DEAN C. SMITH
WHEN I arrived in New York in April of 1919, I soon found the pilots’ hangout was the American Flying Club on East 38th Street. The club was housed in a fine white-front converted residence, filled with mementos, trophies, framed squares of airplane linen salvaged from crashes by famous pilots, wrecked propeller hubs, photographs of the great aces, and a collection of magnificent flight paintings by Faure. The majority of the members had been wartime pilots, but by now they were a varied lot: test pilots; barnstormers; a few, like me, who had vague hopes of continuing the exciting and pleasant life we had enjoyed in the service.
The club was certainly gay. There was much drinking and gambling. I won enough at craps to keep me reasonably in funds. But I was constantly trying to find a way to get back into flying. I asked around about a flying job, any flying job at all. If you were really desperate, I learned, there was one last-resort job. You could join the Air Mail.
What was so dangerous, anyway, I demanded, about flying the mail? True, the Air Mail was all cross-country flying, much of it over hilly, rough terrain. True, too, the planes, mostly DH-4s and a few Curtiss Rs, all war surplus, had to go in and out of small and unimproved fields instead of military airdromes. Worse, there were only a few mechanics who knew a spark plug from an aileron, and it was about even money that the pilot would have an engine failure on any given flight. But worst of all was the attitude of the Post Office Department. A pilot had to try to get through, regardless of the consequences; he couldn’t cancel without giving it a try. Three or four of its pilots, it seemed, had learned to fly some pretty bad weather; and if those pilots could get through, the P.O. brass figured that the others could. Ruthless, perhaps, but essential if aerial carriage of mail was to become a success.
I turned to Pop Anglin, who had led the mail pilots in a strike a few months back, when they had rebelled against orders to take off regardless of weather. Although the pilots had won the strike, Pop shook his head solemnly. But he gave me the telephone number of D. B. Colyer, manager of the Post Office Air Mail Service, which had its headquarters at College Park, outside Washington.
Colyer seemed delighted at the prospect of hiring a pilot. He asked if I could fly a De Havilland. I said I’d never had any trouble with the plane. That was true enough, since I had never flown one. He told me to hustle down and he would pay the fare.
Even though everyone considered the Air Mail the next thing to suicide, you could at least be comfortable while life lasted. A mail pilot started at $2400 a year; he got a $200 raise after each fifty hours until he was making $3600. If assigned to multi-engined planes, like the Martin Bomber, he would get still another $300 a month. This added up to good money. Such was my rationalization.
COLLEGE PARK seemed a most unpretentious show to be the headquarters of the Air Mail Service. There were three or four shacklike wooden hangars, a hut for an office, and an exceedingly small, badly rolling, sod field. I was yet to learn that this was a sumptuous airdrome compared with the typical Air Mail field. I located D. B. Colyer. As soon as the southbound got in, he told me, the pilot would check me out in a Jenny. If he gave me an OK, I would be put in a DH to see what I could do. And if I then got down in one piece, I would be in business. While I waited, a mechanic showed me the layout, and I quizzed him anxiously about the switches and valves on the DH.
The incoming pilot took little time to check me out. He hustled me into the front seat of the Curtiss trainer, had me take off, make a quick circle of the field, and land. That was all. He gave Colyer a breezy OK and was off.
The De Havilland was a challenge, more psychological than actual, but enough to make me nervous as I climbed in for my first flight. The DH had a Liberty engine of 400 horsepower; its roar made the ground shake. But the mechanic’s lesson proved invaluable, and I carefully followed his instructions. Once clear, I taxied to the corner, pointed the plane the long way of the field, and gave her the gun before I had time to change my mind. The plane took off easily. After a few maneuvers I knew I was flying the plane instead of the plane flying me.
There was an exhilaration to flying airplanes in those days: their slow speed and light wingloadings allowed short turns, sharp dives, and quick pull-outs that are impossible in faster planes. We did not rely on gauges and indicators; we flew by feel, noting the control pressures on our hands and feet, the shifting weight of our bodies, and the pitch of the singing wires. I was careful with my first few landings, bringing the DH in flat, with a bit of power until I got over the fence. After a dozen landings I taxied in to find I had become a mail pilot. This was in April, 1920.
The Air Mail operation — initially, flying from Washington to New York — had been extended by a route from New York to Chicago and, very recently, as far as Omaha. After several days at College Park, I was given a permanent assignment, based at Bellefonte. Pennsylvania, whence I was to fly to Cleveland. Bellefonte is a borough in the Allegheny Mountains, in Central Pennsylvania. I checked in with a Mr. Tanner, the field manager, and asked him what I was to do. So far as he knew, he said, I had only to fly back and forth to Cleveland. Never having been to Cleveland, I asked him for maps. He smiled. There were no maps. On his first trip, a pilot Would usually fly behind someone who knew the run.
When Max Miller, the senior pilot of the dozen or so in the Air Mail Service, showed up, I asked him how to get started. Rand McNally road maps, he explained, were useful, but they didn’t show the landmarks I would use most in flying the run, such as the shape and layout of the towns, the distinctive appearance of the hills and valleys, the low places that let you work your way through weather, and the location of possible landing fields. After I came to know my run, Miller said, I would fly to Cleveland just as I would walk to the drugstore; I would know the way.
Miller and I picked up maps of Pennsylvania and Ohio. Then he began to talk. He kept on talking for a long time. From the field here at Bellefonte you head west through the gap in the ridge. Climb as you veer a bit north, passing over the center of a railroad switchback up the side of Rattlesnake Mountain, then due west again to clear the top of the ridge at, say, 2200 feet. After about ten miles you hit the railroad again at Snow Shoe — look sharp, it’s only four or five houses - then follow the railroad on down the other side of Rattlesnake to the valley, where you pick up the West Branch of Susquehanna River, winding along to the town of Clearfield, which you will know by three round water reservoirs just south of town. Next, you have to get over about thirty miles of plateau to Du Bois. This is pretty high, about 2500 feet, but it is fairly smooth on top, and there is a white gravel road cut through the trees straight to Du Bois. As you come into town you will see the railroad to your right, and just south of the railroad, a piece of flat pasture you can land on in a pinch. Then the highway leads you for fifty miles through Brookville to Clarion. Each of these towns has a half mile of race track. The one at Clarion is half full of trees, but the one at Brookville is clean and hard, and it’s the best emergency field from here to Cleveland. As soon as you land you will be met by a girl named Alice Henderson, driving a big Cadillac, who will be pleased to look alter you. After Clarion, the country gradually gets lower until you cross the Allegheny at Franklin, which you can identify by a big S bend in the river. From then on, it’s clear sailing.
And so he went on, naming towns, hills, rivers, roads, factories, race tracks, all the way to Cleveland. The airfield was in East Cleveland, at the Glenn L. Martin plant. It was easy to find, just a quarter of a mile from the lake shore — or so Miller assured me.
I HAD expected to make my first trip escorted by one of the Cleveland pilots. But within a few days the westbound came in, and there was no pilot except me available to take it on to Cleveland. The weather was far from promising; it had been raining off and on all day, and low clouds were barely clearing the ridges. However, no one seemed concerned as the mail was transferred to my DH and the Liberty was warmed up. so I took off and headed west through the gap in the first ridge. Max’s instructions proved a great help. I made it over Rattlesnake Mountain and followed the river to Clearfield without much trouble. Opaque veils of cloud forced me to twist and dodge my way between them as the squalls grew heavier. By the time I reached the slope leading up to the plateau, the clouds were so solid that I had to circle back. I hated to give up. When I got back to Clearfield again, the sky looked brighter to the north, so I blithely headed that way, happily ignorant that I was flying over some of the wildest country in Pennsylvania, high and rugged, with few houses and no fields for fifty miles around.
I was able to work my way west by heading for openings between the clouds, zigzagging from one to another. I knew I was north of the course, but not how far north; I knew I was working west, but I couldn’t guess at what rate. I was amazed to find I was barely clearing the trees, although the altimeter read close to 3000 feet above sea level. The terrain was rushing at me with relentless speed. After a long half hour, the rain eased a bit and the clouds rose. I relaxed a little. I was showing them that a rookie could get through.
Just then, the engine stopped cold. As a rule, when an engine fails, it will give some warning. The water temperature will rise, or the oil pressure will drop, or there is a knocking or clanking. Even if it is only for a minute or two, it gives the pilot a chance to look around and head for a field or open place. However, when the timing gear in a Liberty engine failed, one second it was roaring along even and strong, and the next there was a tremendous silence. I quickly twisted all the knobs and gadgets in the cockpit, but there was no response, and the engine stayed dead. While my hands were trying to restart the engine, my neck was stretching and my eyes searching for some sort of field to land in. I was surrounded by heavily forested, sharply rolling hills. To my left was a cuplike basin with a small clearing. It was downwind, but my gliding radius didn’t allow much choice. I went for it.
To reach the clearing required a sharp, almost vertical S turn, first left, then right, while killing just enough speed and altitude to land, downwind, and still miss a nearby cliff. I can even now feel the rain slanting into my face and see that open space rocking and swinging in front of me as I pulled out of the turn. One thing I could not know: the clearing was choked with brush and weeds, hiding a three-foot ledge of rock directly in front of my landing spot. The ledge slammed into the undercarriage as I hit. The plane snapped like a popper on the end of a bull whip. I was catapulted into a long head-first dive, like a man shot from a circus cannon. Fortunately, I landed in the brush and rolled to a stop in a sitting position. The padded leather ring that rimmed the cockpit hung from my neck like a lei. I was still holding the rubber grip pulled loose from the control stick. My seat belt lay across my lap. I felt around to determine whether I had any broken bones. The wreckage of the plane was piled in a heap, like crumpled wastepaper.
Except for this lone field, the place appeared to be a wilderness of trees. After some exploration, I located a little-used path and started to follow it. It meandered along for about half a mile and turned onto a dirt road that I followed downhill for perhaps another mile before I came to a small cabin. Sitting on a bench before the cabin were an elderly man and woman, barefooted and dressed in work clothes. They smiled and waved. My first impression was astonishment at how clean they were, their scrubbed faces glowing above the faded calico and denim. I told them about the accident and about my mail pouches, which would have to be taken to a railroad station. They assured me that the rural mail carrier would be along shortly with his horse and rig and would willingly help me. The couple were very solicitous. Almost apologetically the wife brought out a big bowl of tiny wild strawberries, a jug of clotted cream, and a loaf of fresh home-baked bread.
Sure enough, the mail carrier came along in due course, with a sturdy mare pulling an old-fashioned hack. The old man and the mail carrier helped me bring the mail sacks down to the road and load them in the hack. Luckily, there were only three or four sacks, hardly a hundred pounds. Westbound air mail was expensive that day.
After my thanks and good-bys, we drove about ten miles to Pithole, a little town on the railroad, where the stationmaster accepted the mail shipment. I used my Post Office travel commission to get a train ticket to Cleveland. It was quite a trip, my first flight with the mail. I was beginning to understand why the boys at the Flying Club had given me a farewell party.
ON ARRIVAL in Cleveland from the forced landing at Pithole, I was surprised to hear little comment about my accident. Engine failure, forced landings, and crack-ups were so common on the Air Mail that, so long as the pilot was not killed or seriously hurt, no one gave them another thought. Teams of mechanics, ready for repair and salvage operations, were constantly busy.
Even the airfields themselves were dangerous. Not counting Hazelhurst, which later became a part of Roosevelt Field, every mail field in early 1920 was so small and cramped that each take-off and landing was a test of skill.
On my first trip to Chicago, I flew to where I had been told Checkerboard Field was located, next to a mile race track in Maywood, but I could see nothing of it. I looked and circled for some time, finally returning to Ashburn and damaging my landing gear on a rut. When I telephoned in, they told me I had flown directly over Checkerboard. Actually, the field had been so dwarfed by the race track that I could not recognize it.
Heller Field in Newark was probably the worst of all. Situated, as it was, between Tiffany’s factory and a canal, approaching planes had to glide between the factory building and a steep hill, make a sharp bank over a gully filled with debris, and quickly sit down, right out of the turn, to land even on the edge of the field. It was so small that a mound of earth had been bulldozed for the plane to run into. When a new pilot would come in for his first landing, the employees of Tiffany’s would line up on the ramp to observe; they were usually rewarded with a spectacular splash in the canal, a wild ground loop, or a nose-up into the mound.
The Glenn Martin field at Cleveland was small; the only effective runway was hardly more than a cinder path, complicated by a decided bend. The Martin Bomber was used on the mail run between Cleveland and Chicago, a lumbering biplane with twin Liberty engines that presented the pilot with a test of skill whenever he took off with a load of mail. Time after time I saw the old tubs rock and bounce down the rutted runway, stagger into the air at the last second, miss the telephone wires by inches — telephone wires around a field were almost universal — and disappear in the distance, still so low that the pilot was rocking his wings to miss the chimneys of ordinary residences. Of the pilots then on the Chicago run, I remember W. J. Smith, P. T. Christensen, S. H. Stevens, and Warren “Bill” Williams. The first three were killed on the airway within the next two years. Only Bill Williams was able to carry on, always a consistent and able pilot, serving continuously through the Air Mail, its successor, National Air Transport, and its successor, United Air Lines. When he retired from active flying in 1954 at the compulsory age of sixty, he had amassed one of the most impressive totals of hours in the air ever known, probably challenged only by another man with much the same history, E. Hamilton Lee.
Inside the Glenn L. Martin plant there was, besides the boss himself, a remarkable collection of aeronautical engineers, men of vision and ability, many of whom were to become leaders in our aviation industry. Among others, I remember meeting Larry Bell, who was to found the Bell Aircraft Company; Rube Fleet, who founded the Fleet Aircraft Company, which, after absorbing Vultee, became Consolidated Aircraft; and Donald Douglas, who now is chairman of the board of the great company that bears his name.
It was fortunate that I started on the run between Cleveland and Bellefonte in the early summer. We had a period of weather that was relatively good for the Alleghenies. And my engines stood up well, excepting that first trip. Since a pilot reached his maximum pay when he ran up six hundred hours of Post Office flying time, I would offer to fly other runs in addition to my own. This doubling up not only allowed me to gain experience but gave me pay raises sooner. On one occasion I flew to Cleveland in the morning and was able to pick up a trip back to Bellefonte that same afternoon. The newspapers called it an iron-man stunt!
MORE, interesting than geography was weather. This was before the days of instrument flying, of radio beacons, and even of weather reports. If a pilot got caught in clouds or fog and lost sight of the horizon, it was not long before he fell because he was out of control. When the clouds were low, you had to fly close to the ground, close enough to see it; the lower the clouds, the lower you flew, dodging steeples and jumping trees and telephone lines.
Initially we had no en route weather reports. If it was thick at the take-off, the field manager might telephone through to the destination and inquire how it was there. The replies were limited to such whimsey as “Sunshine and flowers; tell him to come ahead,” or, “Pea soup; better cancel.” In doubtful weather there were some key spots to check along the route, usually in the mountains.
After a time we tried calling up farmers who lived near these places and asking about the weather. It proved useless. If the weather was good, they could tell us; but when it was not, their replies were vague. A typical interrogation might go:
“Is it raining?”
“How far can you see?”
“I can see as far as the next man. I don’t wear glasses or anything.”
“What I want to know about is the clouds. How far up can you see now?”
“I don’t know, it’s pretty foggy; about a mile, I guess.”
“Foggy, and you can see a mile straight up! Then the mountains should be all clear, are they?”
“How can I tell? They’re all covered with clouds.”
We gave up these haphazard inquiries and made a survey. Specific farmers were on call, each located near a mountainside. Specific objects or landmarks were selected at different elevations; the farmer would report the farthest object he could see. This did prove useful — that is, when we could reach the farmers.
The next step was to employ local people at selected spots to wire us daily weather reports. It was about this time, too, that we started using the terms “ceiling” and “visibility” to describe aviation weather. I think it was probably in 1921 or 1922 that the Air Mail Service leased telegraph wires along the route, expanded the number of reporting stations, hired trained observers, installed radio stations at the main fields, and formed the nucleus that has expanded into the vast aviation weather service of today.
In my earlier days, I doubt that the number of completed trips averaged much over 50 per cent. There was hazard enough to suit the most avid adventurer. Not all the forced landings were in lields; there were frequent crack-ups, some of them grim. The years 1920 and 1921 were the worst in the history of the Air Mail. In 1920 we had five fatal crashes, killing nine, a fatal crash for every 130,000 miles flown. In 1921 there were twelve fatal crashes, killing fifteen, with an average of 104,000 miles flown per crash. As a pilot could fly sixty or seventy thousand miles a year, his life expectancy would hardly make him welcome in an insurance office. I remember when Brooks Brothers refused to give me a charge account because my profession was too risky.
By the end of 1921 the record began to improve. Men like Luther Harris and Richard Ingalls, mechanics in name but with the capacity of inventive engineers, devised scores of changes in the Liberty engine that vastly improved its reliability. Weather reporting was in force, and parachutes came into use. The surviving pilots had learned something about bad-weather flying and were able to pass some of this knowledge on to new pilots. Fatalities were reduced until, at the end of the Post Office operation in 1927, the Air Mail had averaged but one fatal crash per half million miles during its history.
As the total of my own interrupted Bights piled up, I had become familiar with most of the fields suitable for emergency landing and had made friends in many of the towns along the route. I had knocked without warning on the doors of farmhouses scattered all the way from Boston to San Francisco. In those days, before radio, television, and universal rapid transportation, most farmers were friendly, hospitable, and eager to do anything they could to help.
Brookville, in particular, was a favorite port of call for all the pilots on the Bellefonte-Cleveland run. If we were stopped by weather, we would turn back miles to be able to land there. We would circle the town before landing on the race track. By the time we had taxied to the fence and tied down the plane, Alice Henderson would be there with her Cadillac, ready to take the mail pouches to the station and then devote herself to entertaining us during our stays. She loved us dearly, but her affection for mail pilots was uniquely platonic and uniquely respected. Across the street from Alice’s home was a brick wall enclosing a grassy park. On any fine day Alice would run out and stand on the wall to wave as we flew by. By flying down a street and ducking between a church and a bank, it was possible to make a low run at the little park. It was considered a feat if we could dive close enough to make her jump off the wall.
THE one time I was in a bad enough fix to want to jump was in the days when we were still flying without parachutes. I believe that each surviving Air Mail pilot will tell you that at least once, early in his mail career, he had a brush with death that put the fear of God in him and made him acutely aware thenceforth that even the simplest error in judgment or a few seconds of carelessness might put his life in forfeit. Once a man got past that point safely, his chance of becoming a true professional pilot was much enhanced. I know that my ordeal marked a change in the quality of my work; I became not so much a more cautious pilot, for timidity has its dangers too, but a more thoughtful, careful one.
I was flying east out of Omaha in rainy, dirty weather, trying to make my way through the rolling country beyond Council Bluffs. The clouds were scraping the tops of the low hills. By ducking down into the hollows between the hills it was possible to see a little ahead, but when I pulled in over the higher rolls the fog would thicken and the ground dim, even with my wheels almost brushing the grass. I knew that in just a few miles I would reach a draw with a railroad in it that was two or three hundred feet lower than the terrain I was in, so I allowed myself to push on farther than I should have. As I went over one of the low hills the ground faded completely from sight, but I quickly eased the plane down and made it into the next hollow, where I was able to see a little. The hill ahead came at me fast, and instead of turning, I was teased into climbing its slope. Again the ground faded from sight, but this time for more than a few seconds. When I eased back down, feeling for the next little valley, I did not see the surface until I banged into it. The wheels evidently hit on a smooth grass field, for the plane, instead of crashing, bounced. Instinctively I pulled back on the stick, the plane shot up into the fog, and when it leveled off at several hundred feet I was completely in the soup.
While I still had a sense of orientation I tried to make a blind turn, and then leveled off again in what I hoped was the direction back. I turned, but a turn causes the compass to spin and swing; it takes some time before it can give a course indication. I now had no choice but to attempt to fly blind, locking the rudder in neutral, holding the stick in my fingertips, feeling the wind on my cheeks, and watching the air-speed indicator. In this manner I was able to get the plane under some control and ease it down little by little, until my altimeter read that I was as low as I had been before. But I was unable to see anything of the ground, and the fog pouring back through my wings remained as thick and opaque as wet cotton. I dared not let down any lower or I would be bound to lly into the side of a hill, so I started to climb, mostly in desperation, for there was only a forlorn chance I could ever get on top of this type of weather.
Now there followed a long period of fighting to keep control of the plane, while all the time my equilibrium became steadily more confused. I succeeded in climbing to 8000 feet; then the plane began to get more and more out of control. It lost altitude until I was back down to 5000 feet. By this time I felt I had been milling around in the clouds for an eternity and found myself wondering why I did not run out of fuel. At last I fell. The plane stalled and whipped off into a spin, although to my bewildered senses it did not seem to be spinning down but, impossibly, up and to the side. I cut the throttle and held the plane in the spin for a few seconds to be certain I was in a known condition and to force my mind to reorient. When I broke the spin, I couldn’t pull out level from the resulting dive. The plane floundered through the dark muck in a series of stalls, spins, dives, and pull-outs. I struggled and fought with it all the way down, working with desperate concentration, but that little corner of my mind that detachedly views such things said, “My friend, you are a dead duck.”
The altimeter needle was dropping fast, and I knew I was low as I tried to recover from the fifth or sixth stall and spin. If I’d been in a Jenny, I would have let it spin in, but a crash in a full spin in a DH-4 was almost always fatal, so I continued trying to right the plane. The wires were screaming from what seemed a full dive, and I was pulling back hard to get the nose up when the tops of trees came flashing by, just below my wings. I was almost level. I rammed the stick forward to hold the plane there, cut both ignition switches, and coasted ahead, expecting to hit, but not knowing what. The plane slid out from under the deck of cloud to show me I was only fifty feet high — and over cleared land. I rolled to a stop, the propeller dead. After some minutes I began to tremble. I climbed out of the plane and had taken but two steps when my legs gave way.
BY 1924, night air mail had become an established fact. We even paraphrased the Post Office Department (and Herodotus) to read, “Neither rain nor sleet nor hail nor gloom of night can stay this courier from his onward flight,” and adopted it as our own slogan.
We found that at night, much as in the day, when we had fair horizontal visibility we could fly under quite low ceilings, down to a couple of hundred feet. Rain did not bother us, short of a heavy downpour; the flashing beacons seemed to glisten even more brightly in the wet. Thunderstorms, however impressive at night and terrifying from an open cockpit, were generally not so serious as they seemed. It was necessary, however, to be prepared to turn back quickly, for it was possible to blunder into a solid wall of rain or find ourselves suddenly blind in a low-lying bank of clouds in turbulence that taxed our strength. For me, despite this knowledge gained over the years, each time I had to head the plane straight into a thunderstorm I had to muster all my nerve anew.
Clear black nights were the best to fly; even more lovely, I thought, than when a full moon filled space with a milky radiance. On such a night the sky was ablaze with stars, the towns and villages a sprawl of jewels, and the revolving beacons sharp sparks in a row far ahead. Occasional meteors would strike across the sky, and sometimes flared so bright the pilot had to blink and duck his head against the sudden light.
On one trip, when I had flown out of such a night into the flame of an autumn dawn, as I neared Chicago the quilted floor of fields and roads was marred by increasing patches of white fog, lying innocently here and there in shallow pools. There was enough visible ground for me to find my way until I was within a mile of the field, but then all was covered and the fog stretched solid to the east. The fog was fairly shallow, for I saw the mark of smoke, puddled in the white, from the tall smokestack that sat just west of the flying field. Circling over, I could just make out the stack’s tip. Using it as a marker, I could line up with the runway, but when I glided down I could not even see the tips of my wings, and I had to push open the throttle and pull back on top. Circling, I saw that my propeller wash had made a gouge in the top of the fog as the plane dipped in, like a scoop taking ice cream from the top of a can. This gave me an idea: perhaps I could dig out enough fog to see the end of the runway.
It took a long time. I would dip in, then hold the plane’s nose up in a near stall and jazz the engine to send the wash churning behind at a downward angle. After nearly an hour of circling and dipping I had dug out a ragged trough about three hundred feet deep and could just see the end of the runway at its bottom. Touching down took care, for I had to start the glide beyond the edge of the hole, be blind for a moment, then have a few seconds to set the plane on the runway before I was blind in the fog again. A DH does not roll far on landing; the Maywood runway was broad and long; and the landing came off just fine. But the fog was so dense I could not see to taxi; men had to come out and guide me to the hangar.
To those on the ground, my many circles and dips had sounded as though I were lost in the fog and desperately trying to dive into the field, although no one could understand how I could keep flying in the horrible muck. Dick Ingalls almost worked himself into a heart attack repeatedly climbing the beacon tower to point its beam in hopes it would help me land; then, when he heard the throttle open and the plane start coming his way, frantically scrambling down in fear it would hit the tower.
Falling snow was diflicult by day, but at night it was well-nigh impassable. It caused the death of several pilots caught out on a run by sudden change. Winter was a time of many canceled flights until we learned to fly on instruments. Deep snow on our field was also a great problem in winter flying; for, although we tried putting skis on our landing gear, conditions might rule them out at the other end of a flight. So we did our best with wheels. We became adept at preventing nose-overs in landing: to take off in a foot or more of snow we’d blow down the tail with our propeller blast and bounce the plane. One day at Omaha I watched Jack Knight plow his plane up and down the field for five hours, then refuel and go at it for another hour, by which time he had beaten a track that allowed him to take off.
PEOPLE often asked me why I liked being a pilot, why I flew the mail and took such chances of getting killed. I would try to explain, but never could find the words to explain it all. I knew that I could fly, and fly well, and this skill set me apart from the run of the mill. I certainly had no wish to get killed, but I was not afraid of it. I would have been frightened if I had thought I would get maimed or crippled for life, but there was little chance of that. A mail pilot was usually killed outright. Then, too, sometimes I was called a hero, and I liked that.
One of the most rewarding things about a mail pilot’s job was the combination of high pay and leisure time. As a normal thing we worked two or three days a week, five or six hours a day, plus standing reserve perhaps one day a week, which only meant keeping the field advised as to how we might be reached. I spent my time as unproductively as possible: learning to play golf, chasing girls, reading indiscriminately, and — an interest that has remained with me ever since — trout fishing.
But what I could never tell of was the beauty and exaltation of flying itself. Above the haze layer, with the sun behind you or sinking ahead, alone in an open cockpit, there is nothing and everything to see. The upper surface of the haze stretches on like a vast and endless desert, featureless and flat and empty to the horizon. It seems your world alone. As you thread your way through the great piles of summer cumulus that hang over the plains, you realize that the patches of ground far below are for earth bound folk and the cloud shapes are sculptured just for you. The flash of rain, the shining rainbow riding completely around the plane, the lift over mountain ridges and crawling trains, the steady, pure air at dawn take-offs, and the smoke from the newly lit fires in houses just coming to life below — these are some of the many bits that help pay for the tense moments of plunging through fog, or the somber thoughts when flying cortege for a pilot’s funeral. It was so alive and rich a life that any other conceivable choice seemed dull, prosaic, and humdrum.
But there were occasions, many occasions, when a pilot had to work. Once, when I was forced down by rain and fog, I landed in a field of mud so deep that my wheels sank to the hub. During the night a cold frost passed through, the temperature dropped to near zero, and a stiff winter wind chilled our bones. The plane was half a mile from the nearest house. First I had to borrow picks and crowbars; then, assisted by a teen-age boy, I had to slug the hard mud for hours before the plane was free, after which we fetched a great iron kettle, hauled it and mounted it over an open fire, filled it with buckets of water, which we brought to a boil. At the same time, oil was heating in cans pushed close to the fire. Standing on boxes, we had to fill the radiator and engine jackets with hot water and the tank with warm oil. When the engine still would not start, the water and oil had to be drained again before they froze tight; had to be reheated once more and repoured. Twice we went through this cycle. The third time, while the water and oil were heating I walked to the village two miles away, bought a can of ether, and primed the balky engine. All in a night’s work.
At the other extreme, there was too little physical exertion. Riding alone in a mail DH, one might pass the time in a way no present-day pilot can conceive of, surrounded as he is by dials and threading his way through the dense traffic. Back then, on a good-weather flight, particularly at night, there was little to do as the ship droned along. To amuse myself, I would take along a magazine, and with the ship trimmed and on course, would turn the cockpit lights bright and read, tearing off a page when finished and looking up to check my course as I let it fall.
This reading habit caused a near-disaster. In the earlier period of night flying, we were completely alone on a run; unless we were scheduled to pass the opposite flight, which was rare, we never saw another plane. There was none in the air. One dark night, with perfectly smooth air, I was coasting along at about 5000 feet, reading my magazine. At the end of a page I looked up. Dead ahead and coming directly at me, there suddenly loomed a shape in space, lit like a misplaced constellation. Instantly I yanked on the stick and threw the plane hard over into a terrified turn. Once headed away, I looked back. It was even larger than I had thought. Inevitably curious, I turned again and passed close by its side. It was one of the great dirigibles, puffed up with its own immensity, sailing blithely down my right of way. As I learned later, it was the Shenandoah; she was to find her tragedy without my help.
In 1925 the Post Office Department began letting contracts to private firms for the carriage of air mail over feeder lines, lines branching off from the transcontinental route operated directly by the Air Mail Service. The Kelly Act, permitting further expansion of this practice, paved the way for the leasing of the transcontinental route itself. Jn 1927 the route was leased, but only after much political activity by various bidders, including an attempt by the Air Mail pilots themselves to bid on the route between Hadley and Chicago. Boeing Air Transport was awarded the contract between Chicago and San Francisco, and National Air Transport beat out the pilots for the Pastern half. It was these companies that merged some years later and, after acquisition of still other carriers, became what is now known as United Air Lines. The new companies purchased the aircraft and operating equipment used by the Air Mail Service, and the pilots and other personnel were transferred to their payroll. By the end of September, 1927, the pilots of the runs between Chicago and the East Coast found themselves employees of National Air Transport. The Post Office Air Mail Service had come to an end.
Today, the vital role of the Post Office Department Air Mail Service in aviation’s history seems virtually forgotten, yet its gallant efforts gave genesis to our present vast system of civil air transportation. The Service was in existence for less than a decade and was never in any sense large. When I joined the Air Mail in 1920 there were a dozen or so pilots employed by the Post Office Department. There were forty-three pilots when the Service ended in 1927. During its brief history, forty-three had been killed and twentythree more had been seriously injured.
On February 14, 1931, the 71st Congress passed Public Law 661, from which I quote: “The President is hereby authorized ... to present . . . an air-mail flyer’s medal of honor ... to any person who, while serving in the air-mail service since May 15, 1918, has distinguished himself by heroism or extraordinary achievement in such service.”
Subsequent to the passage of this act, the medal was awarded to several airline pilots for distinguished or heroic acts. However, without the least desire to detract from the merit of these awards, I consider it an ironic fact that the medal has never been awarded to a single employee of the Post Office Air Mail Service. Surely among the survivors or the dead there are some who belong on such a roll of honor.
In my book, they all do.