Couriers of the Flight

Photograph of airmail planes at Elko, Nevada, by unknown photographer, c. 1920, Smithsonian National Just last week, we uploaded some new photos of early US airmail from the National Postal Museum to the “People and the Post” set on the Flickr Commons. I was immediately drawn in by the portraits of the early airmail pilots—proud-looking, sometimes scrappy, and often outright handsome standing in their flying gear near their planes. They seemed to have a certain energy about them, and as it turns out, they also had some pretty interesting stories.


In the early 20th century, aviation technology was still in its infancy and not yet very safe, and the conditions that airmail pilots flew in were often horrendous. So much so, that flying for the airmail was “considered the next thing to suicide” because of the danger involved. Pilot James C. Edgerton was the first pilot to navigate through a thunderstorm while carrying mail.


Photograph of airmail pilot Lt. James Edgerton and sister, by unknown photographer, 1918, Smithsonia Wesley Smith, “a cigar-smoking pilot known for his stubbornness,” just barely missed perishing in a crash in bad weather in the Orange Mountains of New Jersey, and often spoke about the need to be able to “fly blind” through heavy fog, rain, and snow storms. He famously used a half-filled whiskey bottle taped onto his instrument panel so that he could tell if his wings were level in black-out conditions. Photograph of airmail pilot Wesley Smith, by unknown photographer, c. 1922, Smithsonian National Pos Pilot Jack Knight pulled the first all-nighter for the airmail service. Taking off at two in the morning with bad weather, and aided only by a compass and bonfires lit by ordinary citizens to light his way, Knight successfully completed his run. Photograph of airmail pilot Jack Knight and unidentified individual, by unknown photographer, 1922, Other pilots weren’t so lucky. Some were punished for not flying in the harsh conditions that killed so many. On November 19, 1918, Shrank and pilot Eddie Gardner were fired when the pair refused to carry mail in a low-visibility fog that had already claimed the life of one pilot that morning.



Airmail pilot Robert Shank after crash, unknown photographer, December 31, 1918, Smithsonian Nationa And Max Miller, an experienced pilot, sadly perished in a plane fire over New Jersey while flying mail. Airmail pilot Max Miller, by unknown photographer, December 31, 1919, Smithsonian National Postal Mu

So did Charles Ames . . .

Photograph of airmail pilot Charles Ames, by unknown photographer, c. 1924, Smithsonian National Pos


. . . and William Carroll.

Photograph of airmail pilot William Carroll, by unknown photographer, c. 1921, Smithsonian National In all, there were 43 fatalities, 25 serious injuries, and 200 crashed planes while flying the mail from May 1918 to August 1927. While today the notion of simply receiving mail in a timely fashion seems almost mundane, once upon a time it was the stuff thriller movies are made of. And in that sense, these photos function as a kind of visual memorial to the lusty pilots who took to the skies, and often didn't live to tell the tale. Read more about the advent of mail at the Postal Museum's online exhibit "Fad to Fundamental: Airmail in America."

Produced by the Smithsonian Institution Archives. For copyright questions, please see the Terms of Use.