Airmail Pilots: Firsts and Legends

Claude Graham-White, early airmail pilot One of the earliest airmail pilots was Claude Graham-White of England, who, in the summer of 1910, was one of the first people to fly airmail and packages in an airplane.

Mechanics get Boyle ready for flightMay 15, 1918. Mechanics help U.S. Army Lt. George Boyle position a Curtiss JN4-H “Jenny” for takeoff during the inauguration of U.S. airmail service in Washington, D.C.

Ovington's DragonflyEarle Ovington flies over the Post Office tent in his Dragonfly, September 23, 1911.

Airmail stamp honoring OvingtonThis air mail stamp honored the first U.S. air mail flight-Earle Ovingtonïs 1911 flight.

Fred Wiseman flyingA drawing of Fred Wiseman in Santa Rosa, California, early in 1911.

Lindbergh opens airmail route between Chicago and St. Louis As chief pilot of Robertson Aircraft Corporation, Charles Lindbergh was given the honor of inaugurating the first flight on April 15, 1926, from Chicago’s Maywood Field to St. Louis, stopping to pick up mail in Peoria and Springfield, Illinois.

Early airmail flight was dangerous and its pilots needed to have a considerable amount of the daredevil in them to brave the risks. But whether these pioneers exhibited extraordinary (or perhaps foolhardy) bravery or were merely doing their job, the careers of the members of this “suicide club” were like those of few others. As one early pilot, Dean Smith, said: “It was so alive and rich a life that any other conceivable choice seemed dull, prosaic, and humdrum.”

Pilots began carrying the mail within a decade after the Wright brothers’ first flight. In the summer of 1910, Claude Graham-White of England, Great Britain, became the first to fly mail and packages in a machine with wings. Later that year in the United States, the Wright brothers hired pilot Phil Parmalee to try the same thing. In November, Parmalee’s plane carried a bolt of silk from Dayton to Columbus, Ohio, initiating the package delivery industry.

Fred Wiseman of Petaluma, California, went one step further when he flew (unofficially) a sack of coffee beans, 50 newspapers, and three letters 18 miles to Santa Rosa on February 17, 1911. Although it took him over two days for the 12-minute, 20-second trip, because of a crash and a broken propeller he was probably the first in the nation to carry the mail.

A day after Wiseman’s flight, on February 18, 1911, (but with no knowledge of the American’s flight), a French pilot was determined to deliver the mail without landing. Henri Pequet carried a sack of 6,500 cards and letters for five miles (eight kilometers) in the dusty British colony of Allahabad, India, in his open Sommer biplane, reaching his destination in just 13 minutes, in what was the world’s first official airmail flight.

Great Britain was the first government to organize an airmail flight. Gustav Hamel raced his Bleriot monoplane 20 miles (32 kilometers) in just 15 minutes on September 9, 1911. Hamel was supposed to fly from London and the Hendon Aerodrome to Windsor Castle, but he overshot his target. A bicycle courier collected the 24 pounds (11 kilograms) of mail and hand-delivered it to the Castle, including a letter to the mayor of Windsor.

On September 23, 1911, Earle L. Ovington was sworn in as the first U.S. airmail carrier. Ovington made a week of test flights, each time flying the six miles (10 kilometers) to the post office at Mineola, New York. Ovington never landed his plane during these flights but instead bombarded the postmaster with heavy mail sacks. Eventually, Ovington dropped 43,247 letters on to Mineola.

Necessity sometimes brought out the best in pilots. During World War I, Austria needed food but couldn’t communicate with its suppliers in the Ukraine, 700 miles (1,127 kilometers) to the east because the war had destroyed all the telegraph and train lines. In March 1918, an enterprising officer, Colonel August Raft von Marwil, flew from Vienna to Kiev, indeed finding plentiful food. Soon after, an air route was begun that carried military and civilian mail. The route, which lasted seven months, became the first regular, international airmail route.

Regularly scheduled airmail in the United States began on May 15, 1918. On that day, U.S. Army Air Service Lieutenant George Boyle, picked because he was engaged to marry the daughter of a powerful man whom the Post Office wanted to impress, made the first official flight. Boyle had been told to follow the clearly visible railroad tracks north from Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia, but in a rather ignominious start to the service, he flew south instead and crashed into a field. Postal managers let him try again, but he went even farther off course, flying almost out over the Atlantic Ocean 150 miles (241 kilometers) to the east. Other pilots managed to get the first airmail through between Washington and New York, and Boyle was retired in embarrassment.

In September 1918, Eddie “the Turk Bird” Gardner helped initiate air postal service between America’s two largest cities, Chicago and New York. Gardner had been given his nickname because, along with his wild personality and gambling ways, his planes wobbled like a flapping turkey upon take off. Gardner had bet his fellow pilot Max Miller that he could beat him in a roundtrip race between Chicago and New York. On the way to Chicago, the “Turk Bird” and his mechanic Eddie Radel lost the race, but on the way back, on September 7, Gardner won, approaching Belmont Park, New York, in nine hours 18 minutes before crashing. Eddie broke his nose but won his bet, and the Post Office began its route between the two cities.

Although brave, pilots did not choose to be foolish. In July 1919, pilots E. Hamilton “Ham” Lee and Leon Smith were the first pilots to go out on strike when their supervisor ordered them to fly in stormy weather and then fired them when they refused. In a show of support, the rest of the airmail pilots walked off the job. After talks, the Post Office agreed to stop making pilots fly in severe weather unless their own field managers had test-flown the route.

James H. “Jack” Knight was among the most fearless pilots of these early days of airmail. Part of a relay team scheduled to fly the first transcontinental airmail route in February 1921, he flew from North Platte, Nebraska, all the way to Chicago–a distance of 830 miles (1,336 kilometers)–a good deal of it during the night, when a snowstorm grounded the rest of the team.

Some pilots never stopped being a “test pilot,” whether they needed to or not. Tex Marshall had been the number one test pilot for the Thomas-Morse Aircraft Corporation of Ithaca, New York, before joining the airmail service in September 1920. He flew the mail some 330,000 miles (531,084 kilometers) over seven years, usually at heights much closer to the ground than necessary, barely clearing the silos and steeples along the way. Tex liked to fly by feel but used his test pilot skills to be the first to test the new aircraft turn-and-bank indicator.

Harold Turner “Slim” Lewis also recorded a “first.” Part of the first regular, transcontinental airmail service launched on July 1, 1924, he flew from Omaha, Nebraska, to Cheyenne, Wyoming–the first night airmail.

In February 1924, Carl Ben Eielson became the first airmail pilot in Alaska, flying between Fairbanks and McGrath. He died in 1929 trying to rescue passengers on a ship stuck in an ice floe near the Arctic Circle.

The French company Lignes Aeriennes Latecoere, later called Aeropostale, also had its share of daring pilots. By mid 1925, Aeropostale pilots flew between Toulouse, France, and Morocco, across the Sahara Desert as far as Dakar, Senegal. Nomadic tribesmen sometimes kidnapped airmail pilots and hid them in the dunes of the Sahara until they were ransomed. One French pilot, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, became manager of the Cape Juby field station in 1927, an area besieged by nomadic Moors. He was so successful in his dealings with the Moors that he later was awarded the French Legion of Honor.

Sometimes weather was more dangerous than hostile natives. Aeropostale’s Henri Guillaumet made 343 flights over the South America’s snow-covered Andes Mountains. In June 1930, he flew into a blizzard at 17,000 feet (5,182 meters), crashing into a lake of ice in a remote region. Guillamet burrowed into his mailbags for two frozen nights, then stumbled for three awful days toward the valley. Full of blisters from sunburn, his stomach roaring in hunger, and his hands and feet nearly black from frostbite, Guillamet was finally spotted by a woman tending her goats. His airplane was rescued too.

Distances, too, provided a challenge. In 1930, Jean Mermoz crossed the South Atlantic in his Latecoere 28 mail plane. With enough fuel to fly for 27 hours and a pair of floats welded over the wheels, the Aeropostale pilot flew non-stop 1,900 miles (3,058 kilometers) across the ocean from Dakar, Senegal, to Natal, Brazil in only 19 hours 35 minutes with 270 pounds (122 kilograms) of mail stuffed nearly to his chin.

On May 20-21, 1927, Charles Lindbergh became probably the most famous pilot in history by crossing the Atlantic solo, non-stop, from Roosevelt Field, New York, to Paris–3,600 miles (5,794 kilometers)–in 33 hours 39 minutes. But Lindbergh was already famous as an airmail pilot. On April 13, 1926, he had been hired to fly airmail between Chicago and St. Louis. Lindbergh was lucky–despite crashing often, he climbed out of the flaming cockpit every time, unhurt. Other airmail pilots called him “Lucky Lindy.” When Lindbergh ordered a new plane to fly the Atlantic, he modified the tough, reliable Ryan M-1 airplane. Mounted with a telescope to see over the extra fuel tanks, the model became the Ryan NYP, the Spirit of St. Louis, for his New York to Paris flight.

–Roger Mola

Bibliography and Further Reading

Bruns, James H. Turk Bird–The High-Flying Life and Times of Eddie Gardner. National Postal Museum, Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998.

Bruns, James H., Robertson, Jeffrey A. Mail on the Move. Polo, Ill., Transportation Trails, 1992.

Ethell, Jeffrey L. Smithsonian Frontiers of Flight. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, New York, Orion Books, 1992.

Leary, William M. Aerial Pioneers: The U.S. Air Mail Service, 1918-1927. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1985.

Jackson, Donald Dale. Flying the Mail. Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1982.

Mondey, David. The International Encyclopedia of Aviation. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., Quarry Bay, Hong Kong, Mandarin Publishers Limited, 1977.

On-Line References

“Air Mail Pioneers.”

“The Airmail Takes Wing.”

Courtesy U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission