Airmail Needed Courage, Determination to Get off the Ground


Early Airmail Pilots Faced Great Adversity

Boyle Should've Checked His Map

On This Date in History:  Lt. George Boyle was chosen to pilot the first leg of the first airmail flight from Washington, DC to New York.  Among the spectators who gathered to witness the takeoff  on May 15, 1918 was President Woodrow Wilson.  With the throng watching in anticipation, Boyle sat in the cockpit of the Curtiss JN-4H “Jenny” biplane and shouted, “Contact!”  Nothing happened.  After several embarrassing attempts, it was discovered the plane was out of gas.  After it was gassed up, Boyle took to the sky but instead of flying North toward Philadelphia, he circled the field and went South.  What made this a bit perplexing is that Boyle had a road map strapped to his leg to help him navigate his route.  About an hour later, the coordinator of the new airmail service of the US Post Office got a phone call.  Captain Benjamin Lipsner was surprised to hear Boyle’s voice on the other end of the phone.  Seems Boyle’s compass had “gotten a little mixed up” and Boyle crashed the plane in a Maryland cornfield.  Lipsner summoned a car to pick up three sacks of mail and one shameful pilot.

Lucky Lindy Lept From Several Disabled Aircraft

A few months later, military pilots were replaced by civilians who were crafty fliers.  They had no navigational aids and so made their way by following  landmarks such as railroads, highways and riverbeds to make it to their destinations.  One small Nebraska town lit bonfires to help pilot Jack Knight find his way to deliver the mail to their community.  Knight made his delivery but not all were so lucky.  Thirty-two of the initial 50 pilots died in crashes while attempting to deliver the mail faster.  One pilot twice had to bail out of a mechanically failing plane as he attempted the St. Louis to Chicago route.  That pilot survived both episodes to fly again with the new moniker, “Lucky Lindy.”  That pilot, Charles Lindbergh took a leave of absence from his mail route to make his historic solo flight across the Atlantic in May 1927.   Lindbergh had no idea that his flight would bring him such fame that his life would never be the same.  After he arrived in Paris, he told reporters, ” I am an airmail pilot and expect to fly the mail again.”  

Knight Was an Early United Airlines Pilot

By September 1920, a transcontental airmail service was inaugurated.  However, planes were not allowed to fly at night so the mail was transferred to railcars for night travel.  With all of the stops, the mail still took 78 hours to move across the country which was only 30 hours less time than the railroads alone could provide .  President Warren G. Harding was not impressed.   He thought it was a waste of money and that the little bit of extra time could not counter the fact that more mail could be transferred more cheaply by singular rail service.  He threatened to veto any funding that Congress might provide for additional air service.  See, Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson had convinced Congress to subsidize airmail service because stamps alone would be too expensive for the general public.  So, Burleson and his assistant Otto Praeger had to work quickly.  They decided to try to demonstrate the potential of airmail service by making a cross-country delivery completely by air and thereby show just how much faster airmail could be.  They decided that February 22, 1921 was a great day to start the test since it was George Washington’s Birthday.

Knight Had to Bundle Up For Winter Mail Flights

The idea was to have two pilots take off from New York and two take off from San Francisco.  Along the way, relief pilots would take over in a relay type system reminiscent of the Pony Express.  They would eventually meet in the middle of the country and complete the mission.  Disaster struck right away when one of the two pilots flying the mail from San Francisco crashed and died.  His partner continued on.  Remember, this was February and these guys were flying with an open cockpit, so they were exposed to winter conditions.  They had to fly at night with no navigation so towns along the way lit bonfires.  A huge snowstorm was going on across the Midwest and nearly all of the pilots were grounded; all but Jack Knight.  When Knight left North Platte, Nebraska for Omaha, he did not know that he was the last pilot flying.  The whole experiment and the future of airmail rested with him.  When he got to Omaha, he had no relief pilot as that pilot was grounded in Chicago by the massive storm.  Now, Knight had never flown east of Omaha but he learned that he was the last pilot.  So, he drank coffee, stuffed his flightsuit with newspapers to help insulate against the bitter cold and off he went.   Farmers and even postal service workers lit the prairie with smudge pots and bonfires to light his way.   He made it to Iowa City, Iowa and almost crashed when he landed in a 25 mile per hour arctic blast.  Knight lifted off again at 6:30 AM and landed in Chicago at 8:40 AM after an all-night trek that covered 830 miles in extreme conditions.  Later it was learned that Knight had broken his nose a few days prior ot the flight and the bumpy, cold ride was especially difficult.  Knight was hailed across the nation as a hero.  The final legs of the journey were taken up by other pilots and, on this date in 1921, the first successful transcontental airmail flight was complete. 

Knight Rose to VP of United Airlines

It took seven pilots over 33 hours to fly nearly 2700 miles with actual flight time taking up about 26 hours.  The news created a new buzz in the public for airmail service and Warren G. Harding, a keen politician, quickly embrased the idea and did an abrupt turn to support government subsidized air service.  Money was spent to light routes, navigation aids were developed and on July 1, 1924 regular coast to coast airmail service began.  Railroads began to lose money because so many customers were paying reduced stamp rates for the government subsidized air service.   The 1925 Kelly Act addressed these issues but none of it would have come around if not for the courage and perserverance of Jack Knight who faced down adversity, literally in the face of a wicked wind, to deliver the mail.  Knight took the old mail carrier adage, “nor rain nor snow nor dead of night will prevent us from making our appointed rounds.”   My mailman Tim seems to have the character of Jack Knight. 

Log P Skew T Tutorial

Weather Bottom Line:  I’ll tell you what’s difficult.  I don’t have a Log P/Skew T diagram.  I need that to do mixing schemes.  Now, it’s not that big of a deal during the winter.   But we are coming out of the gloom of the cold and so data that translates easily in January doesn’t work so well in March.  For instance, the thickness numbers showing up for the next 10 days or so would tell me that we don’t get above freezing.  But, are heading into March so conditions aren’t the same.  Without any Log P/Skew T diagrams, I have a hard time comparing what is really going on.  Be that as it may, I find it hard to see how we get to 40 in the next week and Wednesday and Thursday, I think its going to be tough to get above freezing.  Just figure on it being colder than average through about March 10.  We have perhaps some light snow or flurries on Wednesday into Thrusday with the NAM calling on about a half inch while the GFS is going for an inch total.  Really, I don’t think accumulations will be an issue since this snow falls over about 24 hours time, if not a little longer.  Otherwise, I don’t see any major events coming along, though there are some possibilities.  However, there is nothing out there that indicates any real prospects. I want another big snow though I’m wondering if I will have to wait until next year.

5 Responses

  1. Well, maybe if the early postal service fliers had one of your Log P / Skew T diagrams they would have had better luck also!

    What happened to the major system that was showing up for early next week? You and Belski both mentioned it in your blogs–now nothing!

  2. Did I? Hmmm…I’ll have to look. Twas out of pocket for a few days and can’t remember what I said before I took a hiatus. Most likely it was a shortwave coming up and bringing snow and now the long range models have made the trof more expansive and deeper for a longer time, hence, early next week there is a big fat low coming out of the gulf and exploding off the Carolina coast but so far off it doesn’t affect much..if its a shade farther west or north at its initial development, then there is a chance for something exciting in the Carolina mountains and the eastern seaboard.

    I’m speaking for me because I can’t speak for anyone else…but…I betcha several days ago that feature was close to us..that is the reason its not a good idea to be saying “we could be seeing in two weeks….” What you do when you do that is that, if it comes around, then you remind everyone with a Colonel Klink photo and say “I told you so.” Or, you ignore it and most of the people forget. Jackson Browne has a line that says “forget about the losses and exaggerate the wins.” Now a third possiblity is the answer to someone like you who remembered. You say…”ohh…now wait a second. I never said it would happen, I said it was possible.” You know what, a lot of things are possible two weeks out but a forecaster doesn’t say what is possible, he should make a prediction and explain his hypothesis…not present possibilities and then say your’e forecasting. I’m speaking for me here and not for anyone else. But, that wasn’t exactly a good thing to do on my part if did not explain that its really a load of crap making comments about things so far out because it may very well be wrong..but….

  3. I think you said something along the lines of maybe or might be. I was just curious and I realize that forecasting more than a few days in advance is a risky affair so I don’t hang my hat on these things. I was just curious and hoping for maybe one more decent snow before spring arrives.

    I guess in meteorology you have to expand your “weasel word” vocabulary, huh? I think all scientists (myself included) have to do that to some extent!

  4. JACK KNIGHT WAS MY GRANDFATHER…..I ENJOYED YOUR ACCURATE ACCOUNT OF HIS FAMOUS NIGHT FLIGHT…PL

  5. Thank you very much. I am so pleased to gain your approval. I try to use academic principals when putting these little items together for accuracy. It’s really funny how often I’ve gotten notes from people who are related to my subject matter. Feel free to contact me at any time.

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