By Michael John Jaeger, volunteer docent and historian
The role that airmail played in the development of aviation in the United States is highlighted at the Kelch Aviation Museum. This month I’ll explore how the airmail system looked at the start of 1922, a time the system was still young, less than 4 years old. It had yet to live up to the standards of the Post Office’s unofficial motto, “neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” In fact, snow and rain and gloom of night were still significant barriers to moving mail by airplane in early 1922. Please note, however, that the two mail planes we have in the Kelch Museum collection are from later in the decade.
100 YEARS AGO: Air Mail in January 1922
The January 23, 1922, issue of Aviation (a precursor to the current Aviation Week and Space Technology magazine) included a summary of the U.S. airmail system. The article was authored by Col. E. H. Shaughnessy, the Second Assistant Postmaster General. Some of the system’s early growing pains can readily be seen in this article.
I’ve included a map from the December 12, 1921, issue of the same magazine. This map shows the initial routes that were intended for the fledgling airmail system. By the end of 1921, however, only the New York to San Francisco transcontinental route was actually in service. The three lateral routes shown between Chicago and Minneapolis, Chicago and St. Louis, and New York and Washington had been briefly in service, but all discontinued by mid-2921. The others shown on the map were yet to be put into service. The map’s caption suggests that “limited appropriations” were the reason only the New York to San Francisco route was being flown at that time.
Back to the January 23rd article. The airmail system at that time consisted of the 2,860-mile long NY-SF transcontinental route. To move mail in both directions over this route each day required 21 planes, each flying an average of 255 miles, employing 43 pilots and 436 other personnel, and 15 “fields equipped with suitable hangers.”
I found the following comment particularly illustrative of that period of time. Col. Shaughnessy stated that “the air mail service as present operated is used an as auxiliary to the fast mail train service because we do not attempt to fly at night. We hope that within a reasonable length of time the proposed Bureau of Aeronautics within the Department of Commerce will come into being and start the work of marking airways for night flying. When this is done the real value of an air mail service will be at once apparent, for with night flying mail can be put across the continent in less that thirty hours.” I should point out that the first air mail service involving both day and night flights over the entire route was not possible until two and one-half years later, July 1924.
By the start of 1922 the Air Mail Service had standardized its aircraft on a single type, the DH4 light bomber from World War 1. The article notes that this “does not mean that the DH4 is the most suitable plane available, it simply means that it is a satisfactory plane for air mail service and good business to standardize on it because the Army has a large surplus which is transferred to our service as needed without expense to us.” At the start of the year the Air Mail Service had 143 total planes consisting of 50 serviceable, 38 being overhauled, and 55 in storage waiting overhaul.
The article also described that for the first three and one-half years (May 1918 through October 1921) a total of 221 planes had been used by the Air Mail Service (DH4s along with other models). Of these 81 had crashed with parts salvaged, 20 had crashed and burned with no parts salvaged, seven had burned on the ground with no parts salvaged, 19 were withdrawn as an unsatisfactory type with parts salvaged, eight where withdrawn due to age with parts salvaged, nine were withdrawn and stored due to small size, one was transferred to the Army, while 50 were available in flying condition and 26 were available but undergoing repair. The lifespan of these early mail planes was clearly short and many were destroyed.
America’s air mail system would undergo significant additional growth and advancement from the time described in Col. Shaughnessy’s article throughout the rest of the 1920s. In early 1922, however, the system was still a long way from being able to master the challenges of delivering mail through snow, rain, heat, and gloom of night.