As an Air Force veteran, I always like to keep up on aviation milestones, and September 8, 1920, was when transcontinental airmail service began. From The Writer’s Almanac:
The Wright Brothers had made their first flight in 1903, but it took a while for them to convince the U.S. government that airplanes were a technology worth pursuing. The brothers approached the government three separate times in 1905 hoping to interest them as a customer, but to no avail. The military finally agreed to purchase a plane from the Wrights in 1908, but it crashed during flight trials, killing the military observer and injuring Orville Wright. A year later, the flight trials resumed, and this time the government actually purchased the plane.
Over the next couple of years, the public became more interested in aviation and its potential beyond military use. In 1911, the Post Office Department expressed interest in the new technology. That fall, an aviator named Earle Ovington was sworn in as the first U.S. airmail pilot moments before taking off in his monoplane from Garden City on Long Island. He had a bag stuffed full of letters and postcards. He flew three miles to Mineola – also on Long Island – and when he saw the signal from the postmaster, he dropped the bag of mail from the airplane. The bag exploded when it hit the ground, scattering mail everywhere.
For several years, the Post Office Department sponsored more experimental flights across the country, mostly at county fairs or aviation events. The flights were successful, and the Post Office asked Congress for funding to try airmail service. They finally agreed, and the first airmail flight was in 1918, with service from New York to Washington, D.C. Flights went smoothly, but the public response was lukewarm – people didn’t want to pay the higher airmail postage just for a slightly shorter trip. Airmail pilots ended up carrying a lot of letters paid with normal postage, just to fill their bags.
The Post Office decided that fast transcontinental service would be a major attraction to consumers, and built airfields that went straight west from New York. There were 15 airfields in all, beginning with New York and including Cleveland, Chicago, Omaha, Cheyenne, Salt Lake City, Reno, and finally San Francisco. The biggest challenge was crossing the Rocky Mountains in lightweight planes. On this day in 1920, the first service went across the entire country. The experimental flight carried about 100 letters, and landed in East Oakland.
On these early airmail planes, pilots navigated by dead reckoning because their planes weren’t equipped with radios or any sort of navigational tools. One of the young pilots flying the Chicago to St. Louis route was Charles Lindbergh. Twice he encountered bad weather and had to bail out of the airplane.
It still took a while for airmail to catch on. When the first transcontinental service began, pilots flew only during the day, and then put the mail onto trains for the night. The journey from New York to San Francisco was only 22 hours faster by airmail than regular mail. In 1921, mail was flown overnight for the first time, and suddenly mail could reach from coast to coast two to three days faster. The government was impressed and awarded the Post Office Department more than $1 million for the expansion of airmail. The success of these cross-country flights paved the way for commercial airlines, which followed many of the routes designed for airmail pilots.
It’s easy to forget that technology we take for granted took a long time to be adopted. Of course, the aircraft of today are so much more advanced than any Wright Flyer.
The Writer’s Almanac is produced by Prairie Home Productions and presented by American Public Media. The address for the September 8 program is http://writersalmanac.org/page/6/ .