The Flying Post Office


By Nancy Pope, Historian and Curator

By the mid 20th century the Post Office Department’s Railway Mail Service (RMS) had been moving and processing mail across the country for almost a century. The service had long shown that having men sort mail while on board moving trains helped speed mail service. But by the end of the Second World War, train service was declining, taking the railway mail train cars with it. More and more mail was being moved aboard aircraft.

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This is a proof for the cachet art used on envelopes carried on the October 1, 1946, American Airlines demonstration flight of the Flying Post Office. The art is labeled “DEMONSTRATION FLIGHT, FLYING POST OFFICE” above the sketch of an airplane in flight. Below the airplane are the words, “En route, Los Angeles, New York – Boston, U.S. AIR MAIL.” The American Airlines emblem is located below the nose of the airplane.

Postal officials wondered if there was a way of taking the sorting expertise of the men riding the RMS trains and combining it with the speed of airplanes. The Post Office Department worked with a few airlines to put that combination in motion and the Flying Post Office was born.

Unfortunately, it was harder for clerks to stand and move in the airplane than on moving trains, and the amount of mail that could be sorted during those speedier airplane flights was too small to make the system practical. Interesting in theory, but useless in practice, the Flying Post Offices didn’t move beyond the experimental stage.

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Interior of a Trans World Airlines (TWA) Skymaster aircraft equipped for onboard mail sorting and routing. The clerks on board this flight were (left to right, foreground), Melvin G. McBride, General Foreman, and Louis A. Dunn, Superintendent, from the Wilmington, Delaware, post office.

Nancy Pope

About the Author
The late Nancy A. Pope, a Smithsonian Institution curator and founding historian of the National Postal Museum, worked with the items in this collection since joining the Smithsonian Institution in 1984. In 1993 she curated the opening exhibitions for the National Postal Museum. Since then, she curated several additional exhibitions. Nancy led the project team that built the National Postal Museum's first website in 2002. She also created the museum's earliest social media presence in 2007.