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Par Avion: 1918

Par Avion: 1918

May 1918. Washington, D.C. "Air Mail, inauguration of service, polo grounds. Maj. R.H. Fleet beside Curtiss JN46H plane." Note the map tied to the major's leg. Harris & Ewing Collection glass negative. View full size.


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That first day had its adventures

This was May 15 and until the U.S. Post Office hired its own pilots who took over on August 12, Fleet and six other army pilots carried the load, so to speak. The trips that day were to Philly and continuing on to NYC. Other flights left from New York for Washington.

One pilot was Lieutenant George Boyle, chosen not because of his experience (he had fewer than 60 hours) but because his fiancee was the daughter of Interstate Commerce Commissioner Charles McChord.

With President Wilson, other high level politicos and, I’d imagine, his admiring girl friend in the crowd, Boyle couldn’t get his Jenny started. Someone forgot to fuel it. That was a minor snag for the young aviator, though, because he got lost en route to Philadelphia and crashed in Maryland about 25 miles from takeoff. Another account says he got lost twice trying to fly from Washington to Philadelphia. “The Atlantic Ocean and lack of gas prevent him going further,” Fleet said.

Fleet’s trip that day and the other pilots’ were completed. I wonder if the leaf hanging on the wire or cable held on all the way. He’s got his map folded exactly as I did on long car trips for years before GPS. He's drawn a straight line down to his first destination. Making a folded point at the one end contains the rest of the map underneath. Strangely, his map outline looks quite a lot like an overhead view of the SR-71 Blackbird (Los Angeles to Dulles in 58 minutes).

Here is an excellent story about early air mail and its pilots, featuring the central Pennsylvania town of Bellefonte, the first refueling stop established for air mail flights. Lindbergh knew the field quite well; Wiley Post, Amelia Earhart, Eddie Rickenbacker, Will Rogers, Admiral Richard Byrd had reasons to land there, too. Many early air mail aviators were something special, including colorful pilot Harold “Slim” Lewis, of whom an admirer said, “He was the which than which there was no whicher.”
The Air & Space site itself is terrific.

Fleet's Factory

How startling to see such a familiar San Diego face on Shorpy. Although there was already a burgeoning aircraft industry in San Diego when Fleet moved here in 1935 (Lindbergh's "Spirit of St. Louis" was built by Ryan Aeronautical in San Diego), the vast Consolidated Vultee Aircraft factory he built here and its output during World War II and the Cold War permanently transformed San Diego. The Convair aircraft factory stretched almost continuously for more than two miles along Pacific Highway, adjacent to Lindbergh Field, our airport on San Diego Bay and the Marine Corps Recruit Depot. Just one portion of the plant's Building One is visible in the 1943 photo below. Most of the factory is now long gone, but Building Two now houses the U.S. Navy's Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center (SPAWAR). The San Diego Aerospace Museum in Balboa Park houses the Convair/General Dynamics company papers and photo archives.

It sure was dangerous!

Lindbergh himself crashed his mail plane twice between October 1925 and February 1927 due to bad situations he got into flying into Chicago. He fortunately bailed out each time.

Plenty of Danger

It was said that the early days of flying the mail was almost as bad as flying in combat. So many pilots were lost that the government had to suspend the program for a time.


I guess road-maps have always been tough to refold.

Cold up there...

One of our neighbours where I grew up had been a gunner on 2-seater WWI fighter/bomber aircraft, and he told me that it got to be -20 F "up there". They were dressed for bitter cold: even their faces were smeared with axle grease to prevent frostbite. As soon as I saw this picture, I remembered my neighbour's words.

1918 Navaids

Back in those days they all flew IFR - as in 'I Follow Roads' (or Rails).

Same plane as Lindbergh's!

Hard to imagine now, with all the airports and navigational ads and what not, but it was a real challenge to fly from one city to another back then. No radio, no radar, almost no onboard instruments other than a compass, a level indicator and a clock... having to rely on visual references, and praying that there wouldn't be fog or rain in your route... wow.

Those early pilots really had to be brave and a bit of daredavils, and the demeanor of this guy clearly shows those traits.

Reuben H. Fleet

The pilot is Reuben H. Fleet who went on to found the Consolidated Aircraft company. The Science Museum and planetarium in San Diego's Balboa Park is named in his honor.

Love that leather

Maj. Fleet appears to be well dressed for the cold in his leather flying suit. This outfit would make quite a statement today in Haute Couture society.

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