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.

Day and Night and Night and Day

Herbert Hoover was the Secretary of Commerce during the 1920s, and a trip to his Presidential Library yielded some interesting finds.  I didn’t find, nor did I expect to, anything revolutionary about the air mail service.  The archives are the day to day paperwork regarding a story that I already know.  It adds, it augments, it colors the story.  But, especially with my topic, I don’t expect it to find anything shocking.

I did find a couple of interesting tidbits.  Hoover’s Secretary of Commerce files had a copy of the Air Mail schedule effective May 1, 1925.  It took over 8 hours to get from New York to Chicago.  They left Chicago at 6pm, lost daylight sometime between there and Iowa City, and picked up daylight again somewhere in Wyoming.  Going east, the mail left San Francisco at 845am, pilots found darkness over Wyoming, and found daylight right before heading into Chicago.

The night service, which was just under a year old, had eliminated several hours off of the early tactic of switching the mail to trains overnight.  But the night flying occurred over Great Plains.  From a technological standpoint, this made the most sense…the terrain was flat creating fewer obstacles.  From a business standpoint, the Post Office wanted to do better.  A mail leaving New York in the morning might get to Cleveland in time for a late afternoon delivery.  It would get to Chicago after business hours, so it was really next day service.  Mail leaving Chicago at 6pm would et to Cheyenne, Wyoming in time for delivery the next morning.  Omaha, Nebraska would also benefit.

But the great challenge was to connect New York and Chicago.  This meant flying over the Appalachian Mountains…far more treacherous for a pilot than the Great Plains.  But the Post Office was able to set up light beacons, and on July 1st, 1925 pilots tested the new night flying route.  This meant that the two largest cities in the countries could now receive next day service…a letter dropped in a New York mailbox at two in the afternoon could reach its recipient in Chicago the next morning.  This also provided service for Cleveland, the 5th or 6th largest city in the country at the time.

Hoover’s papers contained a letter from the WHT radio station in Chicago which was airing a special program including a band and speeches, as well as information on when the planes landed and took off.  Being able to reach Chicago overnight was a huge deal.  It would give air mail a more notable advantage over train delivery, and it could also replace the more expensive telegraph.  The letter from WHT was written at 645pm Central time, and an attached letter indicated that the Department of Commerce office in New York received it just before 9am the following morning.

New York to Chicago overnight was just another step in the improvement of aviation.  In today’s world of instantaneous communication, its easy to forget just how critical and revolutionary that step was.


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