Airmail Pickup Canister

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Airmail pickup canister

top of airmail pickup canister
Top of airmail pickup canister

In the 1930s, postal officials decided to test the feasibility of inaugurating airmail service in areas without adequate railway or highway mail links. Unfortunately, the towns which needed this type of service usually did not have adequate landing fields for planes.

Airmail pickup canister

Although a low-flying airplane could easily dump a sack of mail onto the ground, the difficult part would be getting ground mail into the moving plane. The Railway Mail Service’s successful on-the-fly mail exchange system provided the inspiration for an aviation experiment. Mail would be “caught” by a plane flying overhead and reeled up into the plane. Of course, catching the mail was not going to be easy.

Graphic diagram of the Stinson's mail pick-up operation
Graphic diagram of the Stinson's mail pick-up operation

The mail was placed in a rubber container that was suspended between a pair of 15-foot-high posts. An airplane outfitted with a hook flew over the posts, and successfully hooked the mail and reeled it in. At the top of each pole was a small direction flag, which showed the pilot the prevailing wind direction; and a pincer, which was used to keep the 60 foot long noose attached to the mail canister in place. 

Postal officials realized that throwing the mail out of a passing airplane wasn't going to be easy either. A simple mail sack wasn't going to be sufficient because it would be prone to fall in a random direction depending on the wind. A weighted holder was needed. But, if the canister was too heavy it might cause significant damage if it hit something when it fell. Then too, the canister holding the mail had to be able to survive repeated drops. Various different styles of receptacles were tested. Ultimately a hollow rubber design, resembling the nose cone of a rocket, was chosen.

photo of Stinson airmail pick-up operation in action
Stinson airmail pick-up operation in action

The plane that was initially used was a single engine Stinson Reliant aircraft, capable of operating at speeds of approximately 150 miles an hour. The crew consisted of the pilot and a flight officer who worked the pick-up mechanism, making the mail exchange. To deliver the mail, the flight officer lowered the mail container out of the bottom of the aircraft through a special opening. Just before reaching the poles he released the canister. Almost at the same instant an arm was lowered. The grappling hook snagged the hanging mail pouch then slid down the arm and caught the noose. Once the catch was made the flight officer activated the winding mechanism to reel the mail canister into the plane.

The method of exchanging mail in transit was adopted for experimental airmail routes in Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and West Virginia. In all, more than150 post offices were served. This style of pick up and delivery service began on May 12, 1939. The mail contractor that used the service was All American Airways Company. (Which later became known as Allegheny Airlines, and is now USAir.) The experimental routes covered 1,040 miles. During the first year of operation, more than 23,000 pick ups were made, amounting to 75,000 pounds of mail. The service was used in those areas for about ten years.

For further reading

Written by Nancy A. Pope

Additional Imagery

view inside the airmail pickup canister
Airmail pickup canister
Postmaster attaches a mail-filled container to the pick-up poles
Postmaster attaches a mail-filled container to the pick-up poles.