Getting mail in the air had a bumpy takeoff

  • By Norman N. Brown / For Associated Press
  • Saturday, June 3, 2006 9:00pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

Although the U.S. Air Mail Service began only 90 years ago, the details of its start and early years are little known to most Americans.

The swift progress in transportation and communication that has become so commonplace makes it difficult today to appreciate the importance of airmail at its inception.

In “Mavericks of the Sky: The First Daring Pilots of the U.S. Air Mail,” Barry Rosenberg and Catherine Macaulay make a meaningful contribution to aviation history with a chronicle of the initial steps taken to create an airmail delivery service and of the ensuing problems.

Moving mail by air was a logical step following the development of mechanical flight, which got a big boost from World War I. But the idea met with widespread resistance.

For many years, mail distribution had depended on ships, stagecoaches and railroads for the long hauls, and on horse-drawn wagons for local service. All these methods were, in varying degrees, opposed to the competition airmail would provide.

By 1918, railroads were the main carriers of intercity mail, almost to the point of being a monopoly. Within cities, fleets of horse-drawn wagons were being replaced by gasoline-engine trucks.

Then came the possibility of carrying mail from one city to another – and the dizzying prospect of later doing so across the country – by airplane.

The strong initial arguments against airmail were supported by undeniable facts: The planes available had not been designed for that purpose, and their engines were not powerful enough to carry large loads, which would in any case be much smaller than trains could handle.

Also, the range of planes was limited, and efficient airfields were not available everywhere. Stops between points in the flight, with mechanics, spare parts and fuel, would have to be created.

In addition, conservative skepticism, powerful railroad lobbies and the diverse interests of politicians, cities and states all presented obstacles, as did the Army, which demanded control over all aviation.

Despite these roadblocks, airmail service finally got off the ground in May 1918. Congress gave the U.S. Post Office $100,000 to launch an airmail route between New York and Washington, with a refueling stop at Philadelphia.

Postmaster General Albert Burleson supplied clout at the higher levels of government while his second assistant, Otto Praeger, was the nuts-and-bolts man who issued orders daily and saw that things got done. Praeger was largely responsible for choosing the types of planes that were tested and bought, and for hiring their pilots.

“Mavericks of the Sky” closely follows these activities and frequently provides insights into the personalities involved – and there is a very rich roster of these to examine. Not surprising, airmail service suffered frequent problems: Planes crashed, pilots were killed, mail delivery was delayed.

However, once the feasibility of airmail was proved, progress was quick and steady. Air routes were studied and laid out and beacons built to aid night flights. Also, airfields were illuminated and planes outfitted with radios.

This is an enthralling saga, told in a smooth and agile style. An epilogue includes brief biographies of some of the principal players.

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