The American aviation industry started in the early 1920se century not by transporting people, but by moving American mail. At first, airmail pilots flew in fragile open-cockpit planes through all manner of weather conditions – an experience that ranged from often heartbreaking to sometimes fatal. As routes widened, airports proliferated, and safer and more reliable planes were developed, the commercial airline industry emerged, initially grafting onto air travel. The first passengers unceremoniously used mail bags as seats.
The US Mail first took off less than a decade after the Wright Brothers made their pioneer flights over the Kitty Hawk Dunes. In 1911, the United States Post Office began arranging dozens of experimental air flights at air shows, fairs, and carnivals. On May 15, 1918, it launched the first regular service between New York and Washington, DC
Initially, the US Army Signal Corps exploited the airmail route as a means of training its new airmen before deploying them in the skies over Europe during World War I. However, this plan immediately encountered turmoil.
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Inauspicious and dangerous beginnings
On the maiden flight from the nation’s capital, Lieutenant George Boyle’s plane failed to start due to an empty fuel tank. Then, when the rookie pilot finally took off, he flew in the wrong direction and damaged his Curtiss JN-4H “Jenny” by landing in a freshly plowed field in an attempt to ask a farmer for directions. Boyle – and the courier – boarded a truck in Washington, DC Two days later, the pilot got lost again and made an emergency landing at the Philadelphia Country Club after running out of fuel.
In August 1918, the Post resumed air mail service with civilian pilots and six specially built airplanes. Roads quickly spread beyond the northeast, stretching coast to coast in 1924.
Without radio communications or reliable instruments, pioneering airmail pilots relied on cues and instincts to guide their fragile biplanes from city to city, sometimes as sleet hit their faces and rain blurred their vision in the city. open cockpits. “Flying between 30 and 50 feet without ever exceeding 100 feet of forward visibility in medium fog made many Angels good pilots,” wrote aviator Jack Knight. According to the U.S. Postal Service, nearly three dozen airmail pilots died in crashes between 1918 and 1927.
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Private airlines take over from air mail
After proving the financial viability of the airmail – and building a transcontinental airway system with airstrips, beacons, and even huge concrete arrows pointing pilots in the right direction – the post in 1925 began. accepting offers from commercial airlines to provide airmail services.
Airmail contracts have attracted some of the country’s most important business titans and aviators. Short-lived, but influential, Ford Air Transport, owned by Henry Ford and his son Edsel, launched the first commercial air mail service on February 15, 1926, on routes from Detroit to Cleveland and Chicago – flying the “Tin Goose”. From Ford, America’s first multi-engine metal-clad aircraft designed primarily for passengers. Two months later, Robertson Aircraft Corporation chief pilot Charles Lindbergh launched air mail service between St. Louis and Chicago a year before his famous crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. Bad weather forced him to parachute to safety twice using this airmail route.
Further west, airmail helped William E. Boeing build his aviation empire. As his aircraft manufacturing company struggled to survive after military contracts were canceled at the end of World War I, Boeing and its senior test pilot, Eddie Hubbard, carried a bag of 60 letters from Vancouver, British Columbia, in Seattle on March 3. 1919, on the first international mail flight to North America.
“Boeing envisioned a great future for the aircraft beyond military use,” said Michael Lombardi, senior corporate historian for The Boeing Company. “Flying this airmail reinforced the reality that the plane could have very practical use for carrying passengers as well as cargo.”
Hubbard flown the first international contract mail route between Seattle and Victoria, B.C., and in 1927 he lobbied Boeing to successfully submit the nation’s longest air route between San Francisco and Chicago. . By September 1, 1927, all air transport had been entrusted to private companies. By 1929, more than 30 different airlines delivered the mail.
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Air mail companies launch passenger service
On May 23, 1926, a carrier called Western Air Express loaded not only mail bags – but two passengers – on each of its scheduled air flights between Los Angeles and Salt Lake City. The flight – which lasted over seven hours, including a layover in Las Vegas – was hardly first-class as passengers sat on bags of mail, ate a packed lunch, and were given pewter cups to use. in the absence of a toilet.
The service was further expanded when Postmaster General Walter Folger Brown, operating with enhanced powers under the Airmail Act of 1930, orchestrated a series of airline mergers and assigned passenger and air mail routes to larger industry entities such as American Airways (formerly Robertson Aircraft Corp.) and United Air Lines, which emerged after Boeing consolidated the smaller airlines it bought into a transcontinental carrier.
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The aviation industry is reorganizing itself
Following the election of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, however, accusations of corruption in the awarding of contracts by Brown led to a Congressional investigation and the cancellation of all domestic airmail contracts on the 9th. February 1934. (The United States Court of Claims later determined that no fraud had in fact taken place.) Roosevelt ordered the United States military to carry airmail – with disastrous results as 10 pilots died in accidents over the next two weeks due to severe winter conditions and inadequate equipment. In all, the Army Air Corps recorded 66 accidents and 12 deaths.
Using its antitrust powers, the federal government banned aircraft manufacturers from owning airlines and pressured Boeing to dismantle its vertically integrated aviation conglomerate, United Aircraft and Transport. Upset by the move, Boeing sold its stock and pulled out to spend more time on the horse tracks and fishing on its yacht. “Boeing has been very open and honest in all of its business dealings,” Lombardi says, “and it crushed him to be treated like a criminal by the government.”
In the spring of 1934, air delivery fell to private companies, but not to any of those who had signed contracts with Brown. The move led to an industry reorganization and a series of spinoffs and name changes that created some of the country’s best-known airlines – such as Northwest, Eastern, TWA, Continental, and American – that have carried tens of millions of passengers.