Airline Expansion and Innovation(1927 - 1941)

How Did Air Mail Pilots Find Their Way?

Early pilots navigated by looking for familiar landmarks on the ground: towns, rivers, railroads, race tracks, large buildings, and lakes.

Navigating by keeping the ground in view and following landmarks is called "contact flying." Today modern instruments can help pinpoint a pilot's location, but many pilots still use contact flying to find their way.

"Flying 30 or 40 feet off the ground, I still couldn't find the railroad tracks... I kept looking for just one friendly landmark to let me know where I was."
-Bob Shank, one of the four original air mail pilots, on flying through fog


Air Mail Pilot Hand-drawn Map
National Archives

James P. Murray drew this map. Murray entered the map, along with written directions for the route, in a Post Office contest. The winning entries, awarded $50 dollars each, appeared in 1921 as Pilots' Directions: New York-San Francisco Route.

James Murray
National Air and Space Museum Archives
Contact Flying
Test Your Contact Flying Skills!