Knight's Night

James "Jack" Knight was part of the relay team of pilots 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. Only one pilot dared to fly the mail through wretched weather in the middle of the night between Omaha and Chicago, saving Praeger's airmail service.

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 left North Platte, Nebraska, flying the mail eastward to Omaha well after dark. About midnight, near Kearney, Nebraska, he encountered snow, but kept on course to his destination.

Landing at Omaha by the light of burning gasoline drums placed along the runway, Knight found that the relief pilot refused to continue east to Chicago through the storm. Knight, his nose broken in a airplane crash the week before, volunteered to take the flight. He took off for Chicago at 2 a.m. with only a road map to guide him over terrain he had never crossed.

With deep snow preventing a landing at Des Moines, Iowa, Knight put down at an emergency landing site at Iowa City, using the light of railroad flares set out by the field's night watchman. 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, the fog began.

Did you know
...that the first airplane used by U.S. airmail pilots had a top speed of only 80 miles per hour?
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Finally, with daybreak, the fog burned off and Lake Michigan was in sight. When Knight finally 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.

On February 24, 1921, the New York Times ran an article trumpeting Knight's triumphant flight. Subtitled, "Pilot Tells of Flight in Dark Through Snow and Fog," the article called Jack Knight the "hero of the coast-to-coast mail flight." The article quotes Knight's reaction to the end of the flight as "I feel fine, except that I need some eats and some sleep."

Knight then described his historic flight to the reporter. "I got tangled up in the fog and snow a little bit. Once or twice I had to go down and mow some trees to find out where I was, but it did not amount to much, except for all that stretch between Des Moines and Iowa City. Say, if you ever want to worry your head, just try to find Iowa City on a dark night with a good snow and fog hanging around. Finding Chicago, -- why that was a cinch. I could see it a hundred miles away by the smoke. But Iowa City – well, that was tough."

Knight's official report was more specific. "Left North Platte at 10:44 p.m., cloudy, moon shining intermittently from behind broken cloud layers, but had no particular trouble following course through use of compass and occasional glimpses of ground and river. Arrived Omaha 1:10 a.m., left 1:59 a.m. Delay at Omaha due to studying route Omaha to Chicago, which I had never flown. Visibility fair until about Des Moines, where I encountered fog and snow flurries lasting to Iowa City. Lost ten minutes at Iowa City locating town and field and remained there until I got weather report from Chicago, as weather was bad. Between Iowa City and Chicago the weather was bad until about 2:30 a.m., when it began improving slowly and was comparatively clear at 5 in the morning."

In another article published that day by the Times, the postal service was praised for attempting the revolutionary service. Praeger took the opportunity to bask in the reflected glory and announced that by May 1, 1921, "night flying will be regularly established along the New York – San Francisco route, and mail between San Francisco and New York will be delivered in approximately 36 hours, covering the the whole distance across the continent."

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Telegram from Jack Knight relaying information of his historic February 23, 1921 flight.
-Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration

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Jack Knight (facing the camera) and pilot Clarence Lange (facing the wall) pose in their new winter weather suits with the Post Office Department's Aerial Mail Service logo.
-Courtesy of National Air and Space Museum

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Jack Knight in his de Havilland airplane.

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Jack Knight. This photograph was taken after his historic 1921 flight. He had broken his nose in an airplane crash the week before.

Learn more about Jack Knight

Fad to Fundamental: Airmail in America