Sunset over Beacon Field, May 29, 2019, 20:24. Image Courtesy Friend of Beacon Field.
Carrying into 2019, Beacon Field Airport® is honoring the 100th Anniversary of US Airmail 1918-2018 with a series of short articles on the pilots, planes, routes, stamps, airports, and beacons that made Airmail possible. We published three of our eight intended articles in 2018. our latest 4th article is 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!
The Army flies the mail of Scandal !
4th in the 100th Anniversary Airmail Series
Historic Beacon Field, 28 May 2019 ---
U.S. Army pilots flew the first official airmail-carrying flights from the Washington, D.C. polo field to New York city as well as the return flights in their "Jenny" biplanes. This was May 15,1918, and the U. S. Army Air Corps flew the mail for about 3 months as the USPO had not yet finalized their pilot teams and airplanes. Beginning August 12, 1918, the USPO took over the entire airmail service with their civilian pilots (salary $4,000 per year) & mechanics using six Standard Aircraft Corp. JR-1B biplanes (300 lbs. of mail & 60 gallons of avgas!). Later, the Washington polo field was abandoned in favor of the larger airport at College Park, MD., from which the mail was flown to Philadelphia (Camden, NJ).
A couple of years later, the "Roaring Twenties" brought a near decade of economic prosperity that was so great that many thought it would never end. This period had increased development and use of cars, radio and movies, telephones, and electrification bringing appliances to American homes. Aviation became big business and the demand for air mail greatly increased.
Major Fleet and Lt. George Boyle check their map and appear to be checking the time for Lt. Boyle's departure for Philly. Note that Lt. Boyle's goggles are upside down on his helmet, possibly leading to his crash landing later in the day. Smithsonian photo.
1918. Mail plane starts its take-off roll at College Park, MD. airport as the crowd looks on. This airport is currently open as a museum to aviation past. Library of Congress photo.
Mr. Otto Praeger, the Second Assistant Postmaster General of the United States was assigned additional duty as the Chief of the Airmail Service on May 15, 1918, which he held until 1927. Shown above at the historic flights to New York, he is unaware that he and Lt. Boyle's paths will soon cross as Boyle's aircraft will crash-land adjacent to his farm in Waldorf, MD! Smithsonian photo.
About this same time frame, the Congress realized that the U.S. aviation industry needed support to "catch-up" with advancing European technology and it passed several government Acts to achieve this end by providing funding to the aviation industry thru USPO contracts to carry the U.S. Air Mail.
The first of several U.S. Government actions to promote air mail was the "Contract Air Mail Act of 1925", February 2,1925, aka "Kelly Act" named for Clyde Kelly(R-PA), authorized the Post Master General (PMG) to contract with private citizens or companies for the carriage of mail by aircraft. This act provided bidding for smaller airmail routes where contractors were paid $3.00 per pound for the first 1000 miles flown.
The "Air Commerce Act of 1926",it's most important result was that the Army established the U.S. Army Air Corps in July, 1926. Civilian aviation went under the authority of the Commerce Department which became the regulator of the air carrier companies that were contracted under the "Kelly Act".
Mr. Walter F. Brown (R-PA, PMG 1929-1933) requested Congress to provide him expanded authority for contracts with airmail carriers. The "Air Mail Act of 1930" provided him with near unlimited and stronger authority for the execution of air mail contracts.
General Brown now had the authority to grant a ten-year exclusive contract to carriers based upon their mail carrying-capacityrather than the actual amount of airmail carried!! He was also empowered to change airmail contracts and mail routes at his whim.
Collusion? Almost immediately after the 1930 Act was approved, General Brown held meetings in Washington, DC., to discuss new air mail contracts and he selected his friend, Mr. William MacCracken, Jr. then Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Aviation, to be chairman of these meetings.
Only select larger companies were invited to these secretive gatherings where Brown directed that he wanted 3 coast-to-coast routes with only one company operating each route. "Spoils Conference" was the name later given to these meetings by the press as only three airline companies were awarded the majority of the airmail routes. Having an air mail contract was necessary for an airline company to turn a profit, as it wasn't until the 1936 introduction of the DC-3 airliner that selling passenger seats would provide adequate profit for the airlines.
Small airline companies loudly complained that Mr. MacCracken (a friend of President Hoover), and General Brown had unfairly locked them out from competing for mail contracts. The press had discovered that a large contract had been given to a major airline in spite of the fact that its bid was about three times greater than the bid from a small airline. As the result of Franklin D. Roosevelt(FDR) winning the presidential election and taking office in 1933, Senator Black(D-Alabama) led a Senate committee to investigate the selection process for the mail routes. Senator Black issued a number of subpoenas to obtain MacCracken's documents. MacCracken refused to comply and he mailed several documents to an airline president for "safe keeping".
The Justice Department moves in as DOJ has been directed to probe the testimony given before Senator Black's Committee. Pictured from left to right: Attorney General Homer S. Cummings, Carl L. Ristine, DOJ special agent; and Hugo Black, Committee Chairman. ACME Photo.
For his contempt of Congress, the Senate sentenced MacCracken to 10 days in the Washington, D.C. jail which he finally served after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected his plea. MacCracken later became a lawyer for the airlines.
Senator Black's hearings (September, 1933) called public attention to the illegality of General Brown's actions and contracts with pre-selected airlines for carriage of U.S. mails. From 1929 thru early 1934 the USPO revenue from selling air mail stamps was $54,000,000 dollars while $82,000,000 dollars were paid to fourteen mail air transport companies. The difference of 28 million dollars was considered a gift to the industry for their improvement of the country's aviation infrastructure (they actually spent that money on stock dividends and high salaries). Evidence was uncovered that pointed to criminality, collusion, and fraud by the airlines with the Hoover government (aka the "Air Mail Scandal" of 1934). Following this revelation FDR issued Executive Order 6591, February 9, 1934, in which he declared an emergency and directed James Farley, the new PMG to annul the airmail contracts with the airlines.
An overall view of the Feb. 19, 1934, Senate Airmail hearing as former PMG Walter Brown testifies. Senator Black is far left with his hand to his face, Brown is far right with his elbows on the table. Packed hearing room indicates the public interest in the "Airmail Scandal"! ACME Photo.
Foreign freight agent of the Pennsylvania Railroad, Mr. A.J. Dall testifying at the Senator Black hearing. Mr. Dall disclosed that an airmail contract was granted by the Post Office Department even before the bids for it were opened. International News Photo.
FDR also directed the Army to fly the mail routes by February 19, 1934, and the Army Air Corps Mail Operation (AACMO) with sixty Army pilots sworn-in as official postal employees (in order to carry the U.S. mail) took off from several airmail fields including the one at Newark, NJ. The last time the Army flew the air mail was 16 years ago!
To say that the US Army was unprepared to fly the air mail routes would be a huge understatement as the deck was stacked against the AACMO! The current Army airplanes were outdated by USPO standards especially lacking night and bad weather flying equipment.
U.S. Army prepares to fly the mail: Lt. Kelly seen in making practice takeoffs from Newark, N.J. airport on Feb. 17, 1934. Last minute efforts to make the first mail flight successful on Feb. 19, 1934, are coming together. ACME Photo.
Adapting the Army airplanes to fly the mail brought about an unforeseen consequence as most Army airplanes required a two-man crew to safety operate it. This meant there was a very high probability that both crew members would be killed in a crash. History bore this out as most crashes took both lives. The weather in February, 1934, could hardly be worst for flying with snow and ice storms both with an abundance of wind gusts, the last time an Army pilot flew a mail route was in fair weather back in 1918, and Army pilots were not accustomed to long flights as combat flights were much shorter.
Early in the Army pilot training for airmail flights three pilots were killed followed by another two pilots killed and six injured during the mail flights. March 11, 1934, brought the news that the AACMO had 66 airplane crashes or forced landings with 12 deaths of Army pilots. Public outcry was fierce and FDR directed the Army flights of the U.S. Airmail to be halted. The Army flew the mail again on March 19,1934, maintaining a reduced schedule thru May 8, 1934, with the last official Army mail flight on June 6, 1934. To the Army's credit, 777,389 pieces of mail were carried over 1.5 million miles!
The government moved quickly to return the airmail service to private contractors, mostly the airlines, by the "Airmail Act of 1934", June 12, 1934. Payment rates for carrying the U.S. Mail were reduced and bidding returned to private contractors(airlines) with a new and fairer set of rules. Bidding for the mail contracts was more competitive with former contractors not being allowed to submit bids. Some air mail contractors restructured and others merely changed their names: American Airways became American Airlines, Boeing became United Airlines, and Eastern Air Transport became Eastern Air Lines. On the government side this act divided regulation of air mail between the Post Office, the Commerce Department, and the Interstate Commerce Department.
From June, 1934, the U.S. Airmail was carried by airlines on both domestic and overseas routes to all parts of the world. The early airmail romance such as pilot's silk scarfs were replaced by pilot's brief cases and the risks were reduced ten-fold by flying multi-engine metal airplanes. Airmail met its demise when the USPO terminated the separate classification of "airmail", on October 11, 1975, and declared that ALL First Class mail was to be carried by air at the first class rate for United States destinations.
The saga of the U.S. government changing airmail carriers provided many opportunities for airmail stamp collectors (Aerophilately) who prized the many different covers (envelopes) that were produced as the carriage of airmail bounced between the Army and the airlines!
The end of "airmail" as we knew it!
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 Beacon Field Airport, Hybla Valley Airport and the large COSTCO Wall of Aviation on US Route 1.
Additionally, we are proud to 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 !