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POSTMEN OF THE SKIES
CELEBRATING 100 YEARS OF AIRMAIL SERVICE

May 1, 2018—May 27, 2019

In addition to its permanent exhibition on the nation’s airmail service, the Postal Museum has a temporary exhibition, Postmen of the Skies.


Postmen of the Skies: Celebrating 100 Years of Airmail Service

In 1918 the first regularly scheduled airmail service began operations. Planes carried mail between Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and New York City. The nation greeted the new service with enthusiasm. Crowds surrounded airfields in all three cities, eager to watch history in action. The nation became more enamored with their postal pilots as the service grew. By September 8, 1920 mail was flying between New York and San Francisco.

The Post Office operated the service until 1927, having begun in 1925 to turn over some routes to private airlines. The new airlines built their businesses on the postal routes, infrastructure and pilots. Over the next decade, airmail contracts financed the fledgling airlines, serving to help build the nation’s commercial aviation industry.

Learn more about the early airmail service at the museum’s main airmail website.

Stories of many of those early pilots can be found here within that main website.

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From left to right: Pilots Jack Knight, Clarence Lange, Lawrence Garrison, “Wild” Bill Hopson and Andrew Dunphy, head of the Omaha-Salt Lake City Division posed in front of an airmail hangar in Omaha.

Resources

Smithsonian Learning Lab

The Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access created the Smithsonian Learning Lab to inspire the discovery and creative use of its rich digital materials—more than a million images, recordings, and texts. The curator of Postmen of the Skies has created a few Learning Lab collections to get visitors and teachers started exploring the items and images in our collections that we didn’t have room for in the exhibition. But there is so much more. Explore our collections, but be sure to make your own.

Airmail Service Begins - May 15, 1918

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Photograph of Pres. Wilson at first regularly scheduled airmail service ceremony

The nation's first regularly scheduled airmail service began on May 15, 1918. Planes carried mail between Washington, DC, Philadelphia and New York City. The Post Office Department worked with the U.S. Army to run the service, using army pilots and planes for the first three months of operations. In August 1918 the Post Office took complete control of the service and ran it until 1927.

The Post Office Takes Full Control of Airmail - August 1918

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The First Postal Pilots

The Army provided the pilots and planes for the airmail service from May 15 to August 9, 1918, then the Post Office Department took over all aspects of the operation. The Washington airfield was moved to College Park, MD. The Post Office hired four pilots at the start of the service, Max Miller, Eddie Gardner, Maurice Newton and Robert Shank. Former Army Captain Benjamin Lipsner was hired by the Post Office to be Superintendent of the Airmail Service. Otto Praeger, 2nd Assistant Postmaster General, was in charge of the operations.

The Pathfinding Flights

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Benjamin Lipsner - Superintendent of the Airmail Service

Shortly after the Post Office gained full control of the airmail service and the route from Washington to New York via Philadelphia, officials began planning their next steps. Second Assistant Otto Praeger announced their intention to create an airmail connection between the nation's two top financial centers, New York and Chicago. Linking New York and Chicago, the nation's major financial centers, would help prove the service's worth to Congress, which held the Post Office Department's purse-strings. But first they had to figure out the best route between the cities.