The Pitcairn PA-5 Mailwing was designed to carry air mail along the routes of the eastern United States. Efficient and economical, it helped build the route structure for what would ultimately become Eastern Air Lines.
The Mailwing NC-2895 was built in 1927 and was the prototype for a series of Pitcairn mail planes. It combined a square-steel-tube fuselage with wooden wings, both covered by fabric. After it became obsolete as a mail plane, this airplane served several private owners, survived a crash, and saw use as a crop-duster.
It was repurchased by employees of Eastern Air Lines, restored, and presented to company president Capt. Edward V. Rickenbacker, who later donated it to the Museum. The plane was restored in 1975 by veteran Eastern pilot Capt. Joseph Toth.
Gift of Captain Edward V. Rickenbacker
Air transport; mail plane; single engine; bi-plane.
The "gold" in the golden years of aviation was usually extracted by a winning combination of finances and design genius. Such was the case of Pitcairn Aircraft, Inc., where the money of Harold F. Pitcairn and the talent of Agnew Larsen joined to produce a series of clean, efficient aircraft that were to be of great significance to air transportation.
Perhaps their most important product was the Pitcairn PA-5 Mailwing, a trim, fighterlike, open-cockpit biplane. Considerably smaller than its western counterparts, the Boeing 40A and Douglas M-2, the PA-5 achieved a reputation for efficiency and reliability that resulted in a production run for it and its derivatives of well over one hundred aircraft.
The PA-5’s good performance stemmed from three factors—a clean, lightweight airframe; the reliable Wright Whirlwind engine; and the use of a Pitcairn-developed airfoil, which permitted a relatively high top speed of 136 mph and also excellent load-carrying capability.
Larsen and his small team used good, imaginative engineering techniques to create an aircraft that would carry the small loads that could reasonably be expected on the still new airmail routes, thus avoiding the pitfall of many designers who built airplanes for loads that would not be generated for several years. While the construction was, in the main, conventional, there were several innovative features, including the use of easily fabricated square tubing in the fuselage and an ingenious quick-change engine mounting.
The PA-5 was first used by Texas Air Transport on Contract Air Mail Route 21 on November 27. 1927, only four months after the first Mailwing had been licensed by the Civil Aeronautics Administration. The plane’s reputation, however, was really established on the New York-to-Atlanta run, CAM #19, which was flown by Pitcairn Aircraft. Service began on May 1,1928. The little Pitcairns, flying by night, followed the newly lighted airways between Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Richmond, and Atlanta. The 760-mile route was flown in seven hours, just one-third the time it took by rail.
The forward-looking company took over the Atlanta—Miami route on December 1, 1928, creating the basic structure upon which its successor organization, Eastern Air Transport, would prosper. The new route added 595 miles and permitted fifteen-hour service between New York and Miami by the expanded fleet of sixteen Mailwings.
Far from being a gallant pony express operation, the entire Pitcairn route was cleverly planned, having five well-staffed and equipped airports with complete facilities for maintenance and even flight training.
Other airlines bought the PA-5s as well as the later PA-6, PA-7, and PA-8; a partial listing includes Colonial Air Transport, Colonial Western Airways, and Universal Division of American Airways.
The later developments were each slightly more refined, powerful, and streamlined. Detail improvements were added, including more secure mail storage, fire extinguishers, better cockpit heating and ventilation, and larger engines with a mild corresponding improvement in performance.
Civilian versions for sportsman flyers were created, with the mail compartment converted into a commodious two-passenger seat. These aircraft had a glamorous image deriving from their airmail heritage.
Progress ultimately caught up with the Mailwings as improvements in aircraft and increased load requirements made the general type obsolete. They passed from mail service to more general duties, including the dangerous task of crop-dusting, where their great structural strength made them popular with pilots. The stability that had been so advantageous flying the mail did limit their maneuverability in the dusting business, however.
The trim yellow and black Pitcairn on display had an especially exciting history, for it is the prototype Pitcairn PA-5, having the manufacturer’s number 1 displayed on its registration plate.
Registered N 2895, the first Pitcairn rode the crest of the national enthusiasm for aviation in the late 1920s. Pitcairn’s chief pilot, James G. Ray, placed eleventh in the 1927 Ford Reliability Tour. In the same year, Ray was seventh in the very demanding New York-to-Spokane Air Derby, demonstrating once again the durability and reliability of the plane. He also won first place in the free-for-all races held in Spokane immediately after the Air Derby, to add a flavor of speed to the growing reputation of the Mailwing.
The prototype was sold to Eastern Air Transport, which used it profitably through 1934. It averaged about 500 flying hours per year, an exceptionally high utilization rate for the period. It was then converted to carry passengers, beginning an odyssey through the hands of seven different owners before being repurchased by John Halliburton of Eastern Air Lines, Inc. Halliburton lec a group that restored the airplane as a gift for a Capt. Edward V. Rickenbacker, who had guided Eastern for so many years. In 1957 it was donated to the National Air and Space Museum, where it forms an interesting contrast to the more sophisticated planes that followed it.