National Postal Museum logo
Top Image
Pilot StoriesHistoric PlanesAirmail Creates an IndustryObject ShowcaseHistory TimelineActivity ZoneFlight School
The Army Pilots
No Old, Bold, Pilots
>> The First Four
>> They Died Flying the Mail
>> Rest of the Best
Tales from 5000 ft.
Contract Pilots
Mail by Female
Pilot's Gear

PILOT STORIES: Vanatta, Elmer R.

Air Mail Service Began: August 5, 1920
Air Mail Service Ended: April 22, 1921
Assignments: College Park, Maryland
  October 16, 1920 – Cleveland, Ohio

On August 25, 1920, only a few weeks after joining the service, Vanatta lost his way while flying to College Park, Maryland, and landed several miles off course. He telegrammed his flight and location to Air Mail Service headquarters. Second Assistant Postmaster General Otto Praeger responded in his usual brusque manner, writing, "stay with ship until you can get same off safely. Fly ship to College Park without getting lost again or it will mean your separation." Vanatta finished the trip without getting lost a second time.

On March 30, Vanatta was flying de Havilland #85 from Cleveland, Ohio to Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, when engine problems caused him to make a forced landing at Kersey, Pennsylvania. In his report, Vanatta described the flight. "The airplane and motor worked perfect [after takeoff], but after flying for one hour and fifteen minutes, I noticed the air pressure going down fast, so turned on the gravity and landed. After landing tried to investigate the trouble but could find no leak in the lines anywhere. After being on the ground fifteen minutes, the pressure started coming up again, and I took off. It then worked alright and continued to do so for the next fifty-five minutes when it went down again causing another forced landing at Kersey, Pa. I was on the ground at that place for five minutes, when the pressure started coming up again, and I tried to get off, but due to the different air currents and light air, the machine would not takeoff the way it should, and when it finally did get off, the motor cut out and the tail surface caught on a tree causing the airplane to wreck."

"Damage done to the airplane – four wings broken, radiator, propeller, four front longerons, stabilizer, elevators and rudder. The motor apparently is alright."

The next month, on April 22, 1921, Elmer Vanatta was violating the Air Mail Service's anti-stunting rules when he put on a show for spectators at Mitchel Field, New York. Vanetta took off in a de Havilland, and tried a 180-degree vertical turn 50 feet off the ground. His airplane side-slipped, hooked a wing and crashed, killing Vanatta.

Click on the photos to view a larger image.

(top left) Vanatta
View Our Collection
Postal Museum | Smithsonian | Privacy | Terms of Use | Site MapBottom Navigation
Top of page link to homepage