Flying by the Pound: Air Mail
The letter-writing public didn’t think much of air mail when it was first offered. In the early 1920s, airlines consisted of oil-streaked planes flying mostly empty mail sacks, which often contained only a smattering of letters and a smuggled brick used to tip the scales a little heavier when it came time for the Post Office to pay—by the pound. But the federal government and a few entrepreneurs were convinced they were onto a winning way to move mail, as well as a host of other goods, by air, and Washington, D. C., offered enough financial incentives to keep the fledgling airlines from drowning in red ink.
Air Mail Pilots
When reading about the early history of flying, it sometimes seems as if no one who did it for very long managed to make it out alive. If we look closer, we find that most pilots lived through those heady days long enough to join the nascent air mail business—where those who survived barnstorming often perished.
Flying hastily built airplanes that leaked gasoline and reading road maps that usually led pilots off course, the United States Aerial Mail Service took off with
mixed success. The pilot of the first flight didn’t quite make it to a refueling stop in Philadelphia before he ran out of gas. In the crash landing that followed he rolled his biplane onto its back and was forced to lug his bag of airmail back to Washington to await the next day’s flight. It was an inauspicious start, but the experiment was a success.
George L. Boyle (left) flew the first air mail shipment between Washington and New York via Philadelphia.
Air mail pilots were a colorful bunch, and Fred Kelly of Western topped them all. He was a college football and track star who set a world record and won a gold medal in the Stockholm Olympics in 1912. In 1916, while learning to fly near New York City, he buzzed President Woodrow Wilson’s yacht, then flew under every bridge along the Hudson River before returning home to a seething commander. “I just wanted to say good-bye to the President,” a sheepish Kelly said.
By the Book
Buzzing i’$ a dangerous business that has claimed hundreds of pilots through the decades. Against ail warnings, pilots continue to tempt fate by flying at treetop level. Even my father, in a moment of youthful indiscretion, once buzzed the tiny town of Hermosa, South Dakota, in a Korean War-era military jet, scattering frightened cattle and becoming a part of local legend.
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