The Post Office Department's most extraordinary role in transportation was probably played in the sky, a role, unfortunately, little known today other than to postal employees and the pioneers of American aviation.
The United States government had been slow to recognize the potential of the airplane. In 1905, the War Department refused three separate offers by the Wright brothers to share their scientific discoveries on air flights. Even after the brothers had satisfied many European nations in 1908 that air flight was feasible, America owned only one dilapidated plane.
The Post Office Department, however, was intrigued with the possibility of carrying mail through the skies and authorized its first experimental mail flight in 1911 at an aviation meet on Long Island in New York. Earle Ovington, sworn in as a mail carrier by Postmaster General Frank Hitchcock, made daily flights between Garden City and Mineola, New York, dropping his mail bags from the plane to the ground where they were picked up by the Mineola postmaster.
Later, in 1911 and 1912, the Department authorized 52 experimental flights at fairs, carnivals, and air meets in more than 25 states.
These flights convinced the Department that the airplane could carry a payload of mail, and officials repeatedly urged Congress after 1912 to appropriate money to launch airmail service. Congress finally authorized use of $50,000 from steam-and-powerboat service appropriations for airmail experiments in 1916. The Department advertised for bids in Massachusetts and Alaska but received no response in the absence of suitable planes.
In 1918, however, Congress appropriated $100,000 to establish experimental airmail routes, and the Post Office Department urged the Army Signal Corps to lend its planes and pilots to the Post Office to start an airmail service. Carrying the mail, the Department argued, would provide invaluable cross-country experience to student flyers. The Secretary of War agreed.
On May 15, 1918, the Post Office Department began scheduled airmail service between New York and Washington, D.C., an important date not only for the Post Office but for all commercial aviation. Simultaneous takeoffs were made from Washington's Polo Grounds and from Belmont Park, Long Island, both trips by way of Philadelphia.
During the first three months of operation, the Post Office used Army pilots and six Jenny training planes of the Army (JN-4Hs) . On August 12, 1918, the Post Office took over all phases of the airmail service, using newly hired civilian pilots and mechanics and six specially built mail planes from the Standard Aircraft Corporation.
These early mail planes had no instruments, radios, or other navigational aids. Pilots flew by dead reckoning or "by the seat of their pants." Forced landings occurred frequently because of bad weather, but fatalities in those early months were rare, largely because of the small size, maneuverability, and slow landing speed of the planes.
Congress authorized airmail postage of 24 cents, including special delivery. The public was reluctant to use this more expensive service, and, during the first year, airmail bags contained as much regular mail as airmail.
The Department's long-range plans called for an eventual transcontinental air route from New York to San Francisco to better its delivery time on long hauls and to lure the public into using airmail. The first legs of this transcontinental route -- from Cleveland to Chicago, with a stop at Bryan, Ohio, and from New York to Cleveland with a stop at Bellefonte, Pennsylvania -- opened in 1919. A third leg opened in 1920 from Chicago to Omaha, via Iowa City, and feeder lines were established from St. Louis and Minneapolis to Chicago. The last transcontinental segment from Omaha to San Francisco, via North Platte, Cheyenne, Rawlins, Rock Springs, Salt Lake City, Elko, and Reno opened on September 8, 1920.
At this time, mail was still carried on trains at night and flown by day, but, even so, the new service bettered cross-country all-rail time by 22 hours.
To provide pilots with up-to-date weather information needed to fly the mail all the way from New York to San Francisco, the Department began to install radio stations at each flying field in August 1920. By November, ten stations were operating, including two Navy stations. When airmail traffic permitted, other government departments used the radios instead of the telegraph for special messages, and the Department of Agriculture transmitted weather forecasts and stock market reports over the radios.
On February 22,1921, mail was flown both day and night for the first time over the entire distance from San Francisco to New York.
Congress was impressed. It appropriated $1,250,000 for the expansion of airmail service, especially ground facilities, and the Post Office Department went on to install additional landing fields, as well as towers, beacons, searchlights, and boundary markers across the country. It also equipped the planes with luminescent instruments, navigational lights, and parachute flares.
In 1922 and 1923, the Department was awarded the Collier Trophy for important contributions to the development of aeronautics, especially its safety record, and for demonstrating the feasibility of night flying. In 1926, an airmail pilot received the first Harmon Trophy for advancing aviation.
On February 2,1925, Congress passed a law "to encourage commercial aviation and to authorize the Postmaster General to contract for mail service." The Post Office immediately invited bids for its routes by commercial aviation. By the end of 1926, 11 out of 12 contracted airmail routes were operating.
The first commercial airmail flight in the United States occurred on February 15, 1926. As commercial airlines took over, the Post Office Department transferred its lights, airways, and radio service to the Department of Commerce, including 17 fully equipped stations, 89 emergency landing fields, and 405 beacons. Terminal airports, except those in Chicago, Omaha, and San Francisco, which were government properties, were transferred to the municipalities in which they were located. Some planes were sold to airmail contractors; others were transferred to interested government departments. By September 1, 1927, all airmail was carried under contract.
Charles I. Stanton, an early airmail pilot who later headed the Civil Aeronautics Administration, said about those early days of scheduled airmail service: "We planted four seeds . . . . They were airways, communications, navigation aids, and multi-engined aircraft. Not all of these came full blown into the transportation scene; in fact, the last one withered and died and had to be planted over again nearly a decade later. But they are the cornerstones on which our present world-wide transport structure is built, and they came, one by one, out of our experience in daily, uninterrupted flying of the mail."