwin Amberg presents some challenges.  Amberg only flew the mail for about two months, from the end of July to the end of September, 1920, according to the on line Post Office records.  Although I can’t find actual documentary evidence linking him to the Irwin Amberg who, according to the Washington DC Evening Star, was appointed as a Lieutenant in the Army Air Corps, I assume that they are the same individual.

That being said, this is what I can say about Mr. Amberg.  Amberg was born in 1897 or 1898 in Michigan (census records).  Ambrose served in the US Army Signal Reserve during World War I (DC Evening Star, Feb 1927).  Afterwords he found his way to San Francisco and was listed as an aviator in a boarding house in the 1920 Census.  Between his military and aviation connections he heard about the air mail service and signed up.

On August 26, 1920, Amberg flew from Chicago to Omaha in 3 hours and 55 minutes.  He had just taken the place of William de Wald, who resigned.  Amberg himself resigned just a month later, likely because of his army appointment.  In 1922 he scouted an air route from Dayton to Miami for the army.

February 1927, Amberg resigned from the Army Signal Corps.  In April, Mr. and Mrs. Fred Whelpley announced in the Boston Herald that Amberg was marrying their daughter Alma and that the couple would reside in Detroit.  In 1940 the couple was living in Grosse Point, Michigan, just north of Detroit.  He is listed as an independent aviator.

Right now, I can’t really track him down after that.  It seems like was just another World War I recruit who wanted to keep flying.  Somewhere in San Francisco he met up with the Post Office and had a job for a few months before the army called him back.  And at the time, it very well may have been the better deal.

The Aerial View–A New Concept

Today, we don’t often ponder the incredible things that have come out of aerial views.  With satellite photography, which manifests itself in Google maps and the like, we can get an intricate view of pretty much anything from a high vantage point.  Of course man has always been trying to get as high as possible.  Crow’s nests in ships allowed people to look out for obstacles, whales, or land.  And the first military application of hot air balloons was sending them up in an attempt to discern what was going on behind enemy lines.  And one of the first uses for airplanes in World War I was to fly over specified sections of ground to track the enemy’s movements.  But when the Post Office began flying the air mail the new aerial world was still an unexplored and experimental place.

Not all pilots were cut out for aerial navigation.  The first air mail pilot to fly out of Washington DC, Lieutenant George Boyle, was selected for the honor based on his political connections, or rather those of his fiancee.  On his first flight he followed the incorrect set of railroad tracks and headed south rather than north toward Philadelphia and New York.  He ran low on gas and crash landed.  The Post Office gave him one more opportunity where he was escorted to the coastline and told to follow the Chesapeake Bay.  Which he did to the point of following the curve back south and once again failing to reach his destination…or even the proximity of his destination.

The pilots who became the core of the service found the railroads, towns, rivers, and other landmarks which would guide them from coast to coast.  Even so there were difficulties.  James Christiansen’s death over Cleveland can largely be attributed to his unfamiliarity with the area combined with fog and a small airport.  When William McCandless died over Iowa it is apparent based on his location that the pilot had gotten off course.

In today’s world of GPS, maps of every size and shape, and detailed aerial photography available for most settled parts of the globe it is difficult to comprehend what a truly epic endeavor the Post Office set out on when it started sending dozens of young men across the country through the air.  Some sections were easier…much of Nebraska was navigated by following the famous Platte River Road.  Some sections were more difficult.  But all posed their challenges, and when thinking of the Air Mail Service it is important to consider how much the world of navigation has changed.

W.A. Yackey-Casestudy in Going Private

Wilfred Yackey falls into the class of men I dub “aviators” as opposed to hard core air mail pilots. He was born to the children of German immigrants in 1890. He must have been reasonably athletic…the Saint Louis Republic newspaper lists him as one of nine children, out of about 40, who won an award for meeting certain athletic requirements, such as running 100 meters in under 14 seconds.

When World War I broke out, Yackey counted himself among a group of men across the country who, in search of adventure or with a sense of justice, crossed the Atlantic to participate in the conflict. In 1914, he joined the Italian Air Force. When the United States entered the fray, he went over to the US Army.

After the war, Yackey flew with the airmail for about a year, from 1921 to 1922, during which time he married an old friend from high school. Perhaps the regularity of the service did not agree with his sense of adventure. Perhaps he wanted to be his own boss. At any rate, when the Post Office left Checkerboard Field to fly the Chicago mail into the newly built field across the street, Yackey went private and began giving lessons and modifying war surplus planes at Checkerboard. He eventually bought the field.

The Omaha World-Herald records a sample of the business which Yackey undertook over the next few years. In August of 1922, Chris Hendrickson, a wealthy rancher from Broken Bow, hired Yackey to fly him from Chicago to Omaha. He said that it cost him around $500.

In November of 1924, one of his pilots rushed pictures of the Nebraska-Notre Dame football game in South Bend to Chicago so that they could be put on the air mail plane. The World-Herald printed the pictures the following morning.

In 1926, a pilot flew out of Checkerboard then dropped his Parker Pen at a height of 3,000 feet. Spectators picked it up, and he was delighted to find that it still worked. Or so the ad for the pen testified.

June of 1927 had an interesting series of events. Yackey flew from Chicago to Omaha as he had been hired to take a passenger, Miss Margaret Shotell, home. He allowed a couple of his old air mail friends to try out the plane, which was one he designed. Later on, two other men who did not have commercial licenses decided to “borrow” it without permission. They had some technical difficulties due to their unfamiliarity with the plane…according to Yackey they thought they ran out of gas because it was using the emergency tank…and landed in Council Bluffs, bending the propeller and damaging a wheel. The department of commerce said that they could not take action against the two men because their normal punishment would be to cancel the pilots license which the men did not have.

Yackey is a good case study of a small aviation business in the early 1920s. In 1927 he was speaking with Charles Lindbergh about again flying mail into Checkerboard. However, in October of that year, Yackey died in crash while testing one of his new planes over Checkerboard field. A wing fell off while Yackey was executing a turn. Since no one stepped up to take over Checkerboard, it ceased to be an airfield and is now a park.

DSC00021.JPG Old Checkerboard Field, now Miller Meadow.

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