Saturday Snippet: The early days of air mail


Dean C. Smith was an American aviation pioneer, one of those responsible for setting the standards for the nascent U.S. Postal Service’s air mail service.  He also flew in Antarctica with the Byrd Antarctic Expedition of 1928–1930.  Later, he served as an executive with a number of American aircraft companies during and after World War II.

He wrote about his early flying years in an amusing and entertaining memoir titled “By The Seat Of My Pants“.

Here are some of his stories of the early days of flying air mail in America.  It’s mind-boggling to think that some of the pilots who flew these missions lived to see the Space Age and men on the moon.  What a contrast!

I asked around about a flying job, any flying job at all. If you were really desperate, I learned, there were two “last resort” jobs. You could get on as test pilot for Doctor Christmas, flying the Christmas Bullet. Doctor Christmas had had three test pilots, his Bullets had made three flights, and the boys had chipped in for three wreaths. But Doctor Christmas paid a hundred a week—not bad while it lasted. Or you could join the Air Mail.

What was so dangerous anyway, I demanded, about flying the mail? True, the Air Mail was all cross-country flying, much of it over hilly, rough terrain. True, too, the planes, mostly DH-4’s and a few Curtiss R’s, all war surplus, had to go in and out of small and unimproved fields instead of military airdromes. Worse, there were only a few mechanics who knew a sparkplug from an aileron, and it was about even money that the pilot would have an engine failure on any given flight.

But worst of all there was the attitude of the Post Office Department. A pilot had to try to get through, regardless of the consequences; he couldn’t cancel without giving it a try. Three or four of their pilots, it seemed, had learned to fly some pretty bad weather; and if those pilots could get through, the P.O. brass figured that the others should do the same. This was not a callous attitude on the part of the Department. It was necessary if effective flying carriers were to be developed, but it did make for short-lived air mail pilots.

I turned to Pop Anglin, who had led the mail pilots’ strike a few months back, when they had rebelled against orders to take off regardless of weather. Although the pilots had won the strike, Pop shook his head solemnly. But he gave me the telephone number of D. B. Colyer, manager of the Post Office Air Mail Service, which had its headquarters at College Park, outside Washington.

Colyer seemed delighted at the prospect of hiring a pilot. He asked if I could fly a De Havilland. I said I’d never had any trouble with the plane. That was true enough since I had never flown one. He told me to hustle down and he would pay the fare.

Even though everyone considered the Air Mail the next thing to suicide, you could at least be comfortable while life lasted. A mail pilot started at $2400 a year; he would get a $200 raise after he logged each fifty hours until he was making $3,600. If assigned to multi-engined planes like the Martin Bomber, he would get still another $100 a month. This added up to good money. This was my rationalization. Besides, what choice did I have?

College Park seemed a most unpretentious show to be the headquarters of the Air Mail Service. There were three or four shack-like wooden hangars, a hut for an office, and an exceedingly small, badly rolling, sod field. I was yet to learn that this was a sumptuous airdrome as compared with the typical Air Mail field. I located D. B. Colyer. As soon as the southbound got in, he told me, the pilot would check me out in a Jenny. If he gave me an O.K., they would put me in a DH, and see what I could do. And if I then got down in one piece, I would be in business. A mechanic showed me the layout, as I quizzed him anxiously about the switches and valves on the DH.

The incoming pilot took little time to check me out. He hustled me into the front seat of the Curtiss trainer, had me take off, make a quick circle of the field, and land. That was all. He gave Colyer a breezy O.K. and was off.

The De Havilland was a challenge, more psychological than actual, but enough to make me nervous as I climbed in for my first flight.

When I was introduced to the JN-4 I had been impressed with the throb of its 90-horsepower engine. The DH had a Liberty engine of 400 horsepower; its roar made the ground shake. But the mechanic’s lesson proved invaluable, and I carefully followed his instructions. Once clear, I taxied to the corner, pointed the plane the long way of the field, and gave her the gun before I had time to change my mind. The plane took off easily. After a few maneuvers, I knew I was flying the plane instead of the plane flying me, and I started getting a boot out of it.

There was an exhilaration to flying an airplane in those days: their slow speed and light wing-loadings allowed short turns, sharp dives, and quick pull-outs that are impossible in faster planes. We did not rely on gauges and indicators; we flew by feel, noting the control pressures on our hands and feet, the shifting weight of our bodies, and the pitch of the singing wires. I was careful with my first few landings, bringing the DH in flat, with a bit of power until I got over the fence. After a dozen landings, I taxied in to find I had become a mail pilot. This was in April, 1920.

The Air Mail operation, initially flying from Washington to New York, had been extended by a route from New York to Chicago and very recently as far as Omaha. After several days at College Park, I was given a permanent assignment based at Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, whence I was to fly to Cleveland. Bellefonte lies at the heart of the Allegheny Mountains, in central Pennsylvania. I checked in with a Mr. Tanner, the field manager, and asked him what I was to do. So far as he knew, he said, I had only to fly back and forth to Cleveland. Never having been to Cleveland, I asked him for maps. He smiled. There were no maps. Sometimes on his first trip a pilot would fly behind someone who knew the run.

When Max Miller, the senior pilot of the whole Air Mail Service, showed up, I asked him how to get started. Rand McNally road maps, he explained, were useful, but they didn’t show the landmarks I would use most in flying the run, such as the shape and layout of the towns, the distinctive appearance of the hills and valleys, where the low places were that let you work your way through weather, and the location of possible landing fields. After I came to know my run, Miller said, I’d fly to Cleveland the way I’d walk to the drugstore; I’d know the way.

Miller and I picked up maps of Pennsylvania and Ohio. Then he began to talk. He kept on talking for a long time. From the field here at Bellefonte you head west through the gap in the ridge. Climb as you veer a bit north, passing over the center of this railroad switchback up the side of Rattle snake Mountain, then due west again to clear the top of the ridge at, say, 2,200 feet. After about ten miles you hit the railroad again at Snow Shoe—look sharp, it’s only four or five houses—then follow the railroad on down the other side of Rattlesnake to the valley where you pick up the West Branch of the Susquehanna River, winding along to the town of Clearfield, which you will know by three round water reservoirs just south of town.

Next, you have to get over about thirty miles of plateau to Du Bois. This is pretty high, about 2200 feet, but it is fairly smooth on top and there is a white gravel road cut through the trees straight to Du Bois. As you come into town, you will see the railroad to your right and just south of the railroad a piece of flat pasture you can land on in a pinch. Then the highway leads you for fifty miles through Brookville to Clarion. Each of these towns has a half-mile racetrack.

The one at Clarion is half full of trees, but the one at Brookville is clean and hard, and it’s the best emergency field from here to Cleveland: as soon as you land you will be met by a girl named Alice Henderson, driving a big Cadillac, who will be pleased to look after you. After Clarion, the country gradually gets lower until you cross the Allegheny at Greenville, which you can identify by a big S bend in the river. From then on it’s clear sailing.

And so he went on, naming towns, hills, rivers, roads, factories, racetracks, all the way to Cleveland. The airfield was in East Cleveland, at the Glenn L. Martin plant. It was easy to find, just a quarter of a mile from the lakeshore—or so Miller assured me.

I had expected to make my first trip escorted by one of the Cleveland pilots. But within a few days the westbound came in and there was no pilot except me available to take it on to Cleveland. The weather was far from promising; it had been raining off and on all day, and low clouds were barely clearing the ridges.

However, no one seemed concerned as they transferred the mail to my DH and warmed up the Liberty, so I took off and headed west through the gap in the first ridge. Max’s instructions proved a great help. I made it over Rattlesnake Mountain and followed the river to Clearfield without much trouble. Opaque veils of cloud forced me to twist and dodge my way between them as the squalls grew heavier.

By the time I reached the slope leading up to the plateau, the clouds were so solid that I had to circle back. I hated to give up. Over Clearfield again the sky looked brighter to the north, so I blithely headed that way, happily ignorant that I was flying over some of the wildest country in Pennsylvania, high and rugged, with few houses and no fields for fifty miles around.

I was able to work my way west by heading for openings between the clouds, zigzagging from one to another. I knew I was north of the course, but not how far north; I knew I was working west, but I couldn’t guess at what rate. I was amazed to find I was barely clearing the trees, although the altimeter showed close to 3,000 feet above sea level. The terrain was rushing at me with relentless speed. After a long half hour, the rain eased a bit and the clouds rose. I relaxed a little. I was showing them that a rookie could get through.

Just then, the engine stopped cold. As a rule when an engine fails, it will give some warning. The water temperature will rise, or the oil pressure will drop, or there’s a knocking or clanking. Even if it is only a minute or two, it gives the pilot a chance to look around and head for a field or open place. However, when the timing gear in a Liberty engine fails, one second it is roaring along even and strong, and the next there is a tremendous, loud silence.

I quickly twisted all the knobs and gadgets in the cockpit, but there was no response and the engine stayed dead. While my hands were trying to restart the engine, my neck was stretching and my eyes searching for some sort of field to land in. I was surrounded by heavily forested, sharply rolling hills. To my left was a cuplike basin with a small clearing. It was downwind, but my gliding radius didn’t allow much choice. I went for it.

To reach the clearing required a sharp, almost vertical S turn, first left, then right, while killing just enough speed and altitude to land, downwind, and still miss a nearby cliff. I can even now feel the rain slanting in my face and see that open space rocking and swinging in front of me as I pulled out of the turn. One thing I could not know: the clearing was choked with brush and weeds, hiding a three-foot ledge of rock directly in front of my landing spot. The ledge slammed into the undercarriage as I hit.

The plane snapped like a popper on the end of a bullwhip. I was catapulted into a long head-first dive, like a man shot from a circus cannon. Fortunately, I landed in the brush and rolled to a stop in a sitting position. The padded leather ring that rimmed the cockpit hung from my neck like a lei. I was still holding the rubber grip pulled loose from the control stick. My seatbelt lay across my lap. I felt around to determine that I had no broken bones. The wreckage of the plane was piled in a heap, like crumpled wastepaper.

Except for this lone field, the place appeared to be a wilderness of trees. After some exploration I located a little-used path and started to follow it. It meandered along for about half a mile and turned onto a dirt road that I followed downhill for perhaps another mile before I came to a small cabin. Sitting on a bench before the cabin were an elderly man and woman, barefooted and dressed in work clothes. They smiled and waved.

My first impression was astonishment at how clean they were, their scrubbed faces glowing above the faded calico and denim. I told them about the accident and about my mail pouches, which would have to be taken to a railroad station. They assured me that the rural mail carrier would be along shortly with his horse and rig and would willingly help me. The couple were very solicitous. Almost apologetically the wife brought out a big bowl of tiny wild strawberries, a jug of clotted cream, and a loaf of fresh home-baked bread.

Sure enough, the mail carrier came along in due course, with a sturdy mare pulling an old-fashioned hack. The old man and the mail carrier helped me bring the mail sacks down to the road and load them in the hack. Luckily there were only three or four sacks, hardly a hundred pounds. Westbound airmail was expensive that day.

After my thanks and goodbyes, we drove about ten miles to Pithole, a little town on the railroad, where the stationmaster accepted the mail shipment. I used my Post Office travel commission to get a train ticket to Cleveland. It was quite a trip, my first flight with the mail. I was beginning to understand why the boys at the Flying Club had given me a farewell party.

On arrival in Cleveland from the forced landing at Pithole, I was surprised to hear little comment about my accident. Engine failure, forced landings, and crack-ups were so common on the Air Mail that, so long as the pilot was not killed or seriously hurt, no one gave them another thought. Teams of mechanics, ready for repair and salvage operations, were constantly busy.

. . .

This was still before the days of instrument flying, of radio beacons, and even of weather reports. If a pilot got caught in clouds or fog and lost sight of the horizon, it was not long before he fell, because he was out of control. When the clouds were low, you had to fly close to the ground, close enough to see it; the lower the clouds, the lower you flew, dodging steeples and jumping trees and telephone lines. In the hilly country of the Alleghenies, the pilots sought the low places, passes that would lead them from valley to valley, twisting their way through mountains. The more experienced pilots became extremely skillful, learning the country in precise detail.

Initially we had no en-route weather reports. If it was thick at the take-off, the field manager might telephone through to the destination and inquire how it was there. The replies were limited to such whimsy as “Sunshine and flowers; tell him to come ahead” or, “Pea soup; better cancel.” In doubtful weather, there were some key spots to check along the route, usually in the mountains. After a time we tried calling up farmers who lived near these places and asking about the weather. It proved useless. If the weather was good, they could tell us; but when it was not, their replies were vague. A typical interrogation might go:

“Is it raining?”

“Yup. Pouring.”

“How far can you see?”

“I can see as far as the next man. I don’t wear glasses or anything.”

“What I want to know about is the clouds. How far up can you see now?”

“I don’t know, it’s pretty foggy; about a mile, I guess.”

“Foggy, and you can see a mile straight up! Then the mountains should be all clear, are they?”

“How can I tell? They’re all covered with clouds.”

We gave up these haphazard inquiries and made a survey. Specific farmers were on call, located near a mountainside. Specific objects or landmarks were selected at different elevations; the farmer would report the farthest object he could see. This did prove useful—that is, when we could reach the farmers.

The next step was to employ local people at selected spots to wire us daily weather reports. It was about this time, too, that we started using the terms “ceiling” and “visibility” to describe aviation weather. I think it was probably in 1921 or ’22 that the Air Mail Service leased telegraph wires along the route, expanded the number of reporting stations, hired trained observers, installed radio stations at the main fields, and formed the nucleus that has expanded into the vast aviation weather service of today.

In my earlier days I doubt if the number of completed trips averaged much over 50 per cent. There was hazard enough to suit the most avid adventurer. Not all the forced landings were in fields; there were frequent crack-ups, some of them grim. The years 1920 and ’21 were the worst in the history of the Air Mail. In 1920 we had five fatal crashes, killing nine, a fatal crash for every 130,000 miles flown.

In 1921 there were twelve fatal crashes, killing fifteen, with the average 104,000 miles flown per crash. As a pilot could expect to fly sixty or seventy thousand miles a year, his life expectancy would hardly make him welcome in an insurance office. I remember when Brooks Brothers refused to give me a charge account because my profession was too risky.

By the end of 1921 the record began to improve. Men like Luther Harris and Richard Ingalls, mechanics in name but with the capacity of inventive engineers, devised scores of changes in the Liberty engine that vastly improved its reliability. Weather reporting was in force and parachutes came into use. The surviving pilots had learned something about bad-weather flying and were able to pass some of this knowledge on to new pilots. Fatalities were reduced until, at the end of the Post Office operation in 1927, the Air Mail had averaged but one fatal crash per half-million miles during its history.

. . .

I believe that each surviving Air Mail pilot will tell you that at least once, early in his mail career, he had a brush with death that put the fear of God in him and made him acutely aware thenceforth that even the simplest error in judgment or a few seconds of carelessness might put his life in forfeit. Once a man got past that point safely, his chance of becoming a true professional pilot was much enhanced. I know that my ordeal marked a change in the quality of my work: I became not so much a more cautious pilot, for timidity has its dangers too, but a more thoughtful, careful one.

I was flying east out of Omaha in rainy, dirty weather, trying to make my way through the rolling country beyond Council Bluffs. The clouds were scraping the tops of the low hills. By ducking down into the hollows between the hills it was possible to see a little ahead, but in pulling over the higher rolls the fog would thicken and the ground dim, even with my wheels almost brushing the grass. I knew that in just a few miles I would reach a draw with a railroad in it that was two or three hundred feet lower than the terrain I was in, so I allowed myself to push on farther than I should have.

As I went over one of the low hills the ground faded completely from sight, but I quickly eased the plane down and made it into the next hollow, where I was able to see a little. The hill ahead came at me fast, and instead of turning I was teased into climbing its slope. Again the ground faded from sight, but this time for more than a few seconds. When I eased back down, feeling for the next little valley, I did not see the surface until I banged into it. The wheels evidently hit on a smooth grass field, for the plane, instead of crashing, bounced. Instinctively, I pulled back on the stick, the plane shot up into the fog, and when it leveled off at several hundred feet I was completely in the soup.

While I still had a sense of orientation I tried to make a blind turn, and then leveled off again in what I hoped was the direction back. I turned, but a turn causes the compass to spin and swing; it takes some time before it can give a course indication. I now had no choice but to attempt to fly blind, locking the rudder in neutral, holding the stick in my fingertips, feeling the wind on my cheeks, and watching the airspeed indicator. In this manner, I was able to get the plane under some control and ease it down little by little, until my altimeter read that I was as low as I had been before.

But I was unable to see anything of the ground, and the fog pouring back through my wings remained as thick and opaque as wet cotton. I dared not let down any lower or I would be bound to fly into the side of a hill, so I started to climb, mostly in desperation, for there was only a forlorn chance I could ever get on top of this type of weather.

Now followed a long period of fighting to keep control of the plane while all the time my equilibrium became steadily more confused. I succeeded in climbing to 8,000 feet; then the plane began to get more and more out of control. It lost altitude until I was back down to 5,000 feet. By this time, I felt I had been milling around in the clouds for an eternity, and found myself wondering why I did not run out of fuel.

At last I fell.

The plane stalled and whipped off into a spin, although to my bewildered senses it did not seem to be spinning down, but impossibly up and to the side.

I cut the throttle and held the plane in the spin for a few seconds to be certain I was in a known condition and to force my mind to reorient. When I broke the spin, I couldn’t pull out level from the resulting dive. By the time I got the wires to stop screaming the plane promptly stalled again. The plane floundered through the dark muck in a series of stalls, spins, dives, and pull-outs. I struggled and fought with it all the way down, working with desperate concentration, but that little corner of my mind that detachedly views such things said, “My friend, you are a dead duck.”

The altimeter needle was dropping fast, and I knew I was low as I tried to recover from the fifth or sixth stall and spin. If I’d been in a Jenny I would have let it spin in, but a crash in a full spin in a DH-4 was almost always fatal, so I continued trying to right the plane. The wires were screaming from what seemed a full dive and I was pulling back hard to get the nose up when the tops of trees came flashing by, just below my wings. I was almost level. I rammed the stick forward to hold the plane there, cut both ignition switches, and coasted ahead, expecting to hit but not knowing what.

The plane slid out under the deck of cloud to show me I was only fifty feet high—and over cleared land. We rolled to a stop, the propeller dead. After some minutes I began to tremble. I climbed out of the plane and had taken but two steps when my legs gave way.

. . .

Another danger was the cold. For the first winter or two, I was on the mail, we had no heat in our planes, the windshields were poor, the cockpits had unsealed holes, and we suffered real physical distress.

We had huge bearskin-lined flying suits, sheep-lined boots, fur-lined helmets, and mittens. But they were not enough. I used to have sections of newspapers stuffed inside my suit for more adequate insulation of the upper part of my body. Often, after I had been out an hour or two, I would already be so cold that tears would run down my cheeks. Under such painful conditions a pilot was obviously not capable of exercising his normal judgment.

. . .

I took the regular flight out of Chicago, leaving at dawn. The weather was fine except for a brisk headwind; to avoid the wind I flew just above the treetops and was droning along happily when the engine quit. One second it was throbbing along steadily, the next there was silence—a most depressing silence. The one clearing in sight was dotted with a herd of cattle. The landing would have to be downwind. I made a steep turn that finished in a sideslip, then went into a skid to kill the speed; I was in a dead stall coming over the fence, angling for a lane that would miss all the cows. Too late, an amiable-looking cow walked in front of the plane. The wingtip caught her fair amidships, the impact pinwheeling the plane end over end, wings, nose, and tail all breaking off as we went around, until there was little but me and the cockpit left when we came to rest. I stood up, quite unhurt; the cow did too. But the cow was lopsided, caved-in on one side and pushed out on the other. She gave one reproachful moo, then lay down and died.

Soon there were people and help and excitement. The farmer started to bewail the loss of his cow. Although as a farm boy I would have called it a scrub heifer worth thirty or forty dollars, he insisted it was fine, blooded stock and had been bred to the best bull in the state of Iowa. He later tried to collect $800 from the Post Office Department.

Passers-by helped me to get the mail to the town of Montezuma, where I turned it over to the railway mail clerk. Although I realized I should report to someone, I hardly knew how or to whom. A long-distance telephone call seemed an expense without reason. I sent a telegram instead to the Superintendent of Air Mail, trying to keep it short. It seemed to me to cover the incident. It read: “On Trip 4 westbound. Flying low. Engine quit. Only place to land on cow. Killed cow. Wrecked plane. Scared me. Smith.”

. . .

People often asked me why I liked being a pilot, why I flew the mail and took such chances of getting killed. I would try to explain, but never could find the words to explain it all. I knew that I could fly and fly well, and this skill set me apart from the run of the mill. I certainly had no wish to get killed, but I was not afraid of it. I would have been frightened if I had thought I would get maimed or crippled for life, but there was little chance of that. A mail pilot was usually killed outright. Then, too, sometimes I was called a hero, and I liked that.

One of the most rewarding things about a mail pilot’s job was the high pay and the high percentage of leisure time, which made for a merry life, even if indications were that it might be a short one. As a normal thing we worked two or three days a week, five or six hours a day, plus standing reserve perhaps one day a week, which only meant keeping the field advised how they might reach us. I spent my time as unproductively as possible: learning to play golf, chasing girls, reading omnivorously and indiscriminately; investigating dives and joints in the area; and—an interest that has remained with me ever since—trout fishing.

But what I could never tell of was the beauty and exaltation of flying itself. Above the haze layer with the sun behind you or sinking ahead, alone in an open cockpit, there is nothing and everything to see. The upper surface of the haze stretches on like a vast and endless desert, featureless and flat, and empty to the horizon. It seems your world alone.

Threading one’s way through the great piles of summer cumulus that hang over the plains, the patches of ground that show far below through the white are for earthbound folk, and the cloud shapes are sculptured just for you. The flash of rain, the shining rainbow riding completely around the plane, the lift over mountain ridges and crawling trains, the steady, pure air at dawn take-offs, and the smoke from the newly lit fires in houses just coming to life below—these are some of the many bits that help pay for the tense moments of plunging through fog, or the somber thoughts when flying cortege for a pilot’s funeral. It was so alive and rich a life that any other conceivable choice seemed dull, prosaic, and humdrum.

. . .

On one trip, when I had flown out of such a night into the flame of an autumn dawn, as I neared Chicago the quilted floor of fields and roads was marred by increasing patches of white fog, lying innocently here and there in shallow pools. There was enough visible ground to find my way until I was within a mile of the field, but then all was covered, and the fog stretched solid to the east. The fog was fairly shallow, for I saw the mark of smoke, puddled in the white, from the tall smokestack that sat just west of the flying field.

Circling over, I could just make out the circle of the stack’s tip. Using it as a marker, I could line up with the runway, but when I glided down I could not even see the tips of my wings, and I had to push open the throttle and pull back on top. Circling, I saw that my propeller wash had made a gouge in the top of the fog as the plane dipped in, like a scoop taking ice cream from the top of a can. This gave me an idea: perhaps I could dig out enough fog to see the end of the runway.

It took a long time. I would dip in, then hold the plane’s nose up in a near stall and jazz the engine to send the wash burning behind at a downward angle. After nearly an hour of circling and dipping, I had dug out a ragged trough about three hundred feet deep and could just see the end of the runway at its bottom. Touching down took care, for I had to start the glide beyond the edge of the hole, be blind for a moment, then have a few seconds to set the plane on the runway before I was blind in the fog again.

A DH does not roll far on landing, the Maywood runway was broad and long, and the landing came off just fine. But the fog was so dense I could not see to taxi; men had to come out and guide me to the hangar.

To those on the ground my many circles and dips had sounded as though I was lost in the fog and desperately trying to dive into the field, although no one could understand how I could keep flying in the horrible muck. Dick Ingalls almost worked himself into a heart attack repeatedly climbing the beacon tower to point its beam in hopes it would help me land, then, when he heard the throttle open and the plane start coming his way, frantically scrambling down in fear it would hit the tower. In the hangar, held from taking off by the fog, were the Army round-the-world fliers and their planes, just completed circling the globe and about to start a welcoming tour. They were, I believe, deeply impressed by the weather they saw the Air Mail come through. I did not explain how I had dug my way in.

. . .

Sometimes when the weather was bad but still hopeful, we would hold the mail at Hadley. At night this could make for quite a wait. The main crew and the usual knot of spectators would have gone home; for the pilot there would be nothing to do. We had no lounge or reading room, no place to rest. The pilot could lie on a canvas cot out on the hangar floor, or he could walk a mile down the road to a farmhouse where he could get a bed at a dollar for the night or day. The cot in the hangar was the private preserve of a cat with a highly developed and aggressive sense of private property. At the farmhouse there was the farmer’s wife, more cooperative than the cat about sharing the bed, but far less attractive.

. . .

Today, the vital role of the Post Office Department Air Mail Service in aviation’s history seems virtually forgotten, yet its gallant efforts gave genesis to our present vast system of civil air. Ask the man in the street about the Service and if he remembers anything at all he is apt to mention the famous airmail cancellation when the Army flew the mail with such unhappy results. Yet this happened in 1934 and was concerned with the mail-carrying contracts of the airlines, long after the pioneering I have told about here.

The Service was in existence for less than a decade and was never in any sense large. When I joined the Air Mail in 1920 there were perhaps twenty pilots employed by the Post Office Department. There were forty-three pilots when the Service ended in 1927. During its brief history forty-three had been killed and twenty-three more had been seriously injured.

Those were the days of the pioneers, all right.  It’s sobering to think that a letter sent by air mail during the years following World War I bore a price not only in stamps, but also in blood.



  1. I can't imagine trying to fly from Bellefonte by way of Clarion to Clevetown.
    I went to Clarion State College in the 70's and it was still surrounded by thousands of acres of what is called the big woods. Forest County is the home of Allegheny National Forest has a total of one blinking traffic light in the county.

  2. That story about the hard-landing near Montezuma… I drove through Montezuma once or twice. It would be interesting to go back and figure out exactly where Smith met that cow.

    I find your book recommendations pretty compelling.

  3. Hey Peter;

    And Roosevelt took the contract away from the Post office and had the Army fly the mail trying to save money, and killed a bunch of pilots in the process. People apparently forgot that little incident when they venerated the man.

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