“The most momentous step in civil aviation!” exulted the Assistant Postmaster General Otto Praeger. “Destined to revolutionize the mail carrying of the world,” agreed The New York Times.
It was 90 years ago today, and the United States Air Mail had just been saved, as a government mail pilot, Ernest Allison, fluttered onto Hazelhurst Field, in Mineola, N.Y., from Cleveland with six sacks of letters that had left San Francisco just 33 hours and 20 minutes earlier.
This was less than half the time that cross-country air mail had previously required, given that Praeger’s men flew their rickety war-surplus crates only by day. Now he had ordered them to fly overnights as well, a dramatic do-or-die effort to win financing from an austere new Congress unenthusiastic about appropriating federal dollars for such a foolish idea as loading mail into an airplane rather than a perfectly good railroad car.
The fledgling Air Mail Service had gotten off to a notably unimpressive start to begin with, in May 1918, when an Army lieutenant named Boyle left Washington’s Polo Grounds for Belmont Park in Long Island three hours away. It was the first regularly scheduled flight of Praeger’s first official route, and President Woodrow Wilson himself was among the event’s assembled dignitaries.
Boyle wasn’t much of a flier. He immediately flew off in the wrong direction and then crashed in a Delaware farm field, rather embarrassing everyone. A replacement Army mailman was quickly rounded up to make timely postal delivery to August Belmont’s racetrack, where cheering throngs awaited. Thereafter Belmont Park remained the northern terminus of the New York-Washington route for another year or so, and railbirds just had to learn to live with the smoking mail planes that plopped down every afternoon, often disrupting the races. So were born the nation’s air mail operations, as Otto Praeger ambitiously dreamed of the modern coast-to-coast network yet to come.
Nearly three years later, though, it hadn’t. Save mostly for bankers, who appreciated the swift exchange of financial information, the American public remained unenamored of the Post Office’s aerial service, since it was spottily regional and didn’t serve many cities. It was not until September 1920 that transcontinental air was launched, and, even so, it took 76 hours to reach California via daylight-only relays westward across the Continental Divide, the Medicine Bow Mountains, the desert and the high sierra — not much faster than the railroads.
Warren Gamaliel Harding’s incoming skinflint presidential administration was already publicly hostile to continued Air Mail Service support. Otto Praeger was shortly going to be out of a job. His last bow: Ordering the night flights.
Praeger’s early mail fliers were a glamorous bunch of swaggering daredevils, descendants of the lightning riders of the old Pony Express. Most were Great War veterans who lived hard and not infrequently died young; indeed, by mid-February 1921, 17 had been killed in action, 3 of them in a single six-day period. Praeger called for night-flight volunteers. Volunteers he got. This was their kind of job.
On Tuesday morning, Feb. 22, two westbound mail planes left Hazelhurst and two eastbound ships left San Francisco, with relay teams stationed along the route. Do or die the effort was indeed: One of the California men crashed to his death almost right away. At the other end, one of the New York planes was forced down by weather over the famously treacherous Alleghenies, and Ernest “Allie” Allison went on alone to Cleveland, where another pilot was waiting to carry the mail on to Chicago.
And that’s as far as those sacks got, everything beyond being hopelessly socked in. The westbound mail was out of the game, which left just the one remaining California plane in it. That one got to North Platte, Neb., where postal officials ruled conditions were too severe to even think of continuing. Otto Praeger’s great race was lost.
But then a pilot named Jack Knight insisted he would go on to Chicago, never mind the consequences. His terrifying 10-hour flight through sleet and snow and dark of night made for sensational headlines. He got the mail to Chicago, where it was relayed on to Cleveland, where Allie Allison picked it up for the last leg to Mineola.
Thus was the Air Mail Service saved, at 4:50 p.m., on Feb. 23, 1921. Warren Harding personally urged Congress to fast find money, and lighted airstrips were being built from sea to sea just a few months later.