De Havilland DH-4 in North Hall of A&I Building, 1927. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 95, Image no. 2002-10656.

The World Is Yours: Early Air Mail

Take a listen to clips from The World Is Yours episode “Early Air Mail” and its short reign under the United States Postal Service from 1916 to 1926.

Today is National Pen Pal Day! Have you ever thought about how your handwritten letters get to your pen pals? No? Well, in honor of National Pen Pal Day, let’s take a listen to The World Is Yours episode “Early Air Mail,” which aired on August 13, 1939.

Ceremony to Commemorate 50th Anniversary of Air Mail Service

The episode begins with a rapid series of vignettes of people frantic about getting letters and documents to places across the country quickly, and then realizing they could send it by air mail. The main characters of the episode then enter the scene when a boy, Donnie, cautions his uncle, Will, not to step on any of the model planes he’s building. His mother, the only unnamed character in the episode, remarks that Donnie has been making them ever since the family returned from a visit to the Smithsonian in Washington.

Listen to Will share about his personal interest in air mail with Donnie.  

[Will] Hmm, and if you keep up this good work, my friend Paul Garber will have to look to his laurels one of these days.

[Donnie] Who’s he, Uncle Will?

[Will] Why, Paul Garber is assistant curator of engineering in charge of Aeronautics at the Smithsonian. Oh, he’s keen about air mail. You see, he used to be in that service. He made some of those models of air mail planes that you saw in the aircraft building.

[Donnie] Gee, they’re swell.

[Will] Yes, and what do you think of this?

[Donnie] Another air mail stamp?

[Will] No, first stamps cancelled for air mail transportation.

[Donnie] Gee, look mother!

[Mother] Aeroplane, Station Number One, Garden City Estates, New York. Why, where on earth did you get this envelope Bill?

Will tells his sister he rediscovered the envelope in their mother’s old desk, and then recounts the story of how he visited Belmont Park in New York on the day the postmaster general was set to fly one of the first bags of air mail to Mineola. He managed to hand a letter to the pilot, and when he drove with his dad to Mineola a few days later, he met with the letter recipient and asked for the envelope.

Will goes on to share a bit of a history lesson about when the United States Postal Service (USPS) was responsible for air mail service. In 1918, the United States Army began operating experimental air mail service between Washington, D.C. and New York on behalf of the U.S. Postal Service. After a few months of service, the Army recalled its pilots for combat and Second Assistant Postmaster General Otto Praeger suggested that the United States Postal Service acquire their own planes and pilots to deliver the air mail themselves. The result was the creation of the JR-1B, the first plane that was specifically designed to carry mail. Will then recounts to Donnie the events of the day the U.S. Postal Service took over air mail from the Army at an airstrip in College Park, Maryland.

Shortly thereafter, Praeger wanted the U.S. Postal Service to expand air mail service to destinations west because he believed that was where the true benefits of air mail over train service lie.

Hear a reenactment between Praeger and the chief clerk of air mail about the efficiency of the service.

[Will] But, Otto Praeger wasn’t a man to be satisfied with success. One day he buzzed for George Connor, chief clerk of air mail in the Post Office Department.

[Otto Praeger] Ah, good morning George. Have a chair.

[George Connor] Thanks. Here’s that report of air mail service, Mr. Praeger. It shows about 95% efficiency.

[Praeger] Ah, 95%, pretty good!

[Connor] Pretty good? Why, I’d say those Liberty motors we installed in the Curtiss R’s are holding up splendidly. And as for the uh…

[Praeger] Just how much better is air mail service than train service?

[Connor] Well, by train it’s five hours to New York, by plane it’s only three.

[Praeger] A two-hour savings. But the College Park field is seven miles from where we are sitting, and it is eleven good miles, congested miles, from Belmont to the Eighth Avenue Post Office in Manhattan.

[Connor] That’s correct sir.

[Praeger] And it’s also correct that mail trucking is pretty slow. It’s everybody’s secret that when a pilot encounters a head wind or has engine trouble, the train mail beats us, post office to post office.

[Connor] But there’s nothing we can do about that, sir.

[Praeger] Not much we can do about it on a 218-mile route. But if we are sending mail over a longer, New York to Chicago for instance…

This clip is followed by a dramatization of the start of the first trip of air mail from New York to Chicago on September 5, 1918. Uncle Will tells Donnie that the pilot, Max Miller, completed the trip after a few unexpected stops and was met in Chicago with rousing cheers and music. Will then recounts how another pilot proved the success of delivery by air mail when he had breakfast in Chicago, lunch in Cleveland, and dinner in New York.

De Havilland DH-4 in North Hall of A&I Building

With the success and growth of air mail, Praeger wanted new planes designed for carrying the mail long distances, but was left with retired DH planes used during World War I. The Postal Service made more than 200 modifications to the planes to optimize them for long distance air mail delivery. On February 22, 1921, the first USPS air mail pilots flew from coast-to-coast in 30 hours, proving the viability of air mail once and for all. However, it wasn’t until 1924 that night flight became a primary focus of improvement for air mail in order to speed up delivery times. With the help of scientists and the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, USPS achieved success and coast-to-coast air mail was underway.

He then tells Donnie that he can’t become an air mail pilot for the U.S. Postal Service because in 1926, air mail service moved to private aviation companies.

Atrium of National Postal Museum

Check back next month for a look at another episode of The World Is Yours!

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