100 Years of Air Mail

Posted on Tue, May 15, 2018

By today’s standards, sending a letter in the mail might seem a little antiquated. But 100 years ago, it was cutting edge communication—and was about to be radically transformed by the introduction of the airplane.

On May 15, 1918 Lt. James Edgerton flew the mail from Philadelphia to Washington, DC in a Curtiss Jenny, during the first scheduled air mail flight. Though it had a rocky start, this flight would go on to change the postal service, and the airline industry, forever.

Lt. Torrey Webb flew from New York to Philadelphia, where he transferred his mail to Lt. James Edgerton's waiting Jenny for the flight to Washington.

The Beginning of Air Mail

The potential for air mail was first introduced in 1911, in a rather dramatic, ad-hoc fashion. While on a flight from an international air meet on Long Island, New York, pilot Earle Ovington pushed a full mail bag out of his plane. When the bag hit the ground in Mineola, New York, the postmaster picked it up and delivered the contents. This was the first time a pilot officially carried any US mail.

By 1918, the Post Office wanted to kick-off official air mail service between New York and Washington, by way of Philadelphia. (Or, at least, that was the plan.)

This is Lt. James Edgerton's logbook, with entries for May 14 and 15, 1918.

The aim was for two air mail pilots to take off at the same time: one traveled from Washington, DC, the other from Long Island. The pilots were supposed to meet in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the rough half-point of the journey, to exchange their mailbags. Another set of pilots would complete the second half of the flight.

The take-off on the Washington end of the exchange was met with much fanfare, with President Woodrow Wilson presiding over the opening ceremonies at West Potomac Park. The result, however,  was less than successful.

Rookie pilot Lt. George Boyle was behind the controls for the flight from Washington, DC to Philadelphia. Using only a roadmap and a faulty compass to guide him, Boyle got lost. South of Washington, he tried to land to ask for directions, but flipped the plane in the process. The damage to the aircraft was too severe for him to continue with the flight.

So, when pilot Lt. Torrey Webb finished his run from New York to Philadelphia, there was no mailbag to exchange. Instead, he transferred his New York to Washington set of mail to Edgerton, who took the letters aboard his Jenny to Washington.

Early air mail was placed in heavy canvas bags and carried inside a special compartment in front of the pilot on most mail planes.

Air Mail Takes Off

Though the first run didn’t work out as smoothly as expected, it was a milestone worth celebrating. In fact, the Post Office created a series of air mail stamps with the Jenny printed on them to mark the milestone. (This came with its own glitches, too--when the Post Office first printed this stamp, the plane was shown upside-down.)

Air mail became a quick—though expensive—way to send letters or packages across the country. And, once the US government began flying the mail, it was a big boost to the then-fledgling aviation industry. By 1927, less than a decade from that original air mail flight, the country had a commercial airline system.

You can learn more about the history of the air mail in the new America By Air gallery, as part of the reimagined National Air and Space Museum. Learn more about the Museum’s transformation.   

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