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.

How Far Can You Go?

According to the Omaha Bee, on May 12, 1921 Clarence Lange ended up in a cornfield near Council Bluffs while attempting to pilot a plane nonstop from Chicago to Omaha.  With visibility under 50 feet, Lange landed in a field where his  wheels got stuck in the mud, causing the plane to land upside down.  Lange suffered minor injuries.

The idea of pushing planes to fly farther started early.  By 1930, planes regularly skipped the intermediate stops…Bellefonte, Pennsylvania; Bryan, Ohio; Iowa City, Iowa; North Platte, Nebraska; and other smaller towns continuing west.  These towns soon kept or lost air service based on the business potential of the community rather than the necessity of having a service stop for planes.

Today most of these towns, like many small towns, have some sort of airport.  Some are used primarily by local fliers.  Some, like Iowa City, have charter flights and other activity but no regular commercial service.  Cedar Rapids, only 30 miles north, caught the larger commercial airport.  Some towns have an airline providing a shuttle service to the nearest hub.  There is a daily flight from North Platte to Denver, primarily because North Platte is the largest city in that section of Nebraska.  Likewise, Elko, Nevada has flights to Salt Lake City.

The towns that helped build the massive aerial transportation network that currently exists in the United States faded into the background, at least in comparison with the national scale.  But these airports are still vital lifelines in their respective communities and we should not forget their vital role in this country’s aviation history.


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