JUMP TO PAGE   100  >  200  >  300  >  400  >  500  >  600

Aero Mail: 1918

Aero Mail: 1918

"Inauguration of Aero Mail service. Polo Field mechanics." On May 15, 1918, "America's first aerial mail service was put into operation when aeroplanes piloted by Army aviators carried consignments of mail from New York and Philadelphia to Washington, and from Philadelphia to New York." View full size.


On Shorpy:
Today’s Top 5

The Army flew the mail again the spring of 1934, when negotiations between the Post Office Department and private air carriers broke down.

Again, considerable lives and aircraft were lost because AAC pilots didn't have the training or equipment required to meet constantly changing conditions and urgent schedules. Hap Arnold, then a lieutenant colonel in command of the western sector, admitted weather forecasts were essentially worthless to his fliers.

Maurer Maurer, an Air Force historian, wrote much about the mail flights of 1934 in his book Aviation in the U.S. Army, an amazing resource for the interwar era of military flight. They did much with little in those days.

Inauspicious Beginnings

Those mechanics needed to be spending a bit more time checking out the aircraft and less time posing for photos. The following account of inaugural flight mishaps is from 2009 book Flying Across America: The Airline Passenger Experience by Daniel L. Rust.

Employing U.S. Army pilots, the service began on May 15, 1918, from the Washington, D.C., polo grounds. An array of dignitaries, including President Woodrow Wilson, attended the event. They witnessed Lieutenant George L. Boyle climb into the cockpit ready for flight, only to discover that the plane's engine refused to start. Minutes passed before someone checked the gas tank — it was empty. The crowd laughed as mechanics scrambled to fill the tank. At last, Boyle took off, bound for Philadelphia. But he mistakenly flew around, rather than past, Chesapeake Bay, away from this destination. Upon landing 24 miles way from the starting point, Boyle's craft flipped over, and the mail was transferred to a train for transport to Philadelphia.

Intrepid aviators

The rate of fatalities among these early service pilots is chilling. The mail had to get through and brave pilots like these did their utmost to accomplish the mission. They pushed weather to the extreme limit and often paid with their lives. Every early mail pilot is a HERO!

Wutta Prop Job

Note the beautiful varnish finish on the propeller. Usually, that's all that's left of these machines today, since the finish preserves the wood so well. The same can't be said for the fabric. You can find any number of prop blades of similar vintage in antique shops across Cape Cod.

Almost as Safe as an Auto

Mail Air Line is Ready

Puts Locomotion Now Familiar to a New Use for People.

With the establishment of a regular aeroplane mail service between Washington and New York on Wednesday, the Postoffice Department considers that the project is experimental only in a sense that a means of locomotion now familiar is to be put to a new use. The war has demonstrated effectively that the aeroplane as a conveyance is almost as dependable and safe as an automobile, so the only real obstacle in the way of successfully operating the new air lines lies in the maintaining service under all kinds of weather conditions.

Twelve large training planes, each capable of making a maximum speed of 90 miles an hours, have been furnished by the War Department, to be used in the new service. The planes are one-seaters, as to maximum of space is desired in the fuselage for the storing of mail bags. They are built along the lines of the regulation bombing machines.

These planes are now being assembled in Mineola, N.Y. Three will be station in New York, six in Philadelphia, and three in Washington. Those for Washington will be shipped here either today or tomorrow.

Aviators for the service have been detailed from the ranks of the fighting airmen, in that War Department officials believe that the fliers will acquire valuable training in piloting the big mail aeroplanes over the long cross-country flights.

The schedule provides for the departure of one plane each day from this city and New York. The machines will leave at 11:30 o'clock in the morning and it is hoped to have the mail deposited at the other end not more than three hours later. Starting from the aviation field in Potomac Park, the trip to Philadelphia, about 135 miles, is expected to be made in about an hour and twenty minutes. At the hangers in North Philadelphia another machine will be waiting, ready to start the flight to New York as soon as the incoming plane lands and the transfer of mail bags has been made. The second leg of the journey from Philadelphia to Belmont field, in the Long Island suburbs of New York should be made in about an hour. The large planes are equipped to carry 600 pounds of mail or approximately 24,000 letters. The smaller machines will carry about half that amount.

Emergency landing fields have been established at Baltimore and Havre de Grace, Md., Wilmington Del., and New Brunswick, N.J. In the event of a machine breaking down at some interurban point in its journey, the mail sacks will be rushed by motor truck to the nearest railroad station, where they will be sent forward in care of a courier.
[Article continues with discussion of air mail stamps]

Washington Post, May 13, 1918

George Clooney, is that you?

Between the guy on the left with his fly undone and the one in the middle who's still too young to shave.

Rare version of a classic

This is a Curtiss JN-4H "Jenny," widely used in pilot training. What makes this picture unusual is the Jenny's engine, a 150 hp Hispano-Suiza, the same type used in Eddie Rickenbacker's famous Spad fighter plane of the Lafayette Escadrille. The much more common JN-4D Jennys used the underpowered 90 hp Curtiss OX-5, with its Rube Goldberg open-air rocker arm assembly, unlike the modern Hispano-Suiza's smooth valve covers seen here.

The 150 hp JN-4H was quite the hot rod for its time and is fairly rare compared to the rank-and-file JN-4D. Incidentally, it's considered bad form to hang on the propeller, these things can have a "hot magneto" and start at any time.

Jenny Was No Lady

Looks like a Hisso-powered Curtiss Jenny (JN-4H). If you recall, there are some really rare air mail stamps out there with an upside-down Jenny printed on them - that would be this plane.

Syndicate content is a vintage photography site featuring thousands of high-definition images from the 1850s to 1950s. The site is named after Shorpy Higginbotham, a teenage coal miner who lived 100 years ago. Contact us | Privacy policy | Site © 2022 Shorpy Inc.