This normal looking U.S. airmail sack has a unique history. It held 3000 postcards that traveled on May 29, 1951 with Captain Charles Blair as he completed the first flight over the pole in a single engine plane. Blair told reporters that it was “a very simple flight” from Bardufoss airfield in Norway to Fairbanks, Alaska. The flight covered 3,300 miles in 10 hours and 29 minutes. Upon landing, the mailbag was taken to the Fairbanks post office where the mail was canceled and loaded back onto the plane. Blair then flew from Fairbanks to New York City where the post cards were auctioned off for the Damon Runyon Cancer Fund.
The airmail sack has markings for three separate U.S. airports on its front and back: DSM for Des Moines, Iowa, SEA for Seattle, Washington, and DCA for the old Washington National airport. A typed notation attached to the sack states that it is addressed to "Postmaster, New York, N.Y., Courtesy, Capt. Charles Blair Fr Fairbanks Alaska.” A second notation shows the sack’s weight of six pounds and eleven ounces. The mail sack was presented to Ernest Kehr, Stamp and News editor for the New York Herald Tribune, who had thought up the idea of carrying the postcards. The sack passed through the hands of Paul-Emile Victor, polar explorer and philatelist, and into the hands of William Littlewood, who donated it to the Smithsonian Institution.
Blair made the trip in a converted 1944 P-51 Mustang fighter he rechristened “Excalibur III.” The single-seat, single-engine monoplane was donated to the Smithsonian in 1953 and is on display at the Smithsonian’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. After landing, he told reporters that “I had a headwind just out of Norway and it slowed me down. I flew at 15,000 feet after leaving Norway, but I crossed the pole at 22,000 feet. The temperature ranged down to 25 degrees below zero, but there were no icing conditions. The plane performed perfectly and I flew exactly the course I intended to fly.”¹ He noted that it was “easier than crossing the North Atlantic by air,” adding “I wouldn’t want to do it again. Once is enough.”2
An experienced pilot, Blair had flown in World War II and was a test pilot for Grumman Aircraft. In 1950 he became a pilot for Pan Am Airways and made the North Pole trip while on leave. He rose to the position of Brigadier General in the U.S. Air Force, married actress Maureen O’Hara in 1968, and wrote his autobiography, “Red Ball in the Sky" in 1970. Blair died in a plane crash in 1978.
1) “Makes 1st Hop Across N. Pole in 1 Engine Ship,” Chicago Daily Tribune, May 30, 1951, p. 3.
2) “Completes Hop from Alaska to N.Y. in 9 ½ Hours,” Chicago Daily Tribune, May 31, 1951, p. 2.
Written by Nancy A. Pope