AIRMAIL CREATES AN INDUSTRY:
Creating a Nocturnal Flyway
To prove the usefulness of airmail service to
Congress and the public, Otto Praeger decided to fly airmail
day and night along the transcontinental flyway. Night flying
had long been considered dangerous, even impossible. Early
pilots expressed concerns that they would not be able to find
their way without relying on landmarks. Many believed that
flying at night would be akin to flying "blind"
and a pilot would not be able to tell up from down.
In preparation for the service, the Post Office
Department set out to use a series of beacons and field lights
over part of the route. The plan called for two airplanes to
leave from each coast and for the mail to make the across
country trip in 36 hours. The trips had to be undertaken quickly,
in order to get the financial support from Congress needed
to keep airmail service viable. Praeger set the trips up for
February 22-23, 1921.
Wretched weather halted the west-bound mail
airplanes at Dubois, Pennsylvania and Chicago. The east-bound
mail had an even more troubling start. The pilot of one airplane,
William Lewis, was killed when his airplane stalled after takeoff from Elko, Nevada. The second east-bound airplane continued
with its mail, and mail from Lewis' airplane was forwarded
as well. The mailbags made it as far as Omaha, Nebraska early
in the morning of February 23. By the time the mail reached
that city, it was cold, the middle of a dark night, and pilots
knew from weather reports that the weather east was so bad
it had trapped at least one west-bound pilot in Chicago. The
Air Mail Service desperately needed a hero. It found one in
those early morning hours in pilot James "Jack"
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a Nocturnal Flyway.