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Moving the Mail : Airmail in America : Some Early Pilots : Jack Knight

Jack Knight

Pilot Jack Knight posed in front of his plane
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Jack Knight in front of his plane on the radio
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The ultimate goal of the Post Office Department was to provide coast-to-coast airmail service. Spanning the continent was accomplished in gradual phases, beginning with the establishment of flights between New York and Chicago in 1918. Later, airmail service was extended further west. Transcontinental service was put into operation in 1920. By 1924, scheduled airmail service between New York and San Francisco regularly required only 34 hours.

Jack Knight was part of a relay team that flew 2,629 miles across the country on February 22-23, 1921. These pilots were tasked with proving to a skeptical U.S. Congress that airmail could travel both night and day.

Jack Knight's airmail odyssey illustrates the determination of those early aerial pioneers. Knight was originally scheduled to fly just one leg of the first day and night-time transcontinental airmail trip. He began flying the mail eastward to Omaha well after dark. About midnight, near Kearney, Nebraska, he encountered snow.

Landing at Omaha by the light of burning gasoline drums placed along the runway, Knight found that his relief pilot had not arrived. By this time, the snowfall had become a blizzard. After refueling his plane, Knight took off for Chicago at 2 a.m. with only a road map to guide him over terrain he had never crossed before.

With deep snow preventing a landing at Des Moines, Knight put down at an emergency landing site at Iowa City, Iowa, using the light of railroad flares which were set out by the field's night watchman, the only person there at the time. Knight refueled and took off again, heading toward Lake Michigan, which would serve as a "landmark" for him to find Chicago. When the snow stopped, he encountered fog.

Finally, with daybreak, the fog burned off and Lake Michigan was sighted. When Knight landed at Chicago's Checkerboard Field he was greeted by a throng of people who had gathered to see if the daring young pilot would finish his remarkable flight. His mail was relayed onto Cleveland and then New York, finally arriving 33 hours and 20 minutes after leaving San Francisco. Jack Knight was a national hero. He saved the first continuous coast-to-coast airmail flight from certain failure.



Pilot Jack Knight with a bandage over his broken nose
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Jack Knight broke his nose the day before his famous flights.

Jack Knight in cockpit of a DeHavilland airmail plane
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