The Army Pilots

. . . [military airmail pilots are] doing pioneer work in an entirely new field, where there are no precedents to follow.
Flying, July 1918

There were so many things wrong with our airplanes and their engines that we worked all night to get them in safe flying condition. For example, one gas tank had a hole in it and we had to plug it up with an ordinary lead pencil. Next morning, one machine was flyable, so at 8:40 a.m. I took off for Washington, where I landed at 10:35 at the [Polo Grounds] in Potomac Park. The mail was due to start twenty-five minutes later.
Major Reuben Fleet, on preparations for the May 15, 1918 airmail flights.

Did you know
...that in 1919, one pilot died for every 115,000 miles flown?
Learn more »

The U.S. Army provided the airplanes, ground crews, pilots and instruction for the world's first regularly scheduled Air Mail Service. The flights, which began May 18, 1918, connected Washington, D.C. and New York City through Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Army relinquished control of the service to the Post Office Department in August 1918, but their connection to airmail did not end there. During a contracting scandal in 1934, Army pilots flew the mail again for a brief period.

Refer to caption
Once gas had finally been retrieved for the airplane, this Curtiss Jenny JN-4H "Jenny" took off from the Washington, D.C. temporary airmail field near the Potomac River on the polo grounds. Hundreds of spectators watched as the airplane took flight, and waited for the mail which arrived a few hours later from New York City by way of Philadelphia's Bustleton Field.
Refer to caption
Airmail and government officials were on hand for this historic flight. From left to right are Second Assistant Postmaster General Otto Praeger, Washington, D.C. Postmaster Chance, Postmaster General Albert Burleson and President Woodrow Wilson.
Refer to caption
Captain Benjamin Lipsner (right) left the army in August when he was named the First Superintendent of the U.S. Air Mail Service. Lipsner is posed with unidentified airman in front of the Jenny aircraft that Lieutenant Boyle would soon fly out of Washington, D.C. on the morning of May 15, 1918.
Refer to caption
Not all of the Army's flights were successful. This Jenny, flown by Lieutenant Torrey Webb, crashed. Fortunately, Lieutenant Webb was unhurt.

The Army pilots were familiar with the JN-4 "Jennies," which had been used as training airplanes in the service, but they were irritated by postal service demands that they fly the mail regardless of weather conditions. Postal officials, especially Second Assistant Postmaster General Otto Praeger, who was in charge of the service for the department, were exasperated by Army pilots who refused to fly in bad fog.

Did you know
...that pilots could be "de-rated" flying hour time for infractions?
Pilots relied on flying hour pay to supplement their salaries?
Learn more »

After flights were canceled two days in a row, Praeger fired off a note to Captain A. C. Weidenbach, who was in charge of the service at that time. The route schedules he noted angrily, were essential. The Post Office Department was trying to "establish a daily aerial movement in the face of weather obstacles." Capt. Weidenbach agreed to push his pilots harder to keep to the schedule, but Praeger's suspicions about the army's commitment continued. He knew the army was primarily interested in providing flight training to their pilots, not in establishing the core of a commercial aviation network. Army pilots carried the mail for Praeger for the last time on August 10, 1918,

Fad to Fundamental: Airmail in America

Related Content