STORIES: Tales from 5,000 Feet
If possible fly over
5,000 feet, preferably 8,000 feet.
Rule #11, Rules for Government Pilots,
Few of the Post Office Department's early
airmail officials had any flying experience. Their rules for
pilots' behavior were based on a perceived need to manage
unmanageable military veterans, and to ensure that the mail
kept to a reliable schedule.
A combination of early airmail airplanes reliable
only at certain altitudes, lousy weather conditions, and compasses
so unreliable that pilots had to peer out of their cockpits
to get their bearings, often made flying at a specific height
a moot point.
were warned not to use their airmail airplanes for performing
stunts, or push them through "any unnecessary strain."
They were told to "never fly over cities unless you
have a safe altitude," and to always carry maps "unless
you are absolutely sure of the country to be covered."
Of course that last rule was hard for some of the pilots to
follow as the Washington headquarters were excpetionally slow
in getting maps out to the field
When the "Omaha [Nebraska] Bee"
newspaper quoted Second Assistant Postmaster General Paul Henderson
in the spring of 1922 as saying that the airmail pilots were
a "temperamental lot accustomed to too much freedom
in the army, and in my opinion over paid," the outraged pilots demanded an apology. Henderson merely responded that the reporter had gotten it quite wrong, and he had said nothing of the sort. Regardless of the accuracy of Henderson's
quote, many postal officials regarded many of the airmail
pilots as reckless prima donnas who cared more about flying
than carrying the mail.
To an extent, the officials were right. The
lure of being paid to fly was an enticement beyond resistance
for those during the war and could not find
similar work in civilian life. They were joined by men who,
as children, had watched with bated breath while daredevils
took to the air at state and country fairs across the country
in the decade after the Wright Brothers' first flight.
If carrying the mail was the job they could
get to fly, then mail carriers these pilots became, many so
devoted to the job that they risked their lives to make sure
the mail got through.