The first regularly scheduled airmail service began in the U.S. on May 15, 1918. The Post Office Department (POD) oversaw the service, but having no reservoir of experienced pilots, looked to U.S. Army Air Corps pilots to fly the mail for the first three months. On August 12, 1918, the POD took over full control of the service, using its own pilots. The Department transferred responsibility for airmail service over to private companies in the late 1920s through a series of acts aimed at using postal funds to support the nation's fledgling aviation industry. Young aviation companies snatched up most of the postal pilots, who were greatly prized for their mail flying experience.
At the time, passenger airmail service was almost nonexistent. Airmail contracts were the core financial support of commercial aviation in the U.S. The Air Mail Act of 1930 (also known as the McNary Watres Act) gave President Herbert Hoover's postmaster general, Walter Brown, the authority to extend or consolidate airmail routes as best he interpreted such needs in the public interest. Brown's interpretation led to what has been called the "Spoils Conference," in which three companies were awarded the bulk of the nation's airmail routes and their competitors forced out.
After President Franklin D. Roosevelt assumed the presidency in 1933, Alabama Senator Hugo Black established a committee to investigate Brown's allocation of airmail routes, arguing that the routes had gone only to companies friendly to the Hoover administration. Black's hearings offered serious questions as to the legality of Brown's actions and President Roosevelt decided to suspend the contracts altogether. On February 19, 1934, he canceled the contracts and directed the Army Air Corps to take over the service.
Under General Benjamin Foulois, army pilots began flying the mail over a reduced system of routes. Unfortunately for many of the pilots, the army was not up to the task. Unlike the original 1918 flights (in which army pilots used army planes and flew only between Washington, D.C. and New York City), the stress of airmail service in 1934 proved deadly. Airmail pilots' routes were long and demanding. They had become accustomed to flying the mail in all kinds of horrible weather, as demanded by postal officials.
Air Corps' airplanes had little in common with private mail airplanes and could not meet the demands of night flight, let alone bad weather. Three pilots died merely training for the airmail flights they were to make as part of the Army Air Corps Mail Operation.¹ The time of year did not help, as miserable winter storms challenged other pilots and aircraft beyond their capabilities. After two more pilots were killed and six injured the Air Corps suspended the flights for a week.² When they resumed service, it was with aircraft better suited to airmail flights. But crashes and deaths continued to haunt the Corps.
By March 10, 1934, the Army Air Corps Mail Operation had endured 66 crashes or forced landings. Twelve army pilots had died while flying the mail. World War I aviation legend (and then-current head of Eastern Air Transport) Eddie Rickenbacker publically referred to the service as "legalized murder." The administration moved to speed up the return to private airmail contracts, resulting in the Airmail Act of June 12, 1934. Although one of the provisions of the 1934 act was that no company that had won a contract under the Brown "Spoils Conference" would be permitted to bid on the new contracts, the old companies merely changed their names and entered their bids. Northwest Airways became Northwest Airlines, American Airways transformed into American Airlines, Eastern Air Transport became Eastern Airlines, and Boeing Air Transport turned into United Air Lines.
As a reaction to Brown’s control over airmail service, the 1934 act transferred some responsibilities to other departments. While the Post Office retained the ability to award airmail contracts, the Interstate Commerce Commission was tasked with setting the rates for carrying airmail, and the Bureau of Air Commerce would monitor route and equipment needs. In 1941, as part of a decision resulting from airlines' suits against the government for missed revenues during the six months of Army Air Corps flights, the U.S. Court of Claims determined that there had not been any fraud or collusion by Brown’s contract awards of 1930.
- 1) Lieutenant James Eastman, Lieutenant Jean Grenier, and Lieutenant Edwin White died in test flight crashes attributed to bad weather.
- 2) Army Air Corps flights were suspended from March 11-19, 1934.
- Van der Linden, F. Robert, Airlines and Air Mail: The Post Office and the Birth of the Commercial Aviation Industry. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2001
- Borden, Norman E., Jr., Air Mail Emergency 1934: An Account of 78 Days in the Winter of 1934 When the Army Flew the United States Mail, The Bond Wheelwright Company, 1968
- Airmail Creates an Industry: The Army Takes Command
Written by Nancy A. Pope