DCSIMG
National Postal Museum logo
Top Image
Pilot StoriesHistoric PlanesAirmail Creates an IndustryObject ShowcaseHistory TimelineActivity ZoneFlight School
Building the Foundation
>> Regularly Scheduled Service
  The Postal Service Takes Over
>> A Bold Venture and Public Failure
>> NY – Chicago
>> The Strike
>> Lipsner vs. Praeger
>> Who's in Charge?
Coast to Coast
Innovations
From Public to Private
 

 

AIRMAIL CREATES AN INDUSTRY: The Strike

On November 18, 1918, with visibility at the field almost zero, airmail pilot Eddie Gardner told his field manager he would not fly until the weather was better. Robert Shank, ordered to take the mail in his friend's place, also refused to fly. Citing their employment agreements to fly or be fired, Praeger dismissed both pilots. His other pilots got the message. Fly or be fired was the rule. It would not be seriously challenged again until the next summer.

On July 22, 1919, pilot Leon Smith, scheduled to fly that morning on the New York to Washington route, called off his trip. He pointed to visibility limits of 200 feet as impossible for takeoff. When news reached Otto Praeger that a pilot had refused to fly, he responded with a telegram to the airfield's manager that Smith was to "fly by compass, visibility not necessary." Smith refused again to takeoff, as did the three next pilots told to make the trip, Walter Stevens, Clifford Webster and E. Hamilton Lee. Field manager Harry W. Powers asked each pilot to explain his refusal in writing. Smith's written refusal was an attack on his boss. "It is mighty easy, Mr. Praeger for you to sit in your swivel chair in Washington and tell the fliers when they can fly."

Smith and Lee were fired that day. Stevens and Webster were left hanging while an investigation was made regarding their refusals. The firings were the final straw in the animosities brewing between Praeger and his pilots over flying rules. More pilots refused to fly, and Praeger quickly had a full fledged strike on his hands.

The pilots took their tales to the press, and unlike Lipsner before them, were able to get the press on their side. News stories focused on the hazards of flying airmail in the U.S., not on the need for schedules to be kept. One of the fired pilots, E. Hamilton Lee, had agreed to take the mail if he could use a Curtiss Jenny instead of the required Curtiss R-4. The latter airplane had a tendency to over-heat at low altitudes and any pilot hoping to fly that day would have to fly under the fog bank. Praeger had exploded over that request, furious that a pilot would question his orders or selection of aircraft. As Praeger told the press, "the department will not leave to pilots the question of when to fly or type of machine to be used." The autocratic supervisor with no flight experience was at logger-heads with his rebellious pilots.

On July 26, Praeger and James Edgerton, Chief of Flying, met with Charles Anglin who represented the striking pilots. Both sides claimed victory with the final interpretation of the rules. Pilots won a concession that field managers would have final say over flights and bad weather. Undoubtedly, pilots believed that their managers, looking at the same weather conditions they saw, would understand the problem. Praeger kept his "fly or be fired" rule in play. If a field manager deemed that it was safe to fly, any pilot who refused would be dismissed on the spot.

Click here to go back to the Short Summary of The Strike.

Otto Praeger  
  Telegram to Gardner and Shank
Click on the photos to view a larger image.

(top left) Otto Praeger

(bottom right) Telegram to Gardner and Shank
View Our Collection
Postal Museum | Smithsonian | Privacy | Terms of Use | Site MapBottom Navigation
Top of page link to homepage