Above the Clouds: The Airplanes

Drawing of an airplane in front of two plane hangers
Print and Color-In Your Airplane! »

Imagine a slower paced world with no airplanes and no instant communication. During the first half of the 20th century, airplanes dramatically changed people's ability to move and communicate.

Today, airplanes look and fly differently than they did then. Over the years, people have made airplanes better, faster, and safer.

The Post Office's pilots and mechanics made their airplanes better able to carry the mail. Their suggestions and improvements made their airplanes fly faster over longer distances, during both day and night, and able to carry increasingly heavier cargo.

Discover more about the airplanes that moved the mail – try these activities:
» Ins and Outs of an Airplane
» It's an airplane – But Which?

Here are four airplanes that carried the mail. Look for the differences and similarities.

In 1911, this Wiseman-Cooke aircraft was the first to carry mail in the United States. Pilot Fred Wiseman carried letters from Petaluma to Santa Rosa, California. The 18 ½ mile trip took 2 days to complete because of mechanical difficulties and a top speed of only 70 miles per hour. Compare that to today's jet passenger and cargo planes that can travel at speeds well over 500 miles per hour!

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Commemorative postcard of Wiseman-Cooke biplane in Snohamish, Washington on May 7, 1911.

Curtiss JN-4 "Jenny"
The Curtiss JN-4H Jennies were advanced versions of training aircraft used in the First World War. They were adopted by the Post Office in the first days of airmail service. The top speed of a Jenny was only 80 miles per hour. The farthest a Jenny could fly without stopping was about 175 miles. The Post Office soon retired the Jenny from airmail service because the airplane could not meet the demands of flying long distances and it could not carry more than 300 pounds of mail.

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U.S. Army Jenny airplanes in formation.

de Havilland DH-4
Like the Jenny airplanes, the U.S. Post Office also bought many de Havilland DH-4s from army surplus following World War I. Soon the DH-4 airplanes made up half of the new fleet of the airmail service. The Post Office quickly learned that the military DH-4 model required changes to make it suitable for hauling the heavy airmail cargo long distances.

Do you see similarities between the Wiseman-Cooke, the Curtiss JN-4H Jenny and the de Havilland DH-4 airplanes? Did you know that they all have structures made of wood and cloth? What materials are used to make airplanes today?

Aviation Innovation
What did the Post Office order changed on the DH-4 to make the airplane work better for the pilots and their cargo?

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de Havilland towed from a field in Nebraska, October 17, 1924.

Junkers JL-6
The Post Office ordered the new Junkers JL-6 airplane in 1920. The Junkers were the first all metal airplane. The Junkers were also monoplanes (aircrafts with one wing). Despite these modernizations, the Junkers JL-6 had a defect that could cause the airplane to catch fire. For the safety of the pilots, and to prevent the loss of further equipment and mail, the Post Office stopped flights of the Junkers in 1921.

Have you been a passenger on an airplane lately? It is very likely there was U.S. mail on that airplane with you. The United States Postal Service uses commercial airlines and cargo airplanes to move the mail long distances because modern jet airplanes have greater speed and are more efficient than trains or trucks.

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Junkers-Larsen JL-6 monoplane.

Fad to Fundamental: Airmail in America