On May 15, 1918, the Post Office Department began the nation's first regularly scheduled airmail service. The first three months of the service were directed by the Department using Army Air Corp pilots and borrowed airplanes. On August 12, the army pilots were replaced by post office pilots.
The first airmail flag sported the symbol of this early airmail service, a pair of wings on either side of a globe that sports the phrase U.S. Air Mail. While the service's reach that May morning in 1918 was limited to trips between Washington, DC, Philadelphia, and New York City, the service's symbol indicates the Department's intentions to develop the service not only nationally, but internationally as well.
Army Major Reuben H. Fleet had been charged with setting up the first U.S. airmail service. Six army pilots were picked for the service, including Lieutenant George Boyle, who was selected to fly the mail out of Washington on the first day. As President Woodrow Wilson and several prominent politicians and citizens stood to witness the occasion, Boyle tried, but could not start his plane. It had not been fueled.
After Boyle's Curtiss Jenny airplane was gassed up, he took off for Philadelphia. Boyle's selection had not been based on his flying skills (he had fewer than 60 hours of flight experience), but because of his engagement to the daughter of Interstate Commerce Commissioner Charles McChord. The novice pilot got lost and low on gas, crash landed in rural Maryland, less than 25 miles away from Washington. Fortunately, the other flights operated smoothly that first day.
The Department had to prove the economic advantages of airmail service for Congress to continue its funding. A critical segment of the plan was the connection of the two leading U.S. business centers, New York City and Chicago, Illinois, to be followed by the establishment of a trans-continental flyway.
The Department had its share of successes and setbacks over the next few years, but the airmail service continued to grow. By 1920, although airmail was being flown across the country, no infrastructure yet existed to facilitate nighttime flying. So as airplanes full of mail landed in late afternoon, the mail was transferred to trains to continue onto the next airmail station, where airplanes picked it up and carried it during the day.
Night flying was considered dangerous, even impossible. Early pilots feared they would not be able to find their way without relying on landmarks, or even distinguish up from down.
In preparation for the service, the Post Office Department built a series of guide beacons and field lights over part of the route. The newly lit national flyway became a success, establishing airmail service as here to stay.
Van der Linden, F. Robert. Airlines and air mail: the post office and the birth of the commercial aviation industry. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2002.
Holmes, Donald B. Air mail, an illustrated history, 1793-1981. New York: C.N. Potter: Distributed by Crown Publishers, 1981.
Leary, William M. Aerial pioneers : the U.S. air mail service, 1918-1927. Washington, D.C. : Smithsonian Institution Press, 1985.
Rosenberg, Barry and Catherine Macaulay. Mavericks of the Sky: The First Daring Pilots of the U.S. Air Mail. William Morrow, 2006
Written by Nancy A. Pope