May 15, 2018 will mark the 100th anniversary of the world’s first regularly scheduled and continuous airmail service. On that day, planes connected New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. by air. But the road to May 15, 1918 was a rough one. As late as March of that year, Postmaster General Albert Burleson was still trying to iron out the details of the new service.
Burleson had asked Congress for $50,000 to try an airmail service in 1913 and 1914. But outside of Burleson, President Woodrow Wilson’s administration did not put aeronautical development high on the list of priorities. Neither did Congress. But by 1915 things began to change. Congress authorized the formation of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and Burleson appointed Otto Praeger as his Second Assistant Postmaster General. Praeger was not a pilot, and had never flown. But he would become one of the most strident voices for the service, nudging Congress relentlessly through Wilson’s presidency to fund and expand the nation’s airmail service.
Congress finally approved $100,000 for use in operating an experimental airmail service in 1918. On March 1, 1918, Praeger and Col. E.A. Deeds of the Army Signal Corps agreed on terms that would have the War Department operating the airmail service for the Post Office for one year. The War Department agreed to provide the planes, including spare parts, pilots and mechanics. The Post Office would provide airfields, hangars and repair shops, clerical support and of course trucks to move the mail between planes and post offices. While the War Department would provide the planes, the Post Office would be responsible for supplying fuel to keep the planes in the air. The Evening Star of Washington, D.C. offered an enthusiastic story on the upcoming service, noting that it was to begin that spring and that the Army would deliver the planes to be used in the service no later than April 25.
But as with the best plans of mice and men, delays began to creep into the project. On March 25, 1918, Aerial Age Weekly announced that the mail service “which was to be inaugurated on April 15th, has been postponed to May 1st, owing to the delay in the selection of a suitable landing place. It was proposed to use the League Island Navy Yard at Philadelphia, but the Post Office Department was recently informed that it would not be available.” The March 29 issue of the Washington Herald revealed that while the service would be delayed, “it was learned at the Postoffice [sic] Department last night that the first trip of a mail-carrying airplane will be made much earlier than [May 15], if possible. Inability to secure a landing site at New York is now the only thing holding up the plane.”
Postal officials were trying to finalize landing fields in Philadelphia and New York. As the weeks slipped by, more challenges would appear.
 The “year” was soon shortened to three months, as the Army quickly learned that they had no interest in operating the service while Burleson and Praeger were eager to place it fully under the Post Office Department.
The upcoming exhibition "Postmen of the Skies" opens on May 1, 2018 at the National Postal Museum in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the world’s first regularly scheduled airmail service. Stay tuned to our blog for more backstory on the events that occurred in the days leading up to the historic inaugural flight.
About the Author
Nancy A. Pope, a Smithsonian Institution curator and founding historian of the National Postal Museum, has worked with the items in this collection since joining the Smithsonian Institution in 1984. In 1993 she curated the opening exhibitions for the National Postal Museum. Since then, she has curated several additional exhibitions. Nancy led the project team that built the National Postal Museum's first website in 2002. She also created the museum's earliest social media presence in 2007.