By Kevin Allen, National Postal Museum
Benjamin B. Lipsner
(September 15, 1887 – December 24, 1971)
Although employed by the Post Office Department for less than four months, Captain Benjamin Lipsner was an integral figure in the development and success of the world's first regular Air Mail Service. Born on 15 September 1887 in Chicago, Illinois, Lipsner was interested in mechanics at a young age. He attended the Armour Institute in Chicago where he received a degree in Mechanical Engineering.
In 1910 he began working as a mechanic at various automobile manufacturers, specializing in operational maintenance and procedure. At the same time he became interested in the new field of airplane mechanics, working on airplane engines in his spare time. When the United States entered World War I, Lipsner's expertise in lubrication and mechanics placed him in the Army Signal Corps, the aviation division of the United States Army.
In 1918, Congress appropriated $100,000 to begin a regular air mail service between New York and Washington. The Army was given the responsibility of providing and maintaining the service and Lipsner was named Captain of the Air Service Production. He was in charge of the maintenance of the airplanes used in the service and was present when the first plane left from the Polo Grounds in Washington, DC on 15 May 1918.
On 10 August, the air mail service was officially transferred from the Army to the Post Office Department. A month earlier, Lipsner resigned his commission in the Army and was named First Superintendent of the world's first regular permanent civilian air mail service. The civilian service began on 12 August 1918 with Lipsner in charge of the day to day operation of the service; his tasks included creating schedules and choosing pilots and mechanics. Lipsner's organization skills kept the service, which initially operated between New York and Washington, on schedule and casualty free.
One of the highlights of Lipsner's tenure as superintendent was the New York to Chicago pathfinding mission in September 1918. The flights were originally intended by the Air Mail Service to be a test of a new extension of the existing service. However, the test became a cross-country race between the two best pilots, Max Miller and Eddie Gardner. Although the test flights didn't immediately lead to the extension of the service, the well-publicized flights gained national attention and public support for the fledgling air mail service.
Despite the success of the service, the relationship between Lipsner and Second Assistant Postmaster General Otto Praeger began to sour. Lipsner complained that important decisions, such as the hiring of new personnel, were being made without his consent or approval. And he felt that Praeger was improperly spending money on unnecessary new planes and equipment. The conflict led Lipsner to resign from his position on 5 December 1918. His letter of resignation was critical of the Post Office Department and was printed in newspapers across the country. Praeger and Postmaster Burleson responded by claiming Lipsner had misrepresented the facts. The resignation sparked a public war of words between Lipsner and the Post Office Department.
Lipsner went on to a career in the private air industry, serving as an engineer and consultant to a number of oil companies and airlines. He became the head of Chicago's American Legion Aviation Post #651 and continued to educate and entertain people with his stories of the early days of the Pioneer Air Mail.
He appeared on a number of radio and television shows and at numerous commemorative conventions, air shows and testimonials. Despite his limited tenure during the early years of the permanent airmail service, he was remembered by many of those who knew him as the "Father of the Regular Air Mail Service." Lipsner died on 24 December 1971 at the age of 84.