Beacon Field Airport® is honoring the 100th Anniversary of US Airmail 1918-2018 with the launch of a new series of short articles on the pilots, planes, routes, stamps, airports, and beacons that made Airmail possible. Prior to the May 15th anniversary date, we published two of the eight intended articles. The 3rd article below. Clear skies!
Beacon Field Airport 100th Anniversary US AIRMAIL Cachet
Proud Member of: International Dark -Sky Association (IDA) American Airmail Society Universal Ship Cancellation Society American Philatelic Society Virginia Aeronautical Historical Society
Airmail Pilots: The Bravest of the Brave!
Two Wings and a Prayer !
3rd in the 100th Anniversary Airmail Series
Historic Beacon Field, 12 OCTOBER 2018---
This is a storyabout the exceptional pilots who flew the first airplanes that carried the US Airmail. The most surprising fact is that airmail pilots belonged to four different organizations. WWI, politics, scandal, and Congressional whim dictated which organization flew the airmail.
In order to deliver the mail faster and to many very remote sites the U.S. Post Office turned to the airplane to carry the mail. The progressive leadership of the USPO in the early 20th century provided the direction to build airports, buy airplanes, and hire ground crews and pilots in order to facilitate the operation of the US Airmail Service.
The first official U. S. air mail flight was on May 15, 1918, a daytime flight between Washington, D.C. (polo field) and New York City with a stop-over at Philadelphia, PA. The USPO had decided it was time to try an experiment in flying the mail between Washington, D.C. and New York city (204 air miles) and as such the USPO advertised their intentions in order to find a “contractor” to take on the task. Pilots were to take-off from Washington & New York city at the same time with the intent to arrive at their designations at the same time.
Harry Stark, Air Mail Pilot Route 19
The US Army immediately stepped up and insisted on flying these historic mail-carrying flights. The USPO was stunned but gratefully accepted the Army’s offer to provide Curtiss Jenny WWI biplanes and Army pilots. Politics interfered in the pilot choices with some of the Washington based pilots chosen because of their political connections. Turns out that those with the best connections were the least experienced pilots – one flow south(?) to Philadelphia, another got lost over the Chesapeake Bay, one airplane was trucked back to Washington from Waldorf, MD., where it crashed from running out of gas. Army pilots with flight experience from WWI took over and successfully delivered 124 pounds of air mail to New York city. The flights from New York were completely successful!
On more than one occasion the Army found that their 90 HP Jenny airplanes would almost “backup” in the strong Pennsylvania easterly headwinds giving a ground speed of almost zero MPH! More horsepower was needed and the U.S. Army’s experience in flying the mail was anything but satisfying. Due to the pressures of WWI, Army pilots flew the airmail for only a couple months when the USPO took over flying the mail on August 10, 1918, with their WWI surplus DH-4(currently on display at the National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C.) and with the 400 HP JR-1B airplanes. The specially built airplanes which moved the cockpit back and installed a side door that allowed mail bags to be carried inside the fuselage with radios, lighting, and instruments would come later along with beacon towers and radio navigation. By the end of 1928 forty civilian pilots were hired by the USPO; what pilot could turn down answering an advertisement similar to this one:
“WANTED: Experienced airplane pilots to fly the US Air Mail!
The United States Post Office is seeking applications from qualified airplane pilots. Applicants must have the following:
-1,000 flight hours minimum; night experience is also desired;
-A current US pilot’s license;
-Experience with side-arms desired, pilots are required to carry 38 caliper pistols;
-Successful experience in open cockpit aircraft flying in conditions including rain, snow, fog, cross- winds, extreme temperatures, icing conditions, and take-offs & landings on unprepared sod fields.
Base pay is $3,600 per year with an additional salary of five to seven cents per mile flown. ($3,600 in 1918 is $64,780.00 in today’s dollars) Night flights earned ten cents per mile flown.”
W. STURTEVANT, Air Mail Pilot Route 7
The airport at College Park, Maryland, was used for the first airmail flight made by the Post Office on August 12, 1918, when Max Miller took off in a Curtiss R-4 with its famous 400HP Liberty engine. Max Miller was the first pilot hired by the USPO, and sadly he died about two years later when his infamous German Junkers airplane caught fire and crashed on September 1, 1920. During this time frame mail flights were only in daylight due to the need to use dead-reckoning which relied on visual landmarks to navigate. Altitudes were typically between 200 and 500 feet above ground! Flying the mail was wrought with danger from bad weather, pilot fatigue, poorly prepared sod fields and unreliable engines. Pilots had no radios, no parachutes, no heat, and often were covered with engine oil and antifreeze even after a successful landing.
Thirty-five of the pilots hired by the PO between 1918 and 1926 were killed attempting to deliver the mail. Over this period there were 6,500 forced landings, in-flight fires, crashes into obstacles (trees, etc.) and planes bursting into flames upon landing. The average life span of an airmail pilot was 900 flight hours!! A surviving mail pilot recalled the group as the “Suicide Club”.
The need for flying the mail at night has its roots a few years later at the time when the Post Office(PO) was losing significant revenue to the Railway Mail Service for the delivery of business mail that included stocks, bonds, and documents of business. The fast night trains delivered these items overnight from New York City to business centers in Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland. Business mail by train would be delivered in the next morning in Chicago; the best the Post Office could do by daytime air mail was a full day later.
To increase night flying safety and to reduce the loss of the mail due to crashes, the PO decided to light the airmail routes with rotating beacons. They contracted for the installation of Airway Beacons along the entire NY to San Francisco route. By the end of 1924 that route had been lit from Cleveland to Rock Springs, WY., and the PO had acquired 18 airfields, 89 emergency fields, and had installed over 500 airway beacons throughout the US. When completed the beacon tower program installed 1550 airway beacons across the United States.
Airway Beacon number 55 was installed in 1929 at the highest point in Fairfax County, VA., at Beacon Hill overlooking the city of Alexandria. Also installed was its companion electrical generator that provided power to the 1000 watt rotating white light beam and its green course lights. In 1932 the airfield would take the “Beacon Field Airport” name when it was granted a Virginia airport license.
JOHN ARMSTRONG, Air Mail Pilot Route 19
Airmail Pilot Armstrong Signed Cachet
East coast air mail routes such as the New York to Atlanta route (AM 19) had their beacons installed after the western routes as the eastern routes were heavily populated and were not as dangerous. Beacon Field Airport was on this AM 19 route and its beacon was the first thing a mail pilot would see as he took off from Washington (College Park, MD., airport) on the way to Atlanta.
Congress passed the Contract Air Mail Act of 1925, aka “Kelly Act” which authorized the USPO to contract with private companies to deliver the air mail. This concept had been a goal of the USPO since the beginning of the air mail program and Air Mail routes under this new contract system were know by the name “CAM” followed by a number that designated its route. Air Mail service from New York city to Atlanta was known as CAM 19 with its inaugural service on May 1 & 2, 1928, with Pitcairn Aviation as the low-bidder contractor supplying the pilots and aircraft. Henry Ford won the first CAM contracts with his bid to fly Ford-Stout Trimotor aircraft on routes which provided service between Dearborn, MI, and Cleveland (CAM 6) & Chicago (CAM 7). USPO exclusive carrying of the airmail came to an end in 1926; many of its pilots went to work for the winners of the CAM contracts.
As a result of what is known as the “Great Airmail Scandal”, the Postmaster General canceled all CAM contracts. The U.S. Army once again flew the air mail on “temporary routes” starting on February 19, 1934. Night flights and winter weather took its toll and 13 Army pilots died! As a result of huge public outcry, President Roosevelt asked the US Army: “General when are these air mail killings going to stop?” The Army appeared to have no adequate response and new CAM contracts were quickly made and flying went back to the airlines and private contractors in June 1934.
W.H.Proctor Inaugural Air Mail Pilot, Route 20
Chronologically, the pilots who flew the airmail worked for the US Army, the US Post Office, the airlines & private contractors, the US Army, and finally the airlines & private contractors when the new CAM contracts were administered. Airlines soon discovered that passenger travel alone would not provide adequate operating revenues and as a result they outbid the private contractors for the mail contracts. Private contractors were able to outbid the airlines on the low-revenue routes and some stayed in business for several years, eventually all airmail was flown by the airlines .
The colorful history of the evolution of the airmail service is complex and loaded with politics, inside deals, infighting in the Army, Presidential intrigue and smoke-filled rooms at Congress.
This article focused on the brave airmail pilots who took incredible risks to “get the mail through”, the reader is encouraged to pursue reading one of the excellent books written on the US airmail for the finer points of the behind the scenes of the airmail history. No amount of words can do justice to the dedication and determination of the early airmail pilots and ground crews as they worked around the clock to keep the airplanes flying and the mail moving!
Photos Courtesy of the Beacon Field Airport® Collection.
Beacon Field Airport® was located on Historic US Route 1 "The Hospitality Highway" in the southeast section of Fairfax County, Virginia, 3.6 miles north of Mount Vernon. Most know the area as Beacon Hill, one of the highest elevations in all of Fairfax County. Beacon Field and local area were named after the Airway Beacon No.55 which was installed on the airfield in the late 1920's as a navigational aid to US Mail pilots. The Beacon name has proliferated over the years and now includes a shopping center, apartment buildings, businesses, and streets.
The Historic Roadside Marker
Click pic for google mapping
On August 19, 2009, the Beacon Field Airport Fairfax County Historic Marker was dedicated in commemoration of aviation pioneer Orville Wright's birthday also known as NATIONAL AVIATION DAY.
Our Flight Path
which began in 2007....
We work tirelessly to gain recognition for Beacon Field and since 2007 have successfully facilitated the installation of three permanent official roadside historic markers including the large COSTCO Wall of Aviation on US Route 1. Additionally, we have given history talks, hosted a 5year photo exhibition at local Starbucks, funded renaming of "Beacon Field Airport Highway" frontage road, sponsored Little League Baseball, conducted VDOT Adopt A Highway for over 8 years, participated in FCFD Adopt a Hydrant program, continuously maintained two educational websites (Beacon Field and Hybla Valley) for over 10 years, and rejoiced when the Space Shuttle Discovery retirement flight flew over the Beacon marker.
We collect, share, and connect information to facilitate a better appreciation for the influence of Beacon Field. This website strives to educate and offer a venue for the capture and preservation of Beacon Field Airport history and lore before it was lost forever as one of the nation's earliest private airports which embodied the genius of America.
Beacon Field Office c. 1948
We conduct activities pro bono and are not affiliated with any civic associations, social, or political interest groups.So, if you see our website photos and text material anywhere else, you can assume the material has been pirated without our permission.
Keep in touch with Beacon Field Airport® frequent updates to the news section below.
Beacon Field News
Beacon Field goes dark with the DARK SKY Initiative
Historic Beacon Field, November 22, 2017 (Updated March 5, 2018) --Friends of Beacon Field took the initiative this year to embrace the DARK SKIES movement by actively seeking the reduction of light pollution in and around the land of the former air field. Our objective is two-fold. First, to raise awareness of the benefits of taking back and preserving a dark sky which is important for a healthy human environment, normal wildlife behavior, and astronomical viewing. Second, to complete the Beacon Project which is our mission to see all the planets and the 110 Messier astronomical objects visible in our hemisphere.
iPhone5 strapped to 8" Dobsonian, Groveton, VA 2/06/2017 8:43pm EST, f/2.4 ISO 50
The high elevation and proximity to a very large dark 50 acre cemetery has given Beacon Field folks many enjoyable nights in the backyard to view the planet Saturn’s rings, Orion’s Nebula, Blue Snowball planetary nebula (NGC 7662), Andromeda Galaxy, Jupiter’s four moons, the constellation Cassiopeia’s abundant star clusters, OWL “E.T.” nebula, and more astronomical delights. The photo at right was taken by this editor with an iPhone 5 strapped to an 8” Dobsonian telescope to capture this moon shot earlier in the year on a crisp winter night.
Skyglow in the immediate area is worse north and eastward towards D.C. and the Oxon Hill area in Maryland. The southern view is affected though not as severe. Surprisingly, some of our best seeing has been due south despite the heavily lit commercial US Route 1 corridor.
The negative impact of light pollution extends beyond blocking our view of the stars, it is costly in environment damage and energy consumption. Many communities all over the world have embraced the establishment of dark sky lighting standards that include shielding of outdoor fixtures, banning search lights, limiting the amount of installed lighting per acre, and managing light spectrums. Flagstaff, AZ which is home to the Lowell Observatory and the United States Naval Observatory (USNO), has a 59 year tradition of dark sky preservation. In 2001, Flagstaff was given the first International Dark-Sky City designation by the Int’l Dark-Sky Association (Astronomy, Sept 2017).
Our own Fairfax County government approved in June 2003 the Outdoor Lighting Standards Ordinance (14-900) under the purview of the FC Department of Planning and Zoning to control glare, light trespass, time limits on outdoor playing fields/courts, and skyglow. The FC Park Authority issued a brochure in January 2008 on the importance of dark nights and it may be found here.
Piercing example of light trespass from parking lot light 300 ft into kitchen window
However, our casual observation in the Beacon Hill area reveals many non-compliant light fixtures producing abhorrent glare, rabid cases of light trespass beyond property lines into residences, missing fixture shields, and unnecessary “always on” artificial lighting (and we are not talking about holiday lights). While it is highly improbable that the Beacon area will ever have a true “dark sky”, it is reasonable to expect that existing lighting standards and ordinances should be enforced.
A wealth of information exists online on ways to curb the negative impacts of artificial lights in commercial as well as the home environment. Sadly, many large cities have moved towards bright white LED lights to save money rather than the low pressure sodium technology that is preferred for dark sky protection. To learn more, start with the National Optical Astronomy Observatory and check out theQuality Lighting Teaching Kitvideos and postcards by clicking here. More of our favorite websites below.
Orion Constellation: 1/30/2018 Beacon Field, hand held Sony a33 w/1.8 MF, 20:25 EST.
Many stars and asterisms are visible in our area with the unaided eye! Turn the lights off, go outside, and take a look !!
Happy Seeing !
A few of our favorite websites on dark skies
NIH article health effects of light pollution: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2627884/
On February 28, 1938, the popular Washington Herald newspaper began a series of articles on the inability of Congress to reach a decision on the selection of a national airport site. Most do not realize that the Beacon Field Airport site was a top contender with its high altitude and fog free conditions.
The Federal city needed a national airport. Washington D.C.'s Hoover Field and Washington Airport were too small and too close to each other to accommodate the expanding aviation industry. These two privately owned unpaved fields merged in an attempt to remain viable during the depression. Pilots would not land there because of the treacherous conditions including a public connector road in the middle of the runway.
Congress resisted responsibility for resolving the issue. "Between 1926 and 1938, Congress produced reams of debate transcripts and 37 committee reports on the problem, but no action." The Air Commerce Act of 1926 had restricted government financial involvement in the development of airports and Presidents Hoover and Roosevelt had been stymied to press legislative decision.
Fake news is not a modern phenomena and each media had a different perspective. The Washington Herald featured a series of articles on the search process for the national airport site. Noted journalist Pat Frank (penname for Harry Hart Frank) achieved a "dispassionate presentation of the facts".
The map at right illustrated the 9 final contenders out of the 49 proposed sites. Beacon Field and Hybla Valley were among the top 4 candidates.
28 February 2017 Historic Beacon Field
"Search Pressed for Airport Site" The Washington Herald Feb 28, 1938
Local history --> Mount Eagle, Virginia
(6,000 ft from the end of the Beacon runway)
Who knew that Mount Eagle estate (less than 6,000 feet from the end of the Beacon runway) was the 1821 birthplace of Rear Admiral Donald McNeill Fairfax, a great grandson of Bryan Fairfax, lord of the estate. Rear Admiral Fairfax served 44 years in the US Navy and was honored with having a Naval Wickes Class Destroyer (DD-93) named after him and built at the Mare Naval Yard, commissioned April 6, 1918. The USS Fairfax also had a lengthy service record and played important role in the fortification of Atlantic crossing troop transports. She rescued 86 USS Lucia sailors when their ship was torpedoed. In March 1933, the USS Fairfax took part in the Presidential review by FDR and later represented the US at the opening of 1939 New York World's Fair. In 1940, she was recommissioned as the HMS Richmond and given to the British under the lend lease program. Late in WWII, she was given to the Russian forces and ultimately returned to the United Kingdom in 1949. SALUTE !