Airmail Service

Topical Reference Page
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From left to right: Pilots Jack Knight, Clarence Lange, Lawrence Garrison, “Wild” Bill Hopson and Andrew Dunphy, head of the Omaha-Salt Lake City Division posed in front of an airmail hangar in Omaha.

At the end of the First World War, aviation pioneer William Boeing was on the verge of abandoning his fledgling and failing aviation business to return full time to the more profitable furniture business. In 1927 Boeing won one of a handful of US Post Office Department airmail contracts. At a time when few were willing to risk their lives as passengers in the developing commercial aviation industry, airmail contracts provided companies like Boeing with the financial cushion that allowed them to develop stronger, more reliable aircraft.

Not only did America’s Post Office Department fund the nation’s commercial aviation industry, but from 1918-1927, the Department operated the nation’s airmail service. Postal officials hired pilots and mechanics, purchased airplanes and equipment, established aviation routes and led the nation into the commercial aviation age.

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Harry Sherlock and Heller Field

Harry Conley Sherlock was a former Royal Air Corps pilot who had been attached to a day bombing squadron during World War I. He joined the U.S. Airmail Service on February 12, 1920. Sherlock was single, and lived with his mother in East Orange, NJ. His first assignment was to College Park, MD, which served as the Washington, D.C. airmail field. After a crash there, he came face to face with the strict, unforgiving rules of Second Assistant Postmaster General Otto Praeger's management. Sherlock was penalized 10 flying hours for "poor judgment while making a landing on March 10 at College Park.” Sherlock had overshot his landing field and hit a mud hole, breaking the propeller, lower right wing and landing gear fitting. The reprimand continued by noting that “It is believed that this will be sufficient as he shows promise of being a very good pilot.” So, in spite of that rough start, Sherlock was assigned to the more important Bellefonte, PA - Newark, NJ leg of the service.

Jack Knight Saves the Airmail

After an historic and triumphant beginning in 1918, the U.S. airmail service settled into a series of experimental growth spurts. The original Washington-Philadelphia-New York City route was followed by a route connecting the nation’s two large financial centers, New York City and Chicago, and finally followed by connecting Chicago and San Francisco. Part of the Chicago-San Francisco airmail route even followed the old Pony Express route.

Charles Ames, Airmail Pilot

Ames was a steady and reliable pilot who had his share of forced landings, including a particularly frightening one on September 26, 1922. While flight testing a de Havilland airplane out of Hazelhurst Field, New York, Ames reported that "the con rod in cylinder number four, right, broke, one piece going through the crank case and starting the motor on fire while in the air." Flying over Westbury, New York, at the time, Ames responded well to the crisis. "After cutting motor and turning on pressure pyrene tank [fire extinguisher], I landed the ship ok in plowed rolling field and tried to put out fire with my hand pyrene, which was impossible. When the flames reached center section and gravity tank I left ship which burned to the ground."

Flying From New York to Chicago in 1918

On September 5, 1918, two airmail pilots, Max Miller and Eddie Gardner, prepared to make separate flights from New York to Chicago. Their job was to find the best flight path between the nation’s two largest cities. In connecting New York and Chicago by air, the Post Office Department would be able to shave hours off of the time it took to deliver mail between the cities, a tremendous benefit for businesses and individuals at a time when mail was the central communication source.