Daring Deliveries: The U.S. Post Office and the Birth of Commercial Aviation

At the beginning of the 20th century, dreams of flying morphed from science fiction to reality. From the Wright Brothers’ early expeditions in Kitty Hawk, to the World War I fighter pilots in Europe, the airplane generated excitement around the world. Yet despite intense interest and publicity, the airplane’s practicality was still in doubt. Although people were enthralled at the prospect of aviation, most had no intentions of leaving the ground. Luckily, the fears surrounding aviation were quelled by an unlikely government agency, the United States Postal Service.

De Havilland Plane, one of the first used to carry mail (28-MS-1C-63)

Early aviation was not for the faint of heart. Most aircraft did not have enclosed cabins, which subjected pilots to freezing temperatures and treacherous winds. Planes were not always equipped with wheel brakes, and small engines often led to disastrous results. Many pilots were forced to abandon ship while many others tragically went down with their planes. Serviceable runways were scarce and established airports with lights and radio services were even scarcer. These conditions made air travel, especially commercial flight, a dubious agenda.

Yet the prospects of flying were too great to ignore. Backed by government funding, the Post Office began an experimental air mail route from Washington D.C. to New York in 1918.  Additional funding was given to improve navigational aids, radio communication, and provide weather information. Through the 1920s, the original mail route expanded to incorporate “feeder routes” that connected major cities across the country.

Aerial view over Washington Monument (28-MS-1A-55)

The Post Office’s role in aviation changed when Congress passed the Air Mail Act of 1925. The Air Mail Act, also known as the Kelly Act, mandated that the Post Office contract out their air mail routes to independent companies. Senator Clyde Kelly, the bill’s congressional voice, hoped that airlines would reinvest profits earned from carrying air mail into establishing passenger services.

Many companies bid for the right to fly the mail.  By 1929, there were 44 separate companies flying 53 different routes. The Robertson Aircraft Corporation, for example, won the bidding for Contract Air Mail Route 2 from Chicago to St. Louis. Robertson’s chief pilot was a young aviator named Charles Lindbergh. During his time with the post office, Lindbergh was forced to bail out of his plane on two separate occasions.

Charles A. Lindbergh Loading Cargo, Lambert Field, St. Louis, 1925

Yet the large number of small mail carriers was not profitable and companies did not reinvest in commercial aviation services. In 1930 Congress passed another Air Mail Act.  The act gave the postmaster general the authority to grant contracts to large, well financed companies. Small companies morphed into giant corporations. The Robertson Aircraft Corporation merged with other small companies to form what would eventually become American Airlines. These giant conglomerates created more efficient mail delivery systems, and for the first time, efficient passenger services.

Air mail display at the Post Office in Manteca, California. Dec. 15, 1939. (28-MS-3B-5)

Yet the formation of huge airline companies raised suspicions. A scandal mounted in 1934 when the former Postmaster General, Walter Brown, was accused of colluding with the airlines. Democrats under Franklin Delano Roosevelt asserted that Brown, a Republican, created a monopoly within the aviation industry and favored Republican airline owners. As a result of the scandal, all government contracts were cancelled, and, for a brief time the United States Army carried the air mail.

The Army, however, was ill-equipped to carry the mail. Planes were unable to fly in inclement weather and many inexperienced pilots died in the attempt. The Army’s mail delivery system was short-lived.  Only a few months after the scandal, contracts were returned to the large airlines.

Air mail plane on display in Times Square, New York (28-MS-1C-115)

Had it not been for the Post Office and early air mail services, the commercial industry would not have prospered in the manner that it did. Government subsidies allowed airlines to build a customer base and gradually incorporate passenger service. The decision to invest in large airlines had lasting effects on the commercial airline industry. Furthermore, the consistency in which the air mail was delivered helped assure the public that flying was safe. During a time when imaginations soared, the Post Office was soaring along side.

The photos above all come from Record Group 28-MS. Records of the Post Office Department of Mail Services. In addition to the pictures from the Air Mail services, the Still Pictures division has a large number of photos pertaining to individual Post Offices, Post Office artwork, and Post Office construction.  The Motion Picture division has recently digitized a film from 1938 celebrating the 20th anniversary of air mail which can be viewed here.

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8 Responses to Daring Deliveries: The U.S. Post Office and the Birth of Commercial Aviation

  1. Phil says:

    Minor point…Lindy never ejected from an airplane. He “bailed-out” a few times though. Ejection seats which allowed pilots to “eject” or “punch out” were first used in the late 1940’s.

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  2. Richard Green says:

    Good catch Phil. I’ve made the necessary changes. Thanks for reading!

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  3. Aaron Jarvis says:

    Very nice summary!

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  4. RH says:

    The airplane depicted in the New York City street is a Travel Air 5000, (serial number 175A, registered to National Air Transport), the first airliner designed to an airline’s specifications (for National Air Transport (“NAT”), forerunner of United Airlines).

    One of the first truly significant American cabin monoplanes (combining the efficiency of monoplane design with the comfort and capacity of a large enclosed cabin, seating four plus a pilot in the raised “cupola”), the design first earned fame for the victorious and tragic roles of various Travel Air 5000’s in the 1929 Dole Race to Hawaii.

    The Travel Air 5000 was one of the models specifically sought by Charles Lindbergh for his historic 1927 New York to Paris transatlantic solo flight (declined by Travel Air executive Walter Beech who was preoccupied with production for the airlines; Lindbergh settled for a Ryan plane, instead).

    A later photo of this exact plane, in NAT mail plane markings, with the cupola apparently removed (a later streamlining modification on some units) appears at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/22264404@N08/12143732995/

    The 5000 was derived from Clyde Cessna’s Model 500 monoplane design. Cessna, Lloyd Stearman and Walter Beech were partners in Wichita-based Travel Air Mfg. Co., which was — by 1928-1929 — America’s highest-volume producer of civilian airplanes. Later, in Wichita, each man eventually started a famous airplane manufacturing firm under his own name. These companies (Travel Air, under Walter Beech, Stearman Aircraft, and Cessna Aircraft, along with Beech & Stearman’s previous employer, Swallow Airplane Co.) combined to make Wichita the nation’s leader in aircraft produced by 1928-1929, winning the city the industry title of “Air Capital City” — a title it has claimed ever since, with little competition on the numbers.

    Cessna and Beech (until joined earlier this year under parent company Textron) were among the longest-running American airplane manufacturers, particularly as the world leaders (with rival Piper) in general aviation aircraft. Stearman (a leading producer of biplanes for commercial cargo and military training) was absorbed into United Aircraft, which then spun it off as a division of Boeing (Boeing-Wichita), in the 1930s — which became the company’s main bomber factory from WWII to the end of the B-52 production in the 1960s — and now is the Spirit Aerosystems subcontractor factory that builds most of the Boeing 737, and major sections of all Boeing airliners.

    Sources:

    * “Registrations 2000-2999,” Aerofiles.com at: http://www.aerofiles.com/regs-2000.html

    * FAA Aircraft Registry (prior registration for 2907) at: http://registry.faa.gov/aircraftinquiry/NNum_Results.aspx?NNumbertxt=2907

    * “A Brief History of the Travel Air Type 5000”, by noted general aviation historian by Edward H. Phillips, at: http://www.travelair.org/html/history/history_frame_ta5000history.html and his definitive book on Travel Air: “Travel Air: Wings Over the Prairie”

    * Veterans Memorial Air Park – Amon G_ Carter Travel Air 5000 story at: http://www.facmuseum.org/travel_air_5000_saveaplane.aspx

    ALSO: All of the mentioned topics (including modern-era facts) are also covered on one or more of these three Kansas aviation websites:

    * Centennial of Flight (the original official U.S. Centennial of Flight website by NASA, FAA, Smithsonian, EAA and AIAA as centennialofflight.gov; now restored and managed by the American Aviation Historical Society: http://centennialofflight.net

    * Kansas Aviation Centennial website (official website of the Kansas Aviation Centennial Committee): http://ks100aviation.org

    * Wings Over Kansas (leading website on Kansas aviation industry and its history): http://wingsoverkansas.com

    * Aviation Answer-Man “Aviation History & Industry” section, with extensive articles on the described companies.

    * The Boeing Company official website, with several (P.R.-type) history articles on Stearman and Boeing-Wichita, at: http://boeing.com

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    • Susan Culp-Stauffer says:

      What color was it?

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      • RH says:

        Probably “Travel Air Blue” — a dark, slightly greenish hue of blue, with silver wings — the typical Travel Air colors at the time (and still retained on most of the Travel Air biplanes of that era that have been restored and are flown today).

        “Travel Air Blue” was the result of a moment of desperation: The company was short on paint, and needed to paint a plane urgently. They took all their different colored cans of paint, mixed them together, and it came out this distinctive (and subsequently popular) color. The company stuck with it for several years, as a trademark feature.

        Silver wings would likely have been the result of the most common color of aircraft “dope” (the sealant needed to waterproof and seal the fabric skin covering the metal-and-wooden-frame wings), in those days. (Lindbergh’s “Spirit of St. Louis” was all-silver, as a result, for instance, as were various other popular planes of the time, such as the Alexander Eaglerock, Avro Arrow, etc.)

        Subsequent Travel Air cabin monoplanes would have been painted as required by individual airlines to match their color schemes (Model 5000 and Model 6000) or the common Travel Air colors of “Travel Air Blue” with orange wings, or black with orange wings.

        For examples of these Travel Air color schemes, see the various restored Travel Airs in:
        http://NationalAirTour.org
        or the various Travel Air photos on my Gallery page at:
        http://harris1.net/hold/av/gallery/gallery.htm

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  5. manteca says:

    One question not well answered is why the airline industry seemed to bear the brunt of what little trust-busting activity took place during the early years of the Franklin Roosevelt Administration. The small airline that prompted much of the investigation was based in the South. By 1934, when the issues came to a head, Roosevelt’s New Deal was under challenge, particularly from the southern wing of the Democratic Party. It would be worth examining the degree to which FDR’s decision might have been driven by intraparty politics.

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  6. Red Hare says:

    Did individuals ever carry the mail via airplane? If say, a rural farmer had an aircraft, could he have been contracted? Thank you

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