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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.   We have published three of the eight intended articles. The first 2 articles in the series are below.  The 3rd is on the front page.  Clear skies!

Airmail Pilots: The Bravest of the Brave!

Part 1

Two Wings and a Prayer !


3rd in the 100th Anniversary Airmail Series

Historic Beacon Field, 12 OCTOBER 2018--- 


       This is a story about 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.


Postal Service Heritage 
Beacon Towers LIGHT the Airmail Route !
2nd in the 100th Anniversary Airmail Series

Historic Beacon Field, 4 April 2018 --- The first official U. S. air mail flight was May 15, 1918, a daytime flight between Washington, DC and Philadelphia, PA. 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 be competitive, the PO turned to night flying as a means to deliver the mail faster than the night trains. The around-the-clock flying time from New York to San Francisco was almost 35 hours with 13 stops along the 2,629 mile route. Air Mail became the service of choice for time critical business mail to the west.  PO revenue skyrocketed!

 


Courtesy St. Pete Times (D. Hightower)

Flying the night mail was wrought with danger from bad weather, pilot fatigue, unreliable engines, and a lack of lights on the ground or in the airplane. There were no radios, no parachutes, and pilots relied on farmers along the route to light bonfires at the time the plane was expected to fly over. Farmers with telephones would call in to say they heard the mail plane. Thirty-five of the pilots hired by the PO between 1918 and 1926 were killed attempting to deliver the mail. A surviving mail pilot recalled the group as a “Suicide Club”.

 

            To increase pilot 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 throughout the United States.


Courtesy C. Patton

Airway Beacon number 55 was installed in 1929 at the highest point in Fairfax County, VA., on a 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. By 1929 the PO had “standardized” the design and construction of their Airway beacon towers using a skeleton steel frame that rose over 50 feet high with a platform at its top for mounting the rotating beacon light. The tower, anchored to a concrete pad, had a build-in ladder to accommodate servicing the lights.

           

            East coast 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 was on this AM 19 route and its beacon was the first thing a mail pilot would see as he took off from Washington on the way to Atlanta.

            


As radio design advanced and became more reliable the days of the airway beacon towers were numbered. Radios for pilot communication and the radio direction finder (compass) developed by the government under the direction of the Commerce Department greatly improved air safety. In 1936, the results of a U.S. Senate committee investigation on aircraft safety accelerated the introduction and use of the superior radio technologies for mail planes and air liners*.  The faithful airway beacons were removed as radio use became the norm along the mail routes and airways. The Beacon Field tower was taken down shortly after the airport closed in 1959. Today, three of the last iconic airway beacon towers are still in operation in Montana’s rugged western mountains where 21st century technology has failed to provide all-weather flight safety.

 

*Courtesy Beacon readers Harold and Deborah Nelson contribution from The Bangor Daily News, May 30, 1936.


Postal Service Heritage 
Celebrating Washington's Birthday -- February 22nd
First in the 100th Anniversary Airmail Series

Postmark Mount Vernon, VA 8AM, Feb 22, 1932

Historic Beacon Field, February 22, 2018  --   George Washington, surveyor, military general, farmer, whiskey distiller, and America’s First President, was born on February 22, 1732, at his great-grandfather John Washington’s home in Westmoreland County, Virginia, which is south of today’s Colonial Beach. This 660 acre tobacco plantation was located near the confluence of Pope’s Creek and the Potomac River. George lived there until the age of three and he returned to live there as a teenager. He was the eldest of six children and he spent much of his early years at Ferry Farm plantation near Fredericksburg, VA.

 

The U.S. Post Office celebrated Washington’s 200th birthday with the issuance of 12 postage stamps each taken from a famous art work by renowned artists. These stamps are known as the “Washington Bicentennial Issue” (WBI) and are displayed on the legal-size envelope above in their order of postage starting with ½¢ up to the 10¢ stamp. It is interesting to note the changing face of Washington as he aged thru the years of the first portrait (1772 1-1/2¢) to the last portraits in 1795(5¢ and the 10¢). All designs except the 1¢ (a French sculpture) are taken from portraits by American artists.

 

The above envelope has a hand-stamped cache depicting the Washington birthplace at what has come to be known as “Wakefield Corner”. Its postmark is: “MOUNT VERNON FEB 22 8AM 1932”.

 

Washington appears on more U.S. postal stamps than any other person or subject. THE first U.S. stamps produced were the 5¢ Ben Franklin and the 10¢ Washington both in 1847.

 

The WBI alone accounts for 7,172,578,900 (yes, 7.2 billion) stamps issued in 1932 with the 2¢ stamp by far the most at 4,222,198,300 issued. On July 6th, 1932, the USPO raised the letter rate from 2¢ to 3¢; wonder what the USPO did with all those 2¢ stamps?