By James H. Bruns
This was a three part series which ran from October–December 1992 - April–June 1993.
Benjamin Lipsner, the nation's first Superintendent of the Air Mail Service decided to expand service to Chicago for several reasons: The Windy City had large commercial markets, political importance, heavy mail volume, and he himself was a Chicagoan. Postal officials agreed to Lipsner's request for test flights from New York to Chicago, provided the distance could be covered by plane in under ten hours. If the flight took more than ten hours, the Post Office could do better sending the mail by train. The ultimate goal of the Air Mail Service was to provide coast-to-coast service, but spanning the continent would have to be accomplished in stages, beginning with the establishment of flights between New York and Chicago.
For the flight, Lipsner asked his two best pilots to make separate journeys. The pilots were Eddie Gardner and Max Miller.
Lipsner arranged to meet Gardner and Miller for lunch, his preferred form of a business meeting. He needed to mediate a competitive squabble between the two pilots over who would make the flight first.
"Now boys," he said, "There is no use in quarreling about this. You are both going to make the trip and it really doesn't make a bit of difference to me who starts first."
He handed each a map and explained the most likely route, a direct air line from New York to Chicago. From Belmont Park they would fly over Manhattan, New Jersey, across the mountains of Pennsylvania, with stops for refueling at Lock Haven, Pennsylvania and Cleveland and Bryan, Ohio, and then hook around the lower edge of Lake Michigan into Chicago. The plan would follow the Woodrow Wilson Airway, one of several key aerial routes envisioned by the Aero Club of America.
During the lunch together, Lipsner stated that Miller would leave for Chicago first, with Gardner to follow a short time later. Gardner, also a Chicagoan, objected fiercely. The mere thought of tagging after Miller made him nearly choke.
"What do you mean follow?" Gardner snarled, "Do you think I'm a baby? Do you think I have to have a guide to help me set that ship down in Chicago? wouldn't I look pretty trailing some guy back to where I came from . What would my friends in Chicago say to see me being led home on a string by some guy from California?"
Lipsner, always the pragmatist, quickly switched sides. Gardner would leave first and Miller would follow.
"Oh, Max can follow can he?" barked the young Miller. "Why I couldn't follow him a mile without running him down."
Lipsner abandoned diplomacy for simple luck; he announced that a toss of the coin would determine who went first. Lipsner flipped a quarter and Miller called the winning "heads."
Embarrassed by their childish behavior, Miller and Gardner apologized to each other and left the eatery arm-in-arm, making bets about who would land first.
Both pilots, however, were overly cocky, and it was evident that the importance of their mission for the United States Post Office Department came as an afterthought. But despite their attitudes, Gardner and Miller would soon make history as the first pilots to make these flights.
The race would continue with the return flights from Chicago to New York a few days later, but for now the two pilots, Max Miller and Eddie Gardner, were celebrities. They were invited to party after party, carousing every night.
Finally, Benjamin Lipsner found himself in the awkward position of having to draw the line. Like an understanding yet fed-up father, he reined the pair in, pulling the plug on their late-night outings. He chastised the pair, telling them, "You've got to make the return trip in one day and you must get some sleep. I hate to spoil your fun, but you can't be social lions and successful birds at the same time."
Lipsner took his function as role model seriously. He constantly referred to the two pilots as "my boys," and found himself particularly concerned about Eddie Gardner, looking on him as more than a colleague or underling. As far as Lipsner was concerned, his responsibility included watching out for Gardner's personal well-being. Miller, on the other hand, had recently married Daisy Thomas, Lipsner's stenographer, giving Lipsner less reason to worry.
In his plans for the return flight from Chicago to New York, Lipsner decided to stagger the trips. He would send Miller back to New York on September 9, with Gardner following the next day. Lipsner hoped to ease the risk of running into bad weather, and increase the odds that one of the two would make it in less than ten hours.
Miller took off at 6 a.m., on time and in perfect weather. His flight proceeded without a hitch, so well that he chose not to stop at Bryan, Ohio, as planned. Instead, he simply dropped their mail in a sack over the side of the plane as he passed over the airfield.
Miller's luck ran out near Cleveland when his radiator sprang a leak. The long delay cost Miller his chance of sleeping in New York that night. Miller contacted Lipsner to explain what had happened, and asked for permission to continue his flight even in the dark, if necessary. Lipsner said no.
Now a successful flight was entirely up to Gardner. Lipsner was worried, so much could go wrong.
At dawn Lipsner only felt worse, for the weather was miserable. Mist and low-hanging clouds greeted those who gathered at Grant Park to witness Gardner's departure, and within minutes a driving rainstorm developed. The violent downpour prompted many spectators to take cover under the wings of Gardner's plane.
In view of the weather, Gardner was almost certain that the flight would be postponed, so much so that he had not stopped for breakfast. But Gardner was wrong, and, at the appointed time, Lipsner gave the word to take off.
The pilot voiced his reluctance to Lipsner, for the rain was now coming down in blinding sheets. Many of the onlookers, in fact, sided with Gardner. They questioned the advisability of making the flight under the circumstances. They urged the trip be delayed until the rain stopped.
Of course, this did not sit well with Lipsner, who did not want a public debate on the issue. "The mail must start on time," he politely told his friends and well-wishers, reminding them that, "Uncle Sam's airmail goes on time, rain or shine."
Lipsner's demands then escalated privately between Gardner and him. When all of the guests were out of earshot, he took Gardner aside and hammered his point home.
He played on Gardner's friendship and pride, and, that failing, became verbally abusive in an attempt to get Gardner's temper to flare. But Lipsner wasn't as good at it as Gardner's fellow ace pilot Max Miller. It was totally out of character for Lipsner to be like that towards Gardner, yet Lipsner was so desperate he began pleading.
"Eddie, you are to land that mail in New York today! Miller has fallen down because of that pesky radiator and it's up to you."
After this mean-spirited exchange, the tarpaulin covering the engine hood was pulled back and Ed Radel, Gardner's engineer, scampered into the forward cockpit. Gardner climbed into his tiny compartment and gave the command to "turn her over." The engine was fired up, as, for a brief pause, Lipsner and the crew strained to hear it start.
"I want to be in New York today," Gardner told Lipsner, but then added, "And I don't like this start!"
Stepping clear of the craft, Lipsner watched Gardner taxi off, shoot his plane out over the ground and steer it skyward. In an instant, it pierced the low-hanging clouds that blanketed the lake front.
Lipsner felt horrible about the send off. He had never spoken like that to his friend and only hoped Gardner would understand and forgive him.
Gardner made it to Cleveland safely, but unfortunately suffered a bizarre setback. In Cleveland, Gardner realized that a technician at the Cleveland airfield had accidentally left the field with the keys to the gasoline and oil tanks.
This carelessness caused a two-hour critical delay. It represented the difference between life and death for Gardner. Simple mathematics now told him he would need to fly part of the way in the dark, like it or not, in order to make it successfully in under ten hours.
At all times Lipsner was being kept advised of Gardner's progress through telegrams, and he soon learned of the mix-up in Cleveland. Despite the delay, Lipsner actually felt the flight was going very well. His most grave concern now was the risk Gardner faced by flying at night.
Lipsner prepared to depart for New York. As he was leaving for the train station, he was confronted by a swarm of reporters hoping for a statement concerning reports that Gardner's plane had been involved in a "7,000 foot fall from the clouds."
Lipsner was stunned! He hoped the media was wrong, they had been incorrect so many times before. Within minutes a telegram arrived confirming that there had been an accident, but gave no specific details. Lipsner frantically telephoned Belmont Park at New York, but no one there was able to shed light on the crash, telling him only that the plane had gone down.
In a blind panic, Lipsner tossed together his luggage and ran out to catch the next train. He felt sick. Had his nasty words sent Gardner to his death? Had his prized pilot somehow had a premonition that he would die? Was that why he had been so reluctant to go?
At each stop along the way, Lipsner tried in vain to get more information. His fear grew more profound as the train neared New York, nearly 30 hours after the crash had been reported. As Lipsner braced himself to deal with his expected loss, he strained to present a professional appearance to the army of press he expected awaiting him.
Much to his surprise, though, he found a small greeting committee, and among them was none other than Eddie Gardner. A little worse for wear, he was, nevertheless, there in the flesh, along with Max Miller and Ed Radel.
Lipsner would soon hear an account from his prized pilot Eddie Gardner about his latest riveting flight adventure. Lipsner would also be reminded that, once again, the two ace pilots failed to meet their ten-hour deadline for airmail service. But at this point Lipsner was all ears, grateful to be in the company of these courageous men.
Standing before Lipsner, almost like ghosts, were Eddie Gardner and his mechanic Edward Radel. Lipsner was elated that they were alive. He reacted like a giddy child; for not only were Gardner and Radel alive and well, but their flight had been a stunning success.
This flight, which brought the pilot and his mechanic close to death, marked the first time mail had been carried between Chicago and New York in less than 24 hours. The actually flying time was nine hours and 18 minutes. Gardner had beaten the best record of the fastest mail train by well over ten hours. Captain Lipsner wanted to know every detail, so he, Gardner, Radel and Max Miller proceeded to discuss the ordeal over lunch.
During the meal, Lipsner learned where the plane had come down and other fragments of the story. Lipsner quickly dismissed the fact that the crash site was ten miles short of the designated landing site at Belmont Park airfield. It was close enough. As the men began to eat, Eddie began his story, opening with an odd query: "Say, Captain, did you ever take gas?" asked the pilot?
This was an unexpected question. The remark left the others puzzled, but this was Eddie's unique way of explaining what had happened and how he felt.
"When I was younger," he explained, "I had to have a tooth pulled and the dentist gave me gas. I can remember the sensation to this day." The group wasn't sure what anesthesia had to do with it, but they listened intently.
"I was kind of leerly of the stuff, but after a while I allowed the attendant to put the muzzle over my face and then they went to it. They told me to take long, deep breaths, and I did. Louder and louder went the hammering in my eardrums. I tried to struggle but I didn't seem able to move. I was helpless. Then I drew a blank, and for what seemed forever I was dead.
"After a long, long time, I heard a thin voice calling to me from far away off in nowhere. Then it came nearer and nearer but I couldn't make it out. I strained my ears to get it and then, with a start, I tried to get up, and I came to finding I was wiping blood off my mouth and the voice was that of a dentist right beside me.
"You may think that has no bearing on this yarn, but I give you my word, my experience . . . was much the same except from another cause," said the pilot, who would prove the connection later.
Except for the terrifying final minutes, Gardner's return flight was an exceptional feet. He explained that he had no difficulty crossing the Allegheny Mountains, but as he passed into eastern Pennsylvania, it began to grow dark. From there, the flight continued across New Jersey and over Manhattan without incident.
"I crossed from New Jersey, high above the Statue of Liberty," Gardner continued. "The metropolis was wonderful. Lights everywhere. Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn and to the back of us, Staten Island, Queens and far out on Long Island—lights, lights, lights. They were beautiful, but to me, dangerous.
"It was the most brilliant and dazzling sight I ever hope to see. No one who has not been thousands of feet above New York City at night can appreciate it. Neither can they understand the danger. Imagine what would have happened if I had been forced to land at 42nd and Broadway, or on the Brooklyn Bridge, or in one of the rivers? And I was beginning to realize that I would have to land somewhere."
By this time in his flight, Gardner was becoming anxious. He headed the plane towards Belmont Park on Long Island. When he made it as far as Hicksville, he was really starting to panic. With fuel getting low, he would soon be forced to land, and he could not spot the air field.
Frantically, he searched the much darker terrain of Long Island beneath him for the landing flares of the Belmont Park air strip. For nearly 20 minutes he flew "figure eight's' trying to spot the field, but to no avail.
Unable to locate the lights that marked his haven, Gardner decided to put down in the first reasonably flat area he could find.
"I circled around until I was able to distinguish Brooklyn from New York proper by the inky stretch of the East River between, and I headed out above Long Island in the hope of finding Mineola field," he said.
Both Gardner and Radel were searching for a haven. In the twilight, he eyed a promising site, but was unable to tell for sure whether he was looking at a field or a stone quarry. Gradually, he descended. Inching lower, the pilot strained his eyes to make out the contours of the ground.
In an instant of panic, he saw what appeared to be treetops—trees that must be at least 30 feet tall! He decided to skim the treetops and then quickly drop in two 15-feet swoops onto what he hoped was a level clearing.
As he cleared the trees and dropped, the landing gear was ripped away and the fuselage careened along the ground like an uncontrollable surfboard. Seconds later, the skidding plane struck something and somersaulted. What Gardner thought were 30-foot-high trees were actual three-foot-tall shrubs. He had hit the ground.
"My ears were numb from the noise," said Gardner. "My eyes were burned out from the flashing exhaust and I felt as if I had taken gas again. I drew another blank, this time what seemed to be the last.
"I was certain that this was the finish. On the way down, I had sort of expected to get it, but I didn't care so much for myself as I did for Radel. He was strapped in there helpless, depending on me and I had failed him," said the flyer.
"I was dead. There was no doubt about it. It wasn't so bad now that I look back on it, as long as I stayed dead. But I might have known I'd have to come back and face the music for what I'd done to [Radel]."
All Gardner could remember was that he began hearing faint voices way off in the distance, just as he had years ago in the dentist's office. He said he strained to hear what was being said, but his foggy brain would not focus on the exact words.
When his mind began to clear, he first remembered feeling something warm tricking down his cheek. He rubbed his face and stared at his moist hand, which was barely visible in the light of the on-coming headlamps from the cars coming to his rescue. It was blood.
"I couldn't help but remember my experience in the dentist's chair. I had taken gas again!"
When the dust settled, Gardner—dizzy and bleeding—frantically began searching for Eddie Radel. He was sure that the mechanic, who had been strapped into the front compartment during the flight, was dead or at least badly heart. All Gardner could envision was that Radel was buried beneath the engine. Faintly, Gardner heard Radel's pleading voice: "Take the engine off! TAKE THE ENGINE OFF!" Those were the words he had been hearing all along.
Painfully, Gardner dragged himself toward Radel's pleas. Desperately he began tugging at the wreckage, but the twisted hulk would not budge. With the help of bystanders who had rushed to the scene, Radel was finally pulled free. Luckily, he had not been crushed by the engine, but had only been pinned under the almost-empty gas tank. Once free, Radel sprang to his feet and began flailing his arms like a madman.
"It isn't broke, my shoulder! It isn't broken! I know it isn't broken!" he exclaimed.
Radel's antics convinced Gardner that the mechanic had suffered a severe head injury, one that had scrambled his brain. Within seconds, however, a fully composed Radel said, "Gee, Eddie, you're all cut up."
Indeed, Gardner had suffered more than Radel. In addition to cuts and bruises and a sprained wrist, the impact damaged Gardner's nose, causing a black eye.
Exhausted and injured, Gardner and Radel were taken to Vogel's Hotel in Hicksville. Gardner telephoned H.I. Hartung, the air station manager at Belmont Park, and then collapsed. Hartung rushed by car to Hicksville to recover the mail, and then checked on Gardner and Radel, who by then had been transported to Nassau Hospital. The next day, Gardner and Radel returned to inspect what remained of their plane.
Gardner, whose pride was injured from the seemingly unsuccessful flight, recalled some additional circumstances behind the mishap:
"The conditions under which I flew were not ideal. I left Chicago in blinding rain. After passing over New York Harbor on the evening of the same day, with only lights in the bay to guide me, I hovered over Belmont Park for 27 minutes in total darkness. There was not a fire or signal of any kind on the black earth to tell me whether I was over the Atlantic, a forest, a town or a clear field. All the signal fires which were to have guided me to my landing were not lit or were invisible.
"Those 27 minutes were the most harrowing in my life. I felt all right myself, but I had the life of my mechanic to think of. We came down from a height of 5,000 feet to about 1,500, and the lower we got the blacker it became. Finally I looked down and said we would have to take a chance. I fully expected to run into something and turn turtle."
* EnRoute was the National Postal Museum's newsletter.