The Army Takes Command

Refer to caption
Newspaper clipping from the New York Times noting that the army is returning airmail service to contract carriers.

It had been 16 years since army pilots had flown airline routes. They were unfamiliar with the mail routes. To make matters worse, the weather at the time they took over the deliveries in February 1934 was terrible. There were a number of accidents as the pilots flew practice runs and began carrying the mail, leading to newspaper headlines that forced President Roosevelt to retreat from his plan only a month after he had turned the mail over to the army.

On February 7, 1934, Postmaster General Farley publicly announced the airmail investigation was underway and he and President Roosevelt were committed to ensuring that public interests were protected in the end. The action President Roosevelt took was the cancellation of all domestic airmail contracts.

On February 9, 1934, Major General Benjamin D. Foulois, Chief of the Army Air Corps, was asked to meet with representatives of the Post Office Department and Commerce Department. Foulois was asked if the army could handle the U.S. airmail service. Foulois replied that yes, he believed they could. Army brass saw an opportunity to promote the Army Air Corps at a time it was in a peacetime lull.

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President Roosevelt announced that the contracts would be suspended effective midnight February 19, 1934. he followed that with issuance of Executive Order 6591 that ordered the Postmaster General, Secretary of War and Secretary of Commerce to cooperate on a replacement airmail service. The War Department was ordered to place at the Postmaster General's disposal "such air airplanes, landing fields, pilots and other employees and equipment of the Army of the United States needed or required for the transportation of mail during the present emergency, by air over routes and schedules prescribed by the Postmaster General."

Air transport companies privately complained that without the 70 percent revenues they received from airmail contracts, they would be finished. Some even filed legal action against the government, to no effect. The Army hurried to meet its deadline, readying pilots and airplanes across the U.S.

According to testimony given by General Foulois on February 14 before the House Post Office Committee, he took several steps to prepare the Army Air Corps for this challenge.

"My first move was to get full control of every aircraft unit of the Army in the United States. I organized in my office as complete an air-division unit as possible. I designated three zones in the United States after conference with the Post Office officials as to the particular lines they wished to put into operation immediately. . . . I divided the country into the eastern zone, central zone, and the western zone. Headquarters of the eastern zone is at Newark, headquarters of the central zone is at Chicago, and headquarters of the western zone is at Salt Lake City. Three officers were immediately designated to take charge of those zones. They were immediately notified of the unit stations established within these zones that came under their complete control. Having determined from the Post Office Department the initial lines they wished to start operating as of February 19, we immediately made a distribution of aircraft available in each zone, and moved aircraft from one zone to another in order to have uniform type of aircraft with uniform speed in each zone, so that we could maintain as near as practicable the schedules now biding maintained by commercial lines. All of the Air Corps is being utilized at the present time to put this project into effect by February 19. Personnel and airplanes have been moving into positions since February 10. They should all be in position today. Commencing today and up to the first schedule run on February 10, each of these zone commanders will run trial flights over the lines that are to go into effect on the 19th.

We have assigned to this work the most experienced pilots in the Army Air Service. We have had a great deal of experience in flying at night, and in flying in fogs and bad weather, in blind flying, and in flying under all other conditions. We have not had the actual experience of flying over these scheduled routes, but we feel that after three or four days of preliminary flying over those routes, we shall experience no difficulty in maintaining the regular schedules.

My thought is that this operation is going to be a great benefit to our pilots and personnel. It is a wonderful opportunity to build a really good organization for an emergency."

The U.S. Army Air Corps' take over was anything but the success General Foulois had predicted. Their unfamiliarity with the postal operations and procedures, the lack of funds, and extremely bad weather conditions combined to set the attempt up for failure.

Sixty Air Corps pilots swore oaths as postal employees in preparation for the service. Almost immediately tragedy struck. Three army pilots were killed on test flights. Three more pilots were killed in following days. World War I aviation legend Eddie Rickenbacker referred to the service now as "legalized murder."

The Army lost ten men flying the mail in less than one million miles. On March 10, President Roosevelt called a halt to the Army's attempt, asking them only to fly under completely safe conditions. The Army argued that to ensure complete safety they would have to end all flights. The President decided to call a halt to the service on March 11, 1934.

The Army began flying the mail again on March 19, 1934. They maintained curtailed schedules through May 8, 1934, at which time temporary contracts with private companies were put into effect. Two more Army pilots died before the service's last official flight on June 6, 1934.

In their short time of flying the mail, the Army Air Corps service had logged 12 fatalities in 57 accidents. They had carried 777,389 pieces of mail over 1,590,155 miles.

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