Early airmail pilots risked life and limb

This article originally appeared in the Eagle on Monday, November 26, 1984.

By Dan Close

The Wichita Eagle

For two straight days in late March 1926, Wichita postal carrier F.D. Long
tried to drive to Rose Hill to deliver the mail.

Each day, 5-foot deep snowdrifts forced Long to turn back. So on March 31 he
asked Clarence Clark, chief test pilot for Travel Air in Wichita, to give
him a lift.

“I was just wanting to take a little spin,” Clark answered Long, “and here’s
a good chance.”

On that snowy spring day more than 58 years ago, the first “airmail”
officially was flown in Wichita.

Long, 70, who had never been in an airplane, climbed aboard with 11 sacks of
mail weighing 400 pounds.

“He strapped in, and we took off,” said Clark, now 80 and living in
Bartlesville, Okla. “We didn’t have any trouble. The roads were all blocked,
but the field was fairly clear of snow.”

The pair landed 150 yards from the Rose Hill post office 10 minutes after
taking off – shaving an hour off Long’s usual car trip – and were greeted by
a cheering crowd.

“I guess they were pretty excited by the speed of it,” Clark said.

In the 1920s, everyone was excited by the advent of airmail. Less than two
months after Clark’s brief hop, Wichita officially became a stop on the new
National Air Transport Inc. airmail route from Dallas to Chicago.

The Wichita Chamber of Commerce had begun talking about an airmail route as
early as 1918. But it wasn’t until August 1925, after Wichita spruced up a
flying field on East Central and guaranteed at least 30 pounds of mail
daily, that the NAT included Wichita.

More than 500 spectators gathered at the Wichita airport shortly after noon
on May 12, 1926, to watch the NAT airmail planes “Miss Dallas” and “Miss
Fort Worth” stop for a few minutes and load 139 pounds of mail.

Those early airmail pilots did more than cut in half the time it took to
send a letter by train. They broke ground for the development of the infant
airline industry and boosted business for fledgling aircraft companies.

“The United States mail is playing a part in the development of aviation as
it did in the development of stage lines and railroads,” Bliss Isely, a
Wichita historian, wrote in 1937.

The first airmail service in the country was inaugurated May 16, 1918, when
Army aviators in war surplus Curtiss Jennie biplanes flew 735 pieces of mail
from New York to Washington in three hours and 20 minutes.

Flying through terrible weather, in unreliable airplanes equipped with poor
navigation instruments, it was a dangerous – almost reckless – way to make a
living. Between 1919 and 1926, 31 of the first 40 pilots hired by the post
office were killed flying the mail.

“The pilots were a breed apart,” said Deed Levy, 77, a former Stearman test
pilot who lives in Springfield, Mo. “They were pretty tough. The problem was
bad airplanes. They’d get in bad weather and mountains and lose an engine.
Some of them escaped with parachutes. Some of them didn’t.”

When Truman Wadlow was a young test pilot for Travel Air in Wichita during
the late 1920s, he spent off-hours watching airmail pilots load sacks of
letters and take off for other cities.

“They were my heroes,” said Wadlow, 77, who also now lives in Bartlesville
Okla. “I used to stay out there in the hanger, watching them, and hoping I’d
be an airmail pilot someday.”

Wadlow later flew Ford Trimotors for Trans World Airlines, Constellations in
World War II and corporate planes for Phillips Petroleum – but never got a
chance to ferry the mail.

“Askew, Neville, Garrison, Johnson, I knew most of the mail pilots that
came through Wichita,” he said. “Later, I realized what a tough job they
had.” When mail contractors – the forerunners of the airlines – took over
the task of flying the mail in 1926, they were looking for more reliable
planes than the battered war surplus Curtiss Jennies and unreliable De

Travel air and Stearman in Wichita were among the companies springing up
during the commercial aviation boom in the 1920s that sensed a market was
developing for new planes capable of carrying mail and increasing numbers of

In the early days, the companies “built” mail planes by simply ripping out
the two or three passenger seats in their regular models and fashioning an
aluminum box to hold mail, said John J. “Jack” Clark, a former engineer for
both Travel Air and Stearman.

“There wasn’t much airmail back in those days,” explained Lillian Whipple,
a former Stearman employee who still lives in Wichita. “So they didn’t need
a great deal of space.”

Later, the planes were redesigned to carry both passengers and mail.

Levy said that about 15 early airline companies bought Stearmans to deliver
airmail. “Western Air Express, Interstate, Southern Air Transport,
Universal,” Levy said. “There was a raft of them.”

Many of the Stearmans were bought by Walter T. Varney, who controlled the
435-mile route from Elko, Nev., to Pasco, Wash. While delivering the first
plane on Jan. 15, 1928, chief Stearman test pilot Fred Hoyt crash-landed in
a blizzard in Idaho and froze to death.

“The mail planes were the C-3B models, a three-place open cockpit plane,”
Whipple said. “They didn’t have a radio or anything. They just flew very
much by the seat of their pants.”

About 136 Stearman C-3Bs, powered by 200-horsepower Wright J-5 engines, were
built between 1927 and 1929 in Wichita, according to Boeing Military
Airplane Co., the company’s descendant.

In 1929, six model M-2s – single-place biplanes fitted with 525- horsepower
Wright Cyclone engines – were built and equipped with mail pits that could
carry 1,000 pounds. Variations were built by Stearman in the early 1930s.

Not to be outdone by its main Wichita competitor, Travel Air on Jan. 27,
1927, secured a lucrative contract to build eight Model 5000 monoplanes for
NAT, according to Ed Phillips, a Beech employee who is author of “Travel
Air, Wings Over the Prairie.” That month, Travel Air also sent three
biplanes to Pacific Air Transport.

The blue and silver Travel Airs could be loaded with a pilot and four
passengers with a small amount of baggage, or a pilot and 750 pounds of
mail. Travel Air was so busy building mail planes that in February 1927,
Walter Beech turned down a chance to build a plane for Charles Lindbergh
who was planning a New York to Paris flight. Lindbergh ended up using a
modified Ryan monoplane for his historic crossing of the Atlantic Ocean.

For Wichita, the coming of NAT in 1926 was only the start of the aviation
boom. In 1928, some Wichita investors raised $200,000 to found Central
Airlines, which flew between Kansas City, Wichita, Tulsa and Oklahoma City.
By August 1929, four other airlines were serving Wichita – Transcontinental
Air Transport, Mid-Continent Air Line, Western Air Express and Universal Air

As more and more airmail routes sprung up, so did the number of airline
contractors, and that led to a nationwide scandal.

In 1934, the postmaster general and the airlines were accused of collusion,
and as a result, the Army Air Corps resumed flying the mail on Feb. 19,
1934. The decision was disastrous for the untrained, ill-equipped Army
fliers. Within six weeks, 12 pilots had died flying the mail and 15 others
were critically injured.

By June 1, 1934, the airlines were back to flying the mail and the airplane
companies were back to dreaming up newer models that would carry more people
faster and farther than before.

©The Wichita Eagle