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.

Supporting a New Frontier: The Wives of the Fliers

Many of the men in the early air mail service took wives, as young men with a means of support frequently do. Despite the fact that flying meant a very real risk of life…all pilots in that era had at least one close call. Life or death could mean an unfortunate run in with a tree during a forced landing. Men wanting to join the air corps during World War I were flat out told to avoid marriage.

I hope I have the time to track down more information on women willing to accept the risks of marrying an early aviator. From what I do know, they were incredibly varied. At least two had college educations. Mary Park Boonstra attended the University of Utah, and Lena Emory Christiansen graduated from Dana College in Nebraska. Mrs. Woodward never remarried despite her husband’s early death, and was buried next to him in 1977.

Allie Allison married a woman he met in Omaha. Helen Kubat Allison founded the Women’s Legion Auxiliary in Bellevue and served as its President for two years before tragically dying at the age of 32 following an operation.

Sometimes trying to really understand a wife becomes difficult due to publicity. Two pilots, William Hopson and Leeland Garrison ended up with well publicized divorce cases after their wives accused them, rightly or wrongly, of philandering. I have a particularly difficult time trying to determine anything about the real Mrs. Hopson. During the divorce the Omaha World Herald played up the fact that she suspected her husband of inappropriate relations with other women. Mr. Hopson accused his wife of throwing a teapot at him in a fit of rage, while maintaining his innocence.

During the proceedings, Mr. Hopson’s son, his wife’s stepson, opted to remain with the current Mrs. Hopson when the separation was finalized. So one would think that Mrs. Hopson was a reasonably caring human being. However a few months later the paper reported that she attempted to commit suicide by gassing herself in her apartment after Mr. Hopson failed to make child support payments. Yet when Hopson died in a plane crash several years later, she spoke of him very fondly and (again, according to the World Herald) attempted to have his remains brought to Omaha, rather that having his father take him. Incidentally, anyone who things that America’s craving for reality TV is something new has never read a newspaper from the 1920s, or probably any other era.

Many more air mail pilots got married. Tracking down the women who endured both a dangerous and irregular lifestyle, with their husbands constantly flying in and out of town, is a tricky proposition. Jack Knight was married, as his wife was with him in the late 1920s when the Omaha World Herald did an article about his adventures. His wife commented that he had become less of a risk taker over the years. They had probably married around 10 years by that time, as in 1920 Knight was attempting to locate a 2 to 4 room house for a married pilot with no children.

The wives of the early air mail pilots didn’t typically fly the planes, although some flew with their husbands on short trips. But most are more well known for their activities on the ground. Yet these women must be considered as part of the fabric of early aviation. They supported their husbands and were very real and active members of the communities in which they lived. With their assistance, the air mail pilots turned the air mail service from a dangerous, though glamorous occupation for daring young men, to a respectable job for mature men in a maturing field.

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