No Old, Bold, Pilots

Don't be a show-off. Never be too proud to turn back. There are old pilots and bold pilots, but no old, bold pilots.
E. Hamilton Lee, 1949

To keep to the all-powerful schedule, airmail pilots had to fly in the face of challenges that other pilots could refuse. Airmail pilots were expected to keep to the schedule, regardless of inconveniences such as bad weather, from fog to blizzards. It was more than the love of flying that drew a special type of person into the Air Mail Service. Airmail pilots could be showboats, but for most, flying the mail was risky enough without pushing one's luck.

Added to the uncertainty of the service was its newness. The routes were new, and landing fields newly built. Instruments were often unreliable, and the airplanes themselves often not up to the rigorous demands of continuous landings and takeoffs.

Did you know
...that the first attempt to create an airmail line between New York and Chicago was a dismal failure?
Learn more »

Pilots carried themselves with certainty and a sense of bravado. More than one pilot climbed out of a crash with a broken nose, bruised ribs, or cuts and bruises, only to climb back into the next airplane available, heading back out to finish a trip or returning the next day to do it all over again.

With such odds against them, it might be considered remarkable that more pilots did not die in the service. Of over 200 pilots hired between 1918 and 1926 thirty-five died flying the mail. The service gained an ominous nickname among the nation's aviators as a "suicide club" for flyers.

Refer to caption
Blueprint showing the safety belt for the de Havilland mail airplanes.
- Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration

Two airmail pilots with a plane
Newspaper clippings proclaimed that the airmail pilots are modern heroes. The American public and press showered the early airmail pilots with adoration and applause.
- Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

Telegram regarding Ames' disappearance
After airmail pilot Charles Ames was reported lost in the Western Pennsylvania mountains, search crews spent days trying to locate his downed aircraft.

Refer to caption
A twin-engine de Havilland aircraft in a snowstorm.

Fad to Fundamental: Airmail in America