Rest of the Best

Weather, poor instruments, old aircraft and maintenance errors were among the threats to airmail pilots' lives and missions. To survive the elements, the demands of the service and even their own airplanes, early pilots had to be a brave and inventive bunch. When E. Hamilton Lee's engine caught fire in flight, he side slipped to lose altitude fast, as "it kept the flames away from my face and allowed the air stream to blow out the fire." Fire out, Lee continued on his flight.

Did you know
...that in the first year of the service, at least four pilots were fired for not flying in weather the pilots deemed "impossible" for takeoff?
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Pilot James Hill used cigars to time his flight path in bad weather. As soon as he was airborne in Cleveland, he lit a cigar. When it reached the point that it was burning his fingers, he knew he was near the landing field in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania. Once in particularly bad weather, pilot Frank Yager "flew" in heavy fog by driving his airplane on the ground. Pilot Wesley Smith used a half-empty whiskey bottle as a flight level indicator.

The earliest airmail pilots were rightfully distrustful of their airplane's instrumentation panel. The few instruments installed aboard the JN-4H "Jennies" and the Standard JR-1Bs rarely functioned well. Pilot Harold Lewis scoffed that the instrument panel "is just something to clutter up the cockpit and distract your attention from the railroad or riverbed you're following."

Between 1918 and 1926, over 200 pilots were hired to fly the U.S. mail for the postal service. For many, their time spent as an airmail pilot was the highlight of their lives. These pilots are listed below.

To learn more about any pilot, select a name:

Fad to Fundamental: Airmail in America