Mail by Air

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Wiseman-Cooke airplane
On loan from the National Air and Space Museum

Airplanes began carrying mail eight years after the Wright brothers’ first flight. On February 17, 1911 Fred Wiseman took off with a sack of mail on his lap on a flight between Petaluma and Santa Rosa, California. The 17-mile trip took two days to complete. That same year, mail was flown aboard aircraft in New York, India, and England. As exciting as these first flights were to postal officials, the state of aviation had yet to progress to a level of reliability. Mail-carrying flights continued as experiments and spectacles over the next few years at fairs and expositions.

The first regularly-scheduled airmail service began on May 15, 1918 with flights between Washington, DC, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and New York City. The Post Office Department operated the nation’s airmail service from 1918 to 1927, when private contractors took over the nation’s airmail routes. With few people willing to brave the very real dangers of early air travel, and few military aviation contracts between the world wars, postal funds supported aviation in the U.S. These mail contracts were the difference between survival and disaster for the nation’s commercial carriers and helped to build the nation’s commercial aviation network.