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.

A Tribute to the Unknown

One book among my air mail library, which is as good a collection as you’ll find, is “Rudder, Stick, and Throttle: Research and Reminiscences of Flying in Nebraska.” The author, Robert Adwers, was born in 1915, so lived through much of the metamorphosis between planes being a machine that could get off the ground and a common machine, seen every day without a thought. He does do research, particularly in the World Herald Newspaper (which has a lot of aviation information), but the basis of his book is his personal experience.

One item that he mentions is that when Jack Knight came through Omaha on his first night flight in 1921 is that “Mrs. Andrew Bahm, known as the mother of Omaha’s Air Mail Service and who lived across Center Street from Ak-Sar-Ben Field, served lunch and hot coffee to the pilots.” I have read a lot of magazine articles on air mail. I have read the available books that I know about. I have gone through most of the Omaha World-Herald newspapers from the 1920s. This is the only place that I have found that name. It is a bit curious that Adwers has this information, but she doesn’t hit the public records. Or maybe not. A good many of the people who keep the world turning don’t wind up in recorded history. I will continue my search, but for now consider her a person unknown.

A quick search of the World-Herald, along with a search of census records, did not find an Andrew Bahm, or anyone who I would place in that role with certainty. I could be dealing with a misspelling, someone who missed the census taker, a loner, someone who moved around, someone who moved to Omaha after the census in 1920 and had left by 1930. And being “mother of Omaha’s Air Mail Service” probably didn’t involve being the public face of the fundraising or managing the field, or doing anything else that would make her jump out.

My best guess, based on one line in a book, is that Mrs. Bahm, first name unknown which doesn’t help track her down, lived near the airport and was known to the pilots. The planes had a schedule. People knew when planes were supposed to come in and when they did come, people who lived nearby heard them. Maybe Mrs. Bahm spent a lot of time at the field with hot coffee and sandwiches. Maybe a pilot or two dropped into her kitchen before taking off. Maybe she was a tireless fundraiser, but didn’t get a lot of attention.

Although I will continue my search for Mrs. Bahm, as it stands she is a good representation of the barely named and unnamed people who contributed in countless ways to the survival of the service.

Iowa City–Another Example

I have attempted to locate primary resources regarding the Iowa City Airfield, both by contacting the airport itself and by reaching out to the Iowa State Historical Society.  Neither had any original information, but the historical society did send a 43 page history of the airport that was put together in 2007.  In large part the article relies on local newspapers which occasionally contain some degree of embellishment, but in large part are a good resource.  Especially since primary resources from the era are hard to come by.

The story of the Iowa City Airport contains many familiar themes.  When the USPS decided to build an airport, J.A. Jordan came to town and convinced the city to build an airfield.  In this case land was leased from local farmer W.J. Benjamin.  As in other cities, there was talk that if Iowa City did not jump on the bandwagon, another city might pick up the service.  In this case, it was a little bit hard to believe because the main competitors were Davenport and Des Moines.  Iowa City was much closer to being the midpoint between Chicago and Omaha, so it was the more logical choice.  This is in contrast to Omaha where Bellevue, Council Bluffs, and Lincoln, all of which were fairly close, were the competitors.

Iowa City’s Commercial Club, the precursor to the Chamber of Commerce, organized the lease for the Benjamin field, and had a canvas hangar built.  One reason that they got away with the cruder accommodations was that Iowa City was little more than a refueling stop, and typically only held one extra plane.  Hugh Long came to the city from Washington DC to manage the new field.

In the big picture, Iowa City was just one more link in the chain.  Like Bryan, Ohio, North Platte, Nebraska, and Elko, Nevada, it had the field, fuel, and services necessary to keep the mail flowing from New York to San Francisco.  It might not have been glamorous, but the mail couldn’t have gotten through without it.  Hugh Long had kept the lights on for him, allowing him to refuel and continue his epic journey.

The article does make a point of noting that Knight had not flown the mail over this stretch of ground before.  While that is true, Knight had tackled numerous other routes, and given that he was from Michigan, I just can’t imagine that he was completely unfamiliar with the terrain.  I wouldn’t be surprised if he had flown over it before in some capacity.  Which, by the way, does not make the accomplishment of this flight any less remarkable.

In 1922, the Post Office and Commercial Club combined forces to build a new brick and mortar hangar.  At least the article says that the Post Office was to cover part of it.  Given the difficulty other cities had in obtaining reimbursement from the Post Office, it is not outside the realm of possibility that the promise was not kept.  In 1923, the field was lighted as the Post Office continued to advance the boundary of aviation by flying the mail overnight.

As in other cities, changes occurred in Iowa City in the mid 1920s, as commercial airlines took over mail transportation duties from the Post Office.  Boeing took over flying duties in 1927.  Although mail also went to Cedar Rapids, only 30 miles north, Boeing and United Airlines, which came out of Boeing, continued flying the mail into Iowa City into the 1950s.  A smaller commercial airline ceased service in 1972.

Unlike many small towns, the Iowa City airport today continues to thrive.  Although the commercial traffic has been directed to Iowa City, the airport is very busy with general aviation.  It brings in many charter flights, and it is also, according to its Facebook page, home to Jet Air Inc, Care Ambulance.  Much of this activity is connecting with the University of Iowa.

Although it is a much different place now than it was in 1920, Iowa City’s humble beginnings put it on the front lines of the take off of commercial aviation.

Seeking Hoover, Finding MacCracken

At last!!  I got a couple of days off and had time to to stop into President Herbert Hoover’s Presidential Library in West Branch Missouri.  The museum itself is a wonderful stop, with several good exhibits on the incredibly diverse life of our 31st President.  Behind it is a small historic district with several structures, including the house Hoover was born in and a traditional Quaker meeting house.  Behind that its the small downtown with a couple of bars, and a couple of places to grab a bit to eat.

But I wasn’t there for all of the trimmings, I went to West Branch in search of the archives.  According to the archivist, I was not the first seeking aviation information.  The Hoover Library has several collections in addition to Hoover’s, including that of William P MacCracken Jr., a Chicago lawyer who had joined the Army Air Service in World War I.  After the war, MacCracken became instrumental in aviation development.  He helped to write the air commerce act of 1926, and he became the first Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Aeronautics, reporting to Hoover, then Secretarcy of Commerce.

MacCracken was key to improving aviation laws, such as air traffic control and regulations.  The main reason that people look through MacCracken’s papers is because of his role in the 1932 air mail fiasco, where the federal government pulled all commercial airmail contracts and had woefully unready Army Air Corps planes take over the mail routes.  MacCracken, Postmaster General Walter Brown, and the largest flying companies of the time, including Boeing, Transcontinental, and Robertson had met in 1930, after the passage of the Watres Act.  These companies were awarded the majority of the routes, a move which many smaller airlines considered unfair.

MacCracken’s papers on this subject, including legal briefings, take up several boxes at the Hoover Library, and are the ones most requested by those interested in aviation.  I passed them over for two reasons.  First, much as I find the topic fascinating, a variety of people have looked at it and written about it.  Given the time I had, I wanted to focus on my subject, which is about the more day to day aviation information.

MacCracken’s papers did have some information on that as well.  There were people congratulating him on his new appointment in the Commerce Department.  There were copies of several newspaper articles and publications about items ranging from the Watres Act to the Smithsonian adding an Air Mail display, and an article written by Ruben Fleet in 1968 on the 50th anniversary of the first air mail flight.  Fleet was the army officer who put together the first air mail flights in 1918.

One thing that interested me was a program from the 1911 air races in Chicago.  Specifics of the first flying field in Chicago are still a little blurry.  I know that these races, out of Grant Park, made that area essentially the first airfield in Chicago.  From 1918 to 1920, the air mail would fly in and out of Grant Park.  The advertisements in this program are very interesting.  The Chicago Blackstone hotel specifically says that it is directly across from the flying field.  Given the size of Grant Park, that is useful information.  A company is also advertising a small flying field at 50th Avenue and 22nd street, and another company advertises that it is setting up the stadium seating.

MacCracken’s papers also mention some of his chores, such as giving a speech in Cleveland to open the Cleveland to Washington DC air mail route in 1929.

The MacCracken papers are a find.  I appreciate the help of the staff at the Hoover Museum who pointed me in that direction, and who were very helpful with providing the finding aids and pulling boxes for my perusal.  So where does it all fit in?  I honestly think the item most relevant to my story was the Chicago Air Race program from 1911.  Although this predates the air mail service, it says a lot about aviation in Chicago, and provides clues about the specific location where planes were taking off and landing.

Searching through archives is not usually about finding something earth shattering.  This is the humdrum paperwork of working people.  This is especially true when it comes to Hoover’s papers, but I will leave that until later.

On the Trail…Blacks and Aviation

Due to life and commitments, I haven’t been out on the trail lately, at least as much as I would like.  But yesterday I was able to learn a bit more of a piece of history that intersects my line of interest.  A short train ride south of Chicago lies the community of Robbins.  And in that community is a museum which talks a little bit about the history of the city and a lot about Robbin’s native sons and daughters, of whom there are many to be proud of…actors and actresses, NASA employees, sports figures, doctors prominent in their fields, and John C. Robinson and Cornelius Coffey, owners of the first airport in the country that trained black pilots.  Their own story of learning to fly involved being rejected from flight school due to race, Robinson becoming a janitor at said school and buying an airplane kit out of a magazine that he found there, and impressing the staff with his and Coffey’s ability to build that plane.  A windstorm later destroyed the airport, and Coffey rebuilt in another location while Robinson accepted an invitation to go to Ethiopia and assist with that country’s aviation endeavors.  According the the museum’s proprietor, who knew Coffey in his later years, Coffey was invited to go to, but decided that he preferred to stay at home and continue the business of the new airport.  The proprietor also gave me some names and information to look up…some of which involved pilots flying air mail, although their big achievement involved the training of pilots who became the Tuskegee Airmen.

Although this little excursion is a bit outside of my stated area of interest…flying the US mail between 1920 and 1930, it is a trip that was well worth the effort.  It involves an empty field, dedicated people who keep the knowledge of what happened there alive, and stories of people doing ordinary and extraordinary things to advance the world of aviation.  So I will look up some of those names and dates, and tip my hat to these men and women who continued to blaze trails in aviation history.


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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.


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.

Skids on Airplanes

While reviewing my recent article in Nebraska History magazine, I noticed that one of my pilots, William Hopkins, landed in a park in Omaha one March on his skids…ski looking objects which replaced the wheels on the airplane.  I’m not sure how exactly they were attached, but in this day and age of heavy equipment to make sure that runways are clear for takeoff, the oddity of planes just taking off and landing on skids at certain times of the year struck me.  The Post Office video on Youtube which follows a flight path during the 1920s shows planes using skids to take off in the snow.

For one thing, it says something about the condition of the airfields of the time, which were primarily fields.  They didn’t have snowplows or anything.  So they just developed the planes to land on the snow.  I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t work with most of our jets today.

There are a lot of other questions about skids.  How do they affect flight?  What did you do if you took of from a clear field and landed in a snow one or vice versa?  How practical were they?

I don’t know how long skids were used, although my guess is that they disappeared sometime around the advent of paved runways.  Like the pontoons which allowed (and still allow) planes to take off and land on water, the skids demonstrate how planes were, very quickly after their invention, adapted to function in new environments.  And they are worth some more research.


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.

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.

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