Airline Expansion and Innovation(1927 - 1941)

Air Mail Pilot's Knee Board and Map

Did You Know?

This object is called a "knee board" because a pilot would strap it to his leg. He would turn the knobs to scroll the map as he flew his route. Why would this be more useful than a folding map?

What Was It Like To Fly?

Novel and exciting; loud and uncomfortable-an experience few people ever got to relish or regret.

In the early years of flight, pilots and the occasional passenger sat in open cockpits exposed to wind and weather. Even in Europe, where large transports carried passengers in comparative luxury, the ride was harsh, loud, and uncomfortable.

Wilfred Yakey, Air Mail Pilot
National Air and Space Museum Archives

An Air Mail Pilot's Wings

Air mail pilots wore heavy flight suits instead of uniforms, but they were issued badges or wings for identification, as in this photo of pilot Wilfred A. "Tony" Yackey. Northwest Airlines still issues similar wings to its pilots.

Air Mail Pilot's Knee Board and Map
Smithsonian Institution, National Air and Space Museum

Air Mail Pilot's Knee Board and Map

Joseph L. Mortensen navigated the air mail route from Salt Lake City, Utah, to Reno, Nevada, in 1920 using this scrolling map and knee board.

Gift of Joseph L. Mortensen

Reuben Fleet with Map
National Air and Space Museum Archives

Pilot Reuben H. Fleet with a map strapped to his knee.

Jenny Crashed Into Tree
National Air and Space Museum Archives

Of the more than 200 pilots hired by the Post Office from 1918 to 1926, 35 died flying the mail. Fatalities dropped after the first few years, but flying the mail remained a dangerous-and sometimes deadly-job.

Curtiss R-4 in Snow
National Air and Space Museum Archives

A Curtiss R-4 grounded by a snowstorm. Winter weather made flying treacherous.