HISTORIC AIRPLANES: Pick-up
In the 1930s, mail contractors decided to test
the feasibility of inaugurating airmail service in areas without
adequate railway or highway mail links. Unfortunately, the
towns which needed this type of service usually did not have
adequate landing fields for airplanes.
Although a low-flying airplane could easily
dump a sack of mail onto the ground, the difficult part would
be getting ground mail into the moving airplane. The Railway
Mail Service's successful on-the-fly mail exchange system
provided the inspiration for an aviation experiment. Mail
would be "caught" by a airplane flying overhead and
reeled up into the airplane. Of course, catching the mail was
not going to be easy.
An airplane outfitted with a hook flew over
the posts, and successfully hooked the mail and reeled it
in. At the top of each pole was a small direction flag, which
showed the pilot the prevailing wind direction; and a pincer,
which was used to keep the 60 foot long noose attached to
the mail canister in place.
Mail contractors realized that throwing the
mail out of a passing airplane wasn't going to be easy either.
A simple mail sack wasn't going to be sufficient because it
would be prone to fall in a random direction depending on
the wind. A weighted holder was needed. But, if the canister
was too heavy it might cause significant damage if it hit
something when it fell. Then too, the canister holding the
mail had to be able to survive repeated drops. Various different
styles of receptacles were tested. Ultimately a hollow rubber
design, resembling the nose cone of a rocket, was chosen.
The airplane that was initially used was a single
engine Stinson aircraft, capable of operating at speeds of
approximately 150 miles an hour. The crew consisted of the
pilot and a flight officer who worked the pick-up mechanism,
making the mail exchange. To deliver the mail, the flight
officer lowered the mail container out of the bottom of the
aircraft through a special opening. Just before reaching the
poles he released the canister. Almost at the same instant
an arm was lowered. The grappling hook snagged the hanging
mail pouch then slid down the arm and caught the noose. Once
the catch was made the flight officer activated the winding
mechanism to reel the mail canister into the airplane.
The method of exchanging mail in transit was
adopted for experimental airmail routes in Ohio, New York,
Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and West Virginia. In all, more than
150 post offices were served. This style of pick up and delivery
service began on May 12, 1939. The mail contractor that used
the service was All American Airways Company. (Which later
became known as Allegheny Airlines, and is now USAir. )The
experimental routes covered 1,040 miles. During the first
year of operation, more than 23,000 pick ups were made, amounting
to 75,000 pounds of mail. The service was used in those areas
for about ten years.
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