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By Jim Ignasher
This year marks the 100th anniversary of air mail delivery by the United States Postal Service, a fact that has gone virtually unnoticed in a world where e-mail and texting have replaced traditional hand-written letters.
While 1918 is considered the official start of the U.S. Air Mail Service, it’s a point of fact that “mail” had been traveling by air since the 1700s. Technically speaking, President George Washington was the first American to send a piece of mail aloft, when he handed a letter to Jean Pierre Blanchard shortly before Blanchard made the first balloon ascension in our country. Blanchard’s history making flight took him from Philadelphia to Woodbury, New Jersey, a distance of about fifteen miles. Washington’s letter was to be “delivered” to anyone Mr. Blanchard encountered, asking that they receive him with “humanity and goodwill”, and afford him safe passage.
As balloons became more common, the idea of using them for mail delivery took hold, but balloons were at the mercy of the prevailing winds and unexpected weather, and as one 19th century newspaper pointed out, balloons were incapable of making a return trip to bring a response to any mail delivered.
One such example occurred on August 17, 1859 when well known aeronaut “Professor” John Wise took off in his balloon, “Jupiter”, from Lafayette, Indiana, with a bag containing 123 letters to be delivered when he landed in New York. Unfortunately his trip wasn’t completed due to weather, but the mail delivery was sanctioned by the postal service.
In 1873, famous American aeronaut, Professor Washington H. Donaldson, announced his plans to fly a balloon across the Atlantic Ocean to England. If successful, he hoped to establish a regular passenger service and trans-Atlantic air mail route. There were many other ambitious airmen of the time hoping to do the same, but aviation technology wasn’t yet to the point where such a trip was possible.
By the late 1890s mechanically powered “air ships” drew crowds at county fairs, but their limited capabilities made them impractical for any reliable air mail delivery.
The Wright brothers are credited for making the first mechanical flight without the use of a gas bag or balloon in 1903. Eight years later on September 23, 1911, aviator Earle Ovington, a designated pilot of the U.S. Post Office, made the first official air mail delivery in the United States when he flew a fifty-pound sack of mail from Garden City, Long Island, to the Mineola post office; a distance of five miles. After circling the post office, Ovington dropped the mailbag which burst open upon hitting the pavement at the feet of the Postmaster, thus scattering the numerous letters and postcards, but delivering them none the less.
In 1913, Rhode Islander Charles M. Jones flew what is considered to be the first parcel post delivery in America. On January 13th he left Boston bound for New York City, with scheduled stops along the way. Among the cargo were pots of Boston baked beans to be delivered to prominent officials in the cities he landed in. His first stop was in Providence, where he landed in a ball field off Elmwood Avenue. All went well until he attempted to take off for his next scheduled stop in New London, Connecticut. As the airplane left the ground and began to circle the field it was hit by a strong cross-wind which sent it towards some telephone lines and railroad tracks. The crash landing broke several ribs of the aircraft which took two weeks to repair. It was reported that when Jones left, he was carrying Rhode Island Johnny Cakes as well as beans.
The advent of the airplane brought the realization that reliable air mail service was now feasible, and by 1916 possible air mail routes were being chartered. In February of that year it was announced that New England would be one of the first parts of the country to receive air mail service, particularly to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, where one newspaper noted that prominent members of New York and Boston Society were known to vacation. It was anticipated that service to the islands would be three times a week during “resort season”.
It would seem that simply planning an air mail route involved a certain amount of risk. In the summer of 1919, nine Curtiss airplanes left Mineola, Long Island, to plot out an air mail route from New York to San Francisco. By early September it was reported that five of the planes had been lost due to accidents.
Officially speaking, the USPS began delivering airmail on May 15, 1918, and issued the nation’s first 24 cents air mail stamp the same day. Somehow, either by accident or design, the earliest versions came with a significant error – the Curtiss “Jenny” airplane depicted on the stamp was somehow printed upside down! The error was corrected, but not before some examples made it into circulation, making it one of the most sought after stamps for collectors. As such, the post office re-issued the upside-down Jenny stamp in 2013, but took steps to prevent it from being confused with the original 1918 issue.
By 1920 the following statistics were reported:
Sending letters and packages via air mail was 15% cheaper than by rail – not good news for the railroads.
The postal service was utilizing 65 aircraft, with fifteen more in reserve.
Combined, the aircraft covered 6,980 miles every day, carrying 5,000 pounds of mail.
The airmail service included fifty pilots, three-hundred mechanics, and twenty designated air mail stations.
There were no flights on Sunday.
The pilots who flew the mail routes did so in all types of conditions, and at their peril. One New England example is the case of pilot E. G. Cline, who disappeared one night while passing over Connecticut. After an extensive search his body was recovered from his mangled airplane in a thickly wooded area of Willington.
Despite today’s electronic Smart-Phone society, air mail is still being delivered, and probably will continue for as long as there are airplanes.