On May 15, 1918, the United States officially established airmail service between New York and Washington, D.C., using Army aircraft and pilots. In earlier years, when the Post Office Department began to use new transportation systems such as railroads or steamboats, it contracted with the owners of the lines to carry the mail. But there were no commercial airlines to contract with. Army Major Reuben H. Fleet was charged with setting up the first U.S. airmail service, scheduled to operate beginning May 15, 1918 between Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and New York City. The army pilots chosen to fly that day were Lieutenants Howard Culver, Torrey Webb, Walter Miller and Stephen Bonsal, all chosen by Major Fleet, and Lieutenants James Edgerton and George Boyle, both chosen by postal officials. Edgerton and Boyle had only recently graduated from the flight school at Ellington Field, Texas and neither had more than 60 hours of piloting time.
Lieutenant Boyle had a powerful ally on his side. Boyle was engaged to the daughter of Interstate Commerce Commissioner Charles McChord. Boyle was selected to pilot the first plane out of Washington, DC. After all his preparations, Boyle hopped into his plane and was unable to start it. The plane had not been fueled. It was an inauspicious start.
Lieutenant Boyle finally got his Curtiss Jenny, loaded with 124 pounds of airmail, in the air. His assignment was to fly to Philadelphia, the mid-way stop between the Washington and New York ends of the service. He did not make it there that day. The novice pilot got lost and low on gas, crash landed in rural Maryland, less than 25 miles away from Washington.
Fortunately for the service, the other flights operated as scheduled that day. Thanks to his political connections, Lieutenant Boyle was given a second chance to fly the airmail out of Washington, D.C. This time, he was given an escort who flew him out of the city, having given him directions to "follow the Chesapeake Bay" towards Philadelphia. Unfortunately, Boyle followed those instructions too literally, following the curve of the bay over to Maryland's eastern shore, where he landed, out of fuel again. Not even Boyle's connections could help him now, and he was removed from the pilots list for the service.
Lieutenant James Edgerton, the other rookie pilot, did much better on his flights and stayed with the service. On another flight, Edgerton managed to keep his plane aloft during a violent storm, even as the propeller was pelted by hail. He was discharged from the service the next year, and became the Chief of Flying Operations.
August & September Flights
In August, the Post Office Department took over airmail operations with airplanes and civilian pilots of its own. Captain Benjamin Lipsner was named the first superintendent of the U.S. Airmail Service. The next month, Lipsner sent two of his best pilots on a path-finding flight from New York City to Chicago, Illinois.
The Army turned operations of the airmail service over to the Post Office Department in August. The department hired army Captain Benjamin Lipsner, Major Fleet's second-in-command, to run the service. Lipsner resigned his commission and became the First Superintendent of the Air Mail Service.
The first flight operated by the Post Office Department took off from College Park, Maryland, on August 12, 1918. The destination was New York. Max Miller, seen here with Mrs. and Mr. Benjamin Lipsner, flew that historic flight. Miller flew the new Curtiss R-4 aircraft. These new planes had more powerful Liberty 400 horsepower engines. Miller was the first pilot hired by the Post Office Department. He died when his plane caught fire and crashed on September 1, 1920.
The Post Office Department decided to launch pathfinding flights from New York to Chicago in September 1918. A major obstacle was the Allegheny Mountains, considered by some to be the most dangerous territory on the route.
U.S. Airmail Service Superintendent Benjamin Lipsner chose two of his best pilots, Eddie Gardner and Max Miller, for these flights. Eager competitors, Gardner and Miller turned the test into a race.
On September 5, 1918, the pair left New York. Miller flew in a Standard airmail plane with a 150-horsepower Hispano-Suiza engine. Gardner followed in a Curtiss R-4 with a 400-horsepower Liberty engine and was accompanied by Eddie Radel, a mechanic.
As each pilot landed to refuel or make repairs, he eagerly called Lipsner in Chicago to find out where the other one was. A set of telegrams now in the National Postal Museum tracked their progress. Miller landed in Chicago first, at 6:55 p.m. on September 6. Gardner arrived the next morning, landing at 8:17 at Grant Park.
Learn more about the September pathfinding flights »