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On Feb. 8th, 1912, the first eastbound US transcontinental flight landed in Jacksonville, FL. After several Google searches, I can't find anything that says where the flight departed from. So where did it depart from?
The reason why your source does not give the starting location (Los Angeles) is because it took him months to do it due to weather and other delays, so the arrival notification just included the final legs:
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle Almanac, 1912
Robert G. Fowler (Wright Model B), started from San Francisco for New York Sept. 11, 1911, reaching Colfax, Cal. A second start was made from Los Angeles Oct. 18, and on Dec. 7, 1911, had reached Orange, Tex., a distance of 1,679 miles, measured in straight lines between towns, having been on his way 51 days.
FOWLER COMPLETES TRANS-CONTINENTAL FLlGHT
Robert G. Fowler, the second aerial transcontinental tourist, finally arrived at the Atlantic Ocean, at San Pablo beach, Fla., on Feb. 17, after having been 122 days on the way. A great deal of this time was consumed by reason of bad weather. The course followed was southerly all the way, close to the Gulf of Mexico through the extreme southern states to the coast.
Up to Jan. 11, at Biloxi, Miss., his mileage was 2,081, in straight lines between towns. Rodgers' flight was 3,391 miles. From then to February 17, he flew 436 miles in eleven stages. His itinerary follows:
Jan. 16, Evergreen, Ala., 84; Jan. 17, Georgiana, 17; Andalusia, 25; Jan. 20, Brantley, 22; Jan. 25, Troy, 23; Feb. 6, Bainbrldge, Ga., 106; Feb. 7, Thomasville, 38; Feb. 7, Qultman, 27; Feb. 8, Jacksonville, Fla., 82; on Feb. 17, he flew to Pablo Beach, 15 miles.
Fowler was dispatched all along the Seaboard Airline Railroad the same as a passenger train; and his manager Charles L. Young was posted every few moments in this way. As soon as Fowler was announced to be within 17 miles of the City of Jacksonville everyone seemed to loose their every thought of business, and spent the few moments watching for him to put in an appearance. When he was finally sighted at 4.30 the crowd at the Moncrief Race track seemed to go wild, and Aviator Max Lillie in his Wright biplane, dashed into his machine and flew away like mad to meet him he was immediately followed by Harold Kantner in his Moisant monoplane. The two aviators flew toward Fowler to greet him as best they could in the air. then circled Fowler, and escorted him toward the field. Lillie landed first to show Fowler the way. Fowler then circled the field 3 times and gave several dips and spiral dives that made the crowd stand up and yell with all their might. He then landed and was followed by Kantner. Fowler had been in the air but 90 minutes but it was a very cold day and he was almost frozen. After being given a right royal reception he was escorted to an automobile and rushed to the Seminole hotel where he was made the guest of honor. The evening was spent in trying to make Fowler feel at home, and he was given the key to the city and told to go as far as he liked.
Alexander Pearson, Jr., was born November 12, 1895, in Sterling, Kansas. At the beginning of World War I, he studied at the University of Oregon. During his senior year, he enlisted into the US Army, and attended Reserve Officer’s Training Camp at the Presidio, San Francisco. He was commissioned as an infantry officer in the Reserve Corps on May13, 1917. He wanted to transfer to the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps, but was denied, so Pearson resigned his commission and enlisted for ground school work in the Signal Corps on June 27, 1917.
Re-examined for flying school, he entered the Air Service in Seattle on November 23, 1917. Pearson was a cadet at the University of California at Berkeley, Camp Dick, Dallas, and Rockwell Field, San Diego. He was commissioned and ordered into active duty as a 2nd Lieutenant at Rockwell Field on July 29, 1918. He was ordered to the US Air Service Armorer School at Wright Field, Dayton, Ohio, on August 9, 1918 and attended school until September 10, 1918.
During and after World War I, he was a flying instructor at various fields: Payne Field, West Point, Mississippi Carlstrom Field, Arcadia, Florida Scott Field, Belleville, Illinois. For his last assignment, he was stationed in New York, waiting to go overseas, but the war ended before he could be deployed.
At the end of the war in 1918, he returned to the University of Oregon to complete his degree. He later graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree.
Lt. Alexander Pearson flew this DH-4 Liberty plane during his 1919 transcontinental race.
4 October 1958
4 October 1958: The first regularly scheduled transatlantic passenger service with jet powered aircraft began when two British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) de Havilland DH.106 Comet 4 airliners, civil registrations G-APDB and G-APDC, left nearly simultaneously from London Heathrow Airport (LHR) to Idlewild Airport (IDL), New York, and from New York to London.
The west-to-east flight, (G-APDB) commanded by Captain Thomas Butler (Tom) Stoney, D.F.C., departed New York at 7:01 a.m., local time, with Basil Smallpiece and Aubrey Burke, managing directors of BOAC and de Havilland, respectively, on board. Benefiting from more favorable winds, the eastbound flight took just 6 hours, 12 minutes, averaging 565 miles per hour (909 kilometers per hour).
Passengers board BOAC’s DH.106 Comet 4, G-APDC, at London Heathrow Airport, 4 October 1958. (Telegraph.co.uk)
The east-to-west airliner, G-APDC, departed Heathrow at 8:45 a.m., London time, under the command of Captain R.E. Millichap, with Sir Gerard d’Erlanger, chairman of BOAC, and 31 passengers aboard. The westbound flight took 10 hours, 20 minutes, including a 1 hour, 10 minute fuel stop at Gander Airport (YQX), Newfoundland.
These two airliners had been delivered to BOAC on 30 September 1958. They were both configured to carry 48 passengers.
The first two de Havilland DH.106 Comet 4 airliners are delivered to BOAC at Heathrow, 30 September 1958. (Daily Mail Online)
The DH.106 Comet 4 was operated by a flight crew of four: pilot, co-pilot, flight engineer and navigator/radio operator. It could carry up to 81 passengers. The airliner was 111 feet, 6 inches (33.985 meters) long with a wingspan of 115 feet (35.052 meters) and 29 feet, 6 inches (8.992 meters) to the top of the vertical fin. Maximum takeoff weight of 156,000 pounds (70,760 kilograms).
Power was supplied by four Rolls-Royce Avon 524 (RA.29) turbojet engines, rated at 10,500 pounds of thrust (46.71 kilonewtons) at 8,000 r.p.m., each. The RA.29 was Rolls-Royce’s first commercial turbojet engine. It was a single-spool, axial-flow jet engine with a 16-stage compressor and 3-stage turbine. The Mk.524 variant was 10 feet, 4.8 inches (3.170 meters) long, 3 feet, 5.5 inches (1.054 meters) in diameter, and weighed 3,226 pounds (1,463 kilograms).
The Comet 4 had a maximum speed of 520 miles per hour (837 kilometers per hour), a range of 3,225 miles (5,190 kilometers) and a ceiling of 45,000 feet (13,716 meters).
De Havilland DH-106 Comet 4 G-APDB (“Delta Bravo”) made it’s final flight on 12 February 1974, having flown 36,269 hours, with 15,733 landings. It is part of the Duxford Aviation Society’s British Air Liner Collection at RAF Duxford, Cambridgeshire, England.
G-APDC did not fare as well. It was scrapped in April 1975.
De Havilland DH.106 Comet 4 G-APDC, Christchurch Airport, New Zealand. (V.C. Brown via AussieAirliners) Capt. T.B. Stoney
3 thoughts on &ldquo 25 January 1959 &rdquo
I am a little confused. What aspect of the jet age are we talking about here?
The ‘jet age’ in the airline world should more accurately be said to have started in 1952 with the first scheduled service by the British Comet. Aeroflot started in 1956 with the TU-104. Even regular transatlantic jet services started by BOAC and PanAm in 1958.
Keep up the good work, I am enjoying the articles.
This is not the first time this subject has come up. The term “Jet Age” refers to a period of societal transformation, and is not defined by specific technological events. (Frank Whittle’s WU turbojet engine was the first, in 1937, while the first turbojet-powered airplane was the Heinkel He 178, which flew in 1939.)
According to the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum, the “Jet Age” began in 1958 when Pan Am introduced the Boeing 707. You are correct that the de Havilland Comet flew in scheduled passenger service before the Boeing 707, but in only limited numbers. It’s several catastrophic failures severely damaged its reputation and the entire Comet 1 fleet was permanently grounded and its type certificate revoked in 1954, just two years after it entered service. Orders for the Comet 2 were canceled. There were on two Comet 3s, which were never in airline service. The Comet 4 didn’t enter service until 4 October 1958, and only 18 were built.
In the decade following World War II, the vast majority of people crossing the Atlantic Ocean traveled aboard ocean liners. It wasn’t until the Boeing 707 entered service that airliners flying across the Atlantic Ocean carried more passengers than did the passenger ships.
The Boeing 707 forever changed the way that most people traveled long distances. The Comet did not.
Sept. 17, 1911: First Transcontinental Flight Takes Weeks
To revist this article, visit My Profile, then View saved stories.
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1911: Pilot Cal Rodgers takes off from New York City and begins the first transcontinental flight across the United States. He hopes to win a $50,000 prize by completing the trip in 30 days, but the inexperienced pilot has little idea of what such a trip will actually entail.
Powered airplanes had been flying for only eight short years when Cal Rodgers departed from a field in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, at 4:30 p.m., Sept. 17, 1911. The young pilot had only 60 hours of flying experience in his log book. His Wright Flyer Model EX was as flimsy as a kite and could only manage 50 to 60 mph with its 35-horsepower engine.
Worst of all, there wasn’t a single airport or navigation beacon ahead of him for his roughly 4,000-plus–mile flight (accounts vary on the exact route and distance). But what Rodgers lacked in experience and equipment, he made up for with classic daredevil bravado.
Publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst had put up a $50,000 prize for the first person who could fly coast to coast in an airplane in less than 30 days. The prize (more than $1.1 million in today's money) attracted Rodgers, and to make the trip he became the first private citizen to buy a Wright airplane.
The motorcycle and automobile racer had only learned to fly a few months earlier. After just 90 minutes of instruction from Orville Wright himself, Rodgers flew solo for the first time in June 1911. Then he won an $11,000 prize for flight endurance at an air meet in Chicago in August.
The plane, a modified Wright Flyer B called the Model EX, was top-of-the-line for the time, but quite primitive by the standards available just a decade later. The biplane didn’t even have what we would today call a cockpit. There was a simple seat on the lower wing along with the basic flight controls.
There were no instruments and no gauges, but Rodgers apparently was a realist, and he strapped a pair of crutches to the plane. They would come in handy more than once during the journey.
Like adventurers of today, Rodgers knew he couldn’t fund the trip himself, so he went looking for sponsors. The trip would require numerous spare parts including wings and major fuselage sections, as well as a crew of mechanics and support staff that ended up filling a three-car train.
Rodgers found a sponsor in J. Ogden Armour. The meatpacking tycoon wanted to promote a new grape soda drink, and with the sponsorship, the first aerial billboard was born.
The Vin Fiz, named after the grape drink, departed New York and headed west following roads and railroad tracks on a journey many said would end at the Hudson River just a few miles ahead. But on his first leg Rodgers managed to make it more than 100 miles, landing in a field in Middletown, New York.
The next morning, in what would become the first of many accidents along the way, the Vin Fiz snagged a tree on takeoff, and both pilot and airplane suffered damage. After a few days of repairs on the wing, the fuselage and Rodgers' head, the Vin Fiz continued, eventually making it to Chicago three weeks later.
With the 30-day deadline looming, it was apparent there would be no prize. But Rodgers wanted to complete the trip, and continued with his entourage of mechanics and supporters.
The aircraft would end up making more than 70 stops before landing at the designated goal in Pasadena, California, on Nov. 5. Rodgers had missed the deadline by 19 days (and you think your flight delay was something).
Transcontinental AirmailUS #C1 – The third and final airmail issued in 1918 that would have been in use at the time of this flight. Click image to order.
On February 22, 1921, overnight transcontinental airmail service in the US began with flights between San Francisco and New York.
When US airmail service first began in 1918, it was a success, making more money than it spent. However, in the years that followed, it lost money because of increased costs due to a higher number of routes, greater distances traveled, and more mail that weighed down the planes.
Not wanting to charge more for airmail, the post office hoped the government would use tax money to help support the airmail system. However, President Warren G. Harding didn’t believe it was worth it. At the time, transcontinental airmail, a service that began in 1920, was only flown during the day. At night it was transferred to railcars, which carried it to a plane ready to take off at dawn. On its own, a train could cross the country in 108 hours, while this mixture of air and rail took 78 hours. But Harding didn’t believe that decreased time was good enough, arguing that rail mail was cheaper. He stated that he would veto any proposals from Congress to give money to airmail.
As a result, the postmaster general and his assistant conceived a plan to show how effective airmail could be. They would stage an airmail flight across the country without the use of the railroad. The journey would be much quicker than the current 78 hours and it could prove the effectiveness of airmail to the public and the president. They selected February 22, 1921, George Washington’s birthday, as the day to launch the flight, to gain widespread attention.
US #C1-150 – Get every US airmail stamp with one easy order.
At the time, daytime airmail flights alone were no easy task. Pilots were flying de Havilland DH-4 biplanes left over from World War I. Meant for combat, they weren’t suited for long-range flights and were very uncomfortable. They weren’t fully enclosed, so pilots were exposed to cold and rain, and frequently had to wipe hot oil from the engine off of their goggles.
Item #M12186 – Get 100 different airmail First Day Covers.
Plus now there would be the added challenge of flying at night. During the day, pilots used landmarks such as railroad stations or polo fields to stay on course. State road maps only showed towns large enough to host a post office and didn’t mention mountains. Plus the pilots had to fly low, sometimes just 50 feet off the ground, so they could see these landmarks. The assistant postmaster general suggested that postal workers could set strategic bonfires along the route to help the pilots find their way.
US #C4 was issued for the new 8¢ per ounce rate. Click image to order.
The assistant postmaster general also collected the notes airmail pilots had made of their journeys and combined these with information from local post offices to create the Transcontinental Air Mail Pilot’s Log. This log was the precursor to the modern printed navigation aids.
After extensive planning, the flights westward began at 6:00 a.m. on February 22. Two planes left Hazlehurst Field, Long Island, New York. At 4 a.m. Pacific time, two planes departed Marina Field, San Francisco, California. Along both routes, relay planes would be waiting at pre-determined locations. However, the flights would be plagued with issues. One pilot would lose his life and several of the flights were delayed or canceled due to a massive snowstorm. By 10:44 p.m., James “Jack” Knight was the only pilot still on course.
US #C5 was issued for mail traveling through two zones. Click image to order.
Knight was able to follow bonfires along his route, reaching Omaha, Nebraska at 1:10 a.m. However, once he arrived, he found that his relief pilot was stuck in a snowstorm in Chicago. So he drank a cup of coffee and stuffed newspaper in his jacket for warmth, and departed at 2:00 a.m. Despite the extreme cold and a near crash, he continued on to Chicago, where another pilot took over, finishing the trip and arriving in New York at 4:50 p.m.
US #C6 pictures a DeHavilland Biplane and covered the rate from New York to San Francisco. Click image to order.
A total of seven pilots had participated in the flight. The whole journey of 2,629 miles took 33 hours, 20 minutes, though 26 hours of that was spent in the air. Despite the setbacks caused by the weather, the public and the president were impressed by the successful flight and President Harding agreed to support a bill to fund the airmail service. The funds provided would help to light airmail routes, create navigational aids, hire pilots, and buy new planes. Airmail service officially began regularly scheduled 24-hour operations on July 1, 1924. With these changes came the creation of three zones to manage routes and price airmail. The zones were New York to Chicago, Chicago to Rock Springs, and Rock Springs to San Francisco. And airmail was set at 8¢ per ounce, per zone.
The first flight (including gliding) by a person is unknown. Several have been suggested.
- In 559 A.D., several prisoners of Emperor Wenxuan of Northern Qi, including Yuan Huangtou of Ye, were said to have been forced to launch themselves with a kite from a tower, as an experiment. Only Yuan Huangtou survived, only to be executed later. 
- In the 9th century, the Andulasian-Arab Abbas ibn Firnas attempted a short gliding flight with wings covered with feathers from the Tower of Cordoba but was injured while landing. 
- In the early 11th century, Eilmer of Malmesbury, an English Benedictine monk, attempted a gliding flight using wings. He is recorded as travelling a modest distance before breaking his legs on landing. 
- between 1630 and 1632, Hezarfen Ahmed Çelebi is said to have glided over the Bosphorus strait from the Galata Tower to the Uskudar district in Istanbul. 
- In 1633 his brother Lagari Hasan Çelebi may have survived a flight on a 7-winged rocket powered by gunpowder from Sarayburnu, the point below Topkapı Palace in Istanbul. 
None of these historical accounts are adequately supported by corroborating evidence nor have any been widely accepted. The first confirmed human flight was accomplished by Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier in a tethered Montgolfier balloon in 1783.
December 3, 1982
TWA operates its first Boeing 767 flight, from Los Angeles to Washington’s Dulles airport.
TWA is spun off from Trans World Corporation as a new public company.
TWA launches its first transatlantic service with the Boeing 767 wide-body, the industry’s first ETOPS (extended- range twin-engine operations) service.
June 14, 1985
Shiite gunmen seize a TWA airliner and force it to Beirut, Lebanon. A U.S. Navy diver was killed and 39 Americans held hostage for 17 days.
September 26, 1985
Carl Icahn acquires control of TWA.
October 26, 1986
TWA acquires Ozark Airlines and merges Ozark into TWA’s operations.
September 10-21, 1987
Pope John Paul II travels on a specially configured TWA 727 and 747, accompanied by two chartered L-1011’s.
September 7, 1988
At a special meeting, TWA stockholders approve Carl Icahn’s proposal to take the company private. The privatization takes $610.3 million out of TWA — of which $469 million goes to Icahn — and adds $539.7 million to TWA’s debt.
Carl Icahn moves TWA headquarters from 605 Third Avenue to his own building in Mt. Kisco, New York.
First eastbound transcontinental flight departed from… ? - History
The record mail trip between Chicago and New York City was made on December 16, 1926, at the rate of 167.5 miles per hour. The fastest mail trip on record was made on January 30, 1927, between Chicago and Cleveland, at the rate of 175.1 miles per hour. The greater cruising radius and speed of the Douglas planes permitted the discontinuance, except possibly in adverse weather conditions, of stops in both directions at Bellefonte, Bryan and Rawlins, and on eastbound trips at Iowa City, North Platte and Rock Springs. An important change in the eastbound transcontinental schedule was also made possible, allowing 1 hour and 15 minutes later departure from the New York terminal. The new planes were put into use between Salt Lake City and New York City, where mail loads were heaviest, the DeHavilands being used from Salt Lake City west. The building of DeHaviland planes at the Repair Depot was discontinued on July 1, 1926, work of that nature being confined from then on to the repairing of old DeHavilands and damaged Douglas planes. The surplus DH planes released were advertised and sold.
An important step bearing on the development of air mail traffic was taken by the Department on February 1, 1927, when a new postage rate of 10 cents per half ounce was put into effect, thereby entirely doing away with the complicated zoning system previously in use on the transcontinental and contract routes. The new flat rate entitled transportation between any points in the country, without regard to distance, and was a valuable means of increasing patronage.
The Air Mail Service was awarded the Collier trophy for the most important contributions to the development of aeronautics in the year 1922, and on its outstanding record of safety established, and again in the year 1923 for demonstrating the practicability of night flying. The Harmon trophy of the United States, offered for the first time in the year 1926, was awarded by the International League of Aviators to an air mail pilot because of his remarkable record of having flown during that year over 718 hours, without accident, in all kinds of weather, both winter and summer, on regularly assigned trips, 47 per cent of the time being flown at night. It may be stated that in the award of the Harmon trophy the wonderful day in and day out flying record of the air mail pilot was considered more meritorious in the cause of advancing aviation than the flight over the North Pole by Commander Byrd during that year.
PITCAIRN MAILWING, NEW YORK TO ATLANTA, 1929. Operator, Pitcairn Aviation mail load, 635 pounds span, 33 feet length, 23 feet, 10 inches height, 9 feet, 6 inches speed, 135 m.p.h. approximate range, 500 miles engine, Wright Whirlwind, 9 cylinder, 240 h.p.
It had never been the intention of the Post Office Department, however, to operate the air mail service longer than was necessary to clearly demonstrate the practicability of commercial aviation to the general public, and thereby induce private enterprise to enter the field and eventually take over the operation and development of the transcontinental route, the desired interest was rapidly increasing and in the year 1926 several contract air mail routes were put into operation, and contracts on several more routes were awarded.
Interest in commercial aviation, and contract air mail service in particular, was further enlivened when in the spring of 1926 Congress passed a bill, known as the "Air Commerce Act of 1926," which briefly stated, imposed upon the Secretary of Commerce the duty of fostering the development of commercial aviation in the United States. It authorized the Secretary of Commerce, among other things to designate and establish airways, insofar as funds were made available by Congress from year to year, and to establish, operate and maintain along such airways all necessary lights and emergency landing fields.
It also provided that at such time as the Postmaster General and Secretary of Commerce by joint order should direct, the airway under the jurisdiction and control of the Postmaster General, together with all emergency landing fields and other air facilities (except airports or terminal landing fields) used in connection therewith, would be transferred to the jurisdiction and control of the Secretary of Commerce, the established airports or terminal landing fields to be transferred to the jurisdiction and control of the municipalities concerned under arrangements subject to approval by the President.
BOEING MONOMAIL, CHICAGO TO SAN FRANCISCO, 1931. Operator, United Air Lines mail load, approximately, 2,300 pounds span, 59 feet, 1 inch length, 41 feet, 2 inches height, 9 feet, 4 inches speed 158 m.p.h. approximate range, 500 miles engine, Pratt & Whitney Hornet, 9 cylinder, 575 h.p.
Taking all these happenings into consideration, the Postmaster General concluded that the time was fast approaching, or was actually at hand, when the transcontinental air mail route might be turned over to private contractors and operation successfully and profitably carried on by them.
In order to ascertain the response that would be made, advertisements were issued on November 15, 1927, for proposals for service on the transcontinental route by sections: (1) New York to Chicago, and (2) Chicago to San Francisco. A proposal at a satisfactory rate was received on the Chicago to San Francisco section from the Boeing Airplane Company and Edward Hubbard, of Seattle, Wash. (later incorporated as the Boeing Air Transport, Salt Lake City, Utah), was accepted.
Service began under their contract July 1, 1927, the Post Office Department relinquishing operation at midnight June 30. As no satisfactory bid was received for the service between New York and Chicago, that section of the route was re-advertised under date of March 8 and the bid of the National Air Transport, Inc., Chicago, Ill., accepted thereunder.
This company began service under their contract on September 1, the Post Office Department continuing operation up until that time.
In addition to turning over to the contractor operation of service between Chicago and San Francisco on July 1, 1927, another important event in the history of the Government operated air mail service took place on that date when, acting under legislation contained in the Air Commerce Act above referred to, the lighted airway and the radio service were transferred to the jurisdiction and control of the Department of Commerce. The transfer of the radio service included seventeen fully equipped stations with an operating personnel of 44, transfer of the lighted airway included an operating personnel of approximately 102, and the following fields and lights:
Emergency landing fields with caretakers in charge -------------------------------68
Emergency landing fields automatically operated (no caretakers) -----------------21
Electric beacon lights in between emergency fields with caretakers in charge ----- 21
Electric beacon lights in between emergency fields automatically operated ------- 79
A.G.A. gas rotating beacons (automatic) ---------------------------------------- 405
Arrangements were made for this transfer of terminal airports to the municipalities at which they were located very shortly after the relinquishment of service on the western part of the route, and the same procedure was followed after relinquishment of service on the eastern part. The buildings at Chicago were located on property owned by the u. S. Veterans Bureau, and at Omaha and San Francisco on property owned by the War Department ownership of these buildings therefore reverted to the government departments named.
A number of the new Douglas planes were sold to air mail contractors, and the balance together with the few remaining serviceable DeHavilands, were transferred to other government departments in need of such equipment. Considerable of the shop material and equipment could be advantageously used in the large post office garages and transfer was accordingly made. The remaining serviceable material, equipment, etc., was listed to the Chief Coordinator for clearance and that desired by other government departments was accordingly transferred.
The material and equipment not taken by other branches of the government was listed for sale and sold in the usual manner to the highest bidder. By December 31, 1927, the Department's interests were completely closed out at all fields except Chicago, where only a small quantity of the material and equipment located in the repair depot and warehouse remained to be disposed of.
The Post Office Department has reason to be proud of the development of its undertaking and the following tables will clearly illustrate some of the work accomplished from the beginning of service to its complete relinquishment August 31, 1927.
From the statement on performance will be noted the remarkable percentage of scheduled miles flown, and in this connection it may be stated that if it were not for severe weather conditions, especially met with during the winter months of the year, such as fog, sleet and blizzards, an almost perfect schedule could be maintained at all times.
Of course, weather that was considered impossible to fly through in the early stages was easily flown through during the last few years, but fog still remains the greatest enemy of the pilot and the cause of practically all serious delays and uncompleted trips. Short areas of fog are flown through or over, but is not practicable to fly through or over large areas of dense fog, requiring designated landings to be made therein, with our present equipment and instruments.
However, experiments are being continually carried on with a view to finding some effectual means of overcoming this hazard, and it is hoped that such means will be found within the not too far distant future.
Attention is also called to the wonderful record of safety established during the later years of operation, as shown in the statement of fatalities, etc. A total of 3,108,720 miles were flown before the last fatality occurred.
Who Really Flew the First Air Mail to Sept-Îles, Québec, in 1927?
If you search the internet or published books on Canadian aviation history, most sources tell you that it was Roméo Vachon. They say the well-known French-Canadian aviator was the pilot who arrived in Sept-Îles, on the North Shore of the St. Lawrence River, on 25 December 1927, with the first load of mail ever delivered by air to this remote community.
But it’s not true. Even normally reliable sources can be wrong! In actual fact, the pilot was an Englishman, Charles Sutton.
Research within the stamp collecting community published more than 20 years ago in the Canadian Aerophilatelist clearly established Sutton’s role. Unfortunately, the findings of Derek Rance and the late Pierre Vachon, Roméo’s son, are not widely known.
Concrete proof of Sutton’s role is contained in records from the Québec-based company that had the North Shore air mail contract for 1927-1928, published here for the first time. These two pages list all the flights made by Canadian Transcontinental Airways Ltd. (CTAL) on the North Shore air mail run during the first winter of air mail service. Line 1 clearly names Sutton as pilot on that first flight.
First Air Mail Contracts in Canada
In 1927, the Canadian Government decided to expedite mail delivery to isolated locations by using commercial air transportation. The Post Office Department lost no time awarding contracts. Among the first areas to benefit were the North Shore of the St. Lawrence, Pelee Island on Lake Erie, and the Magdalen Islands (les Îles-de-la-Madeleine) in the Gulf of the St. Lawrence.
On the North Shore, there was a crying need for the new air mail service.
During the open-water season, coastal steamers called regularly at the tiny villages, bringing mail and provisions. But when winter descended, ice on the river shut down navigation and isolated the North Shore from the outside world. Then the only way of getting mail in or out over the rugged and mountainous terrain was by dog sled. Even with the new air service, outgoing mail still had to be transported this way from the string of villages along the North Shore to Sept-Îles, the eastern terminus of the air route.
The North Shore contract was awarded to CTAL in November 1927. The company was required to provide once-a-week air service as far as Sept-Îles (often called Seven Islands in those days). Four times during the winter, the company’s aircraft would fly an additional leg of about 100 miles from Sept-Îles across the Gulf of the St. Lawrence to Port Menier on Anticosti Island, providing that community with its first-ever winter mail service.
The six-month contract had a total value of $32,000 and also covered weekly service from Moncton to the Magdalen Islands.
G-CAIP (FC-2W) at Canadian Transcontinental’s base at Lac Sainte-Agnès. The Fairchild photo shows mail hauled to the aircraft by horse, while on the right a dog sled is posed as if to start on a delivery run. Photo: Ingenium Canada, Ken Molson Collection, KM-07008-S_1791.
From Fact to Fable
How did the wrong version of the story gain such currency? A couple of innocent errors seem to be to blame.
First, Frank Ellis, historian of Canada’s early aviation heritage, credits Vachon as the pilot in his reference to this event. Ellis’ book, Canada’s Flying Heritage, was published in 1954, the year Vachon died. One could assume that Ellis never had a chance to discuss the 1927 flight with Vachon in person, and that he simply did not know about Sutton’s role. Sutton had died many years earlier in a crash during a 1930 air race in Toronto.
Ellis tells the same story in his 1959 book In Canadian Skies, and repeats it in his 1969 survey article for the Canadian Geographical Journal, “They Opened the North by Air.”
Second, Georgette Vachon, Roméo’s spouse, also features her husband as the Christmas Day pilot in her 1974 book Goggles, Helmets and Airmail Stamps. Pierre Vachon notes that his mother could not have had first-hand knowledge of the event. During the winter of 1927-1928, he reports, she was staying with family at Sainte-Marie-de-Beauce, busily looking after twin one-year-old daughters. Writing of something that had happened nearly 50 years earlier, she may well have referred to the Ellis book to check her “facts.” (See Hargreaves 1998.)
Interestingly, the same error has crept into a prime reference book used by collectors of air mail stamps and flown “covers” (envelopes).
Chris Hargreaves, editor of the Canadian Aerophilatelist, offered the following comment after reading an early draft of this post: “I have checked back in some early air mail catalogues, and the Third edition (1950) and Fourth edition (1970) of the American Air Mail Catalogue both state that Sutton was the pilot for the first North Shore Air Mail flight. The listing is changed in the Fifth Edition (1981) which states that Roméo Vachon made the flight, but gives no explanation for the change!”
The Facts as Reported by the Press
Various news articles from 1927 paint a picture that supports the research by Rance and Vachon.
This 1982 Canadian stamp in the Bush Plane series features the Fairchild FC-2W G-CAIP as depicted by Canadian aviation artist Robert Bradford.
On Friday, 16 December, as reported in the Montreal Gazette of 17 December, Charles Sutton completed an acceptance flight of CTAL’s brand-new aircraft at the Fairchild factory in Long Island, New York.
On 19 December, with company co-founder and general manager Dr. Louis Cuisinier as a passenger, Sutton flew the Fairchild to the company’s operating base at Lac Nairne north of La Malbaie.* As the aircraft passed over the city of Québec, they dropped a sack of mail containing 150-200 letters. The French-language daily Le Soleil, Québec, reported these details on 22 December.
*This base was often referred to as “Murray Bay” (as well as La Malbaie), but was in fact located some 12 miles (18 km) farther north on a freshwater lake, Lac Nairne (formerly also called Lac Sainte-Agnès).
21 December (Aircraft registration file)
CTAL’s new Fairchild FC-2W (construction number 48) received its certificate of registration (No. 332) as G-CAIP from the Controller of Civil Aviation on 21 December 1927. A single-engine cabin monoplane, it was licensed as a commercial aircraft, approved for daytime operation at an all-up weight of 4600 pounds.
The French-language paper l’Action Catholique of 26 December reported that G-CAIP left Lac Sainte-Agnès near La Malbaie at 10:15 a.m. and dropped mail at six unspecified places before reaching Sept-Îles at 2:15 p.m. Dr. Cuisinier was a passenger on this flight, the paper stated.
A Canadian Press (CP) item carried by the Winnipeg Tribune of 27 December reported mail drops at North Shore villages and the arrival of the aircraft at Clarke City (now part of Sept-Îles) with nearly 200 pounds of mail on board, including letters, parcels and newspapers. “The plane, piloted by Captain Charles Sutton, came from La Malbaie and arrived shortly before noon. Much mail had been dropped by parachute at other places on the north shore which otherwise would not have their mail until well on in January.”
A sister ship of G-CAIP, also owned by CTAL, G-CAIQ was also an FC-2W (construction number 28). She had the same experimental arrangement of a ski-like base added to the float. Problems with the undercarriage shock absorbers doomed the experiment. As the late Patrick Campbell explained in the March 2000 issue of the Canadian Aerophilatelist, “floats need to be ‘solid’ to penetrate the water, while skis need ‘springing’.” Photo: CASM 2204_640.
The CP report also said that the aircraft, equipped with the new ski-floats, had landed on snow at Clarke City, where CTAL was building an airplane base, and that Sutton carried several sacks of mail on the return journey.
The article wrapped up with the statement: “Yesterday Captain Sutton took his machine back to Malbaie.” Given the dateline of “Seven Islands, Que., Dec. 27,” this indicates his departure on 26 December.
However, the company’s 1927-1928 winter flying season report (see below) gives the date for Sutton’s return to Lac Nairne as 27 December. At least ONE discrepancy remains unresolved.
Summary of CTAL 1927-1928 North Shore Mail Operations
During the winter of 1927-1928, CTAL flew 23 trips on the North Shore mail contract, including four trips to Anticosti. The service started on 25 December 1927, while the last flight of the season – to Anticosti – took place 3 April 1928. The company carried a total of 15,356 pounds of mail eastbound and 1,071 pounds westbound.
The names of three pilots appear in the report on 1927-1928 North Shore operations: Sutton, Vachon and Schiller. Sutton left the service of CTAL soon after the first mail flight to Sept-Îles, and by February 1928, according to Pierre Vachon’s short biography of him, was flying for Patricia Airways in the Red Lake area of Northwestern Ontario. C.A. “Duke” Schiller joined CTAL in late 1927 or early 1928, and flew seven of the first season’s North Shore mail flights. But most of the North Shore flying that season was done by Roméo Vachon – 15 out of the 23 trips show Vachon as pilot.
This information is available because many company documents were saved by Canadian Airways Limited (CAL) when they absorbed CTAL under a series of amalgamations completed in 1931. Researchers are fortunate that CAL appreciated the value of good records and that the Richardson family, the primary investors in CAL, ensured their files would be preserved at the Manitoba Archives.
Eastbound and westbound activities are summarized on the two pages reproduced below. English equivalents of column headings are: Date, Machine, Pilot, Destination, Weight, Passengers.
First eastbound transcontinental flight departed from… ? - History
PHOTO: Ernest M. Allison, unsung hero of the first day/night transcontinental, smiles proudly from his personalized de Havilland-4B.
Dirty gray clouds rolled in low over Long Island Sound, a sure sign of bad weather ahead. U.S. Air Mail Service pilot Ernest M. Allison lowered his aviator's goggles and fastened his sheepskin-lined helmet. He signaled his mechanics to pull the chocks from under his wheels, then he eased open the throttle on the de Havilland-4B (DH-4B), sending it surging to life.
Smoke swirled from the World War I surplus bomber's exhaust, enveloping bystanders in a cloud of noxious fumes. Waving a cheerful farewell to well-wishers, he taxied across the airfield. Turning into the wind, he opened the throttle fully, and skimmed along the runway.
His tail skid lifted, and in a moment pilot and biplane, carrying 350 pounds of mail bound first for Cleveland then for points west, as far as San Francisco, disappeared into the early morning gloom. The time was 6:14 a.m. The place, Hazelhurst Field, Mineola, Long Island, and the date, February 22, l921.
Ten minutes earlier mail pilot Elmer G. Leonhardt also had taken off from the same field. On the other side of the continent, U.S. Air Mail Service pilots Farr Nutter and Raymond J. Little lifted their de Havillands from San Francisco heading east toward the sun, much of their commemorative airmail addressed to New York.
PHOTO: By the time this photo was taken at the Omaha, Nebraska, airmail field in 1921, Elmer G. Leonhardt's DH-4B number 157 had force-landed four times. One incident, which made world news, occurred on the first day of the first day/night transcontinental. Photo courtesy of the United States Postal Service.
Thus began the first day/night U.S. transcontinental flight, the world's first scheduled long distance flight - New York to San Francisco. Nineteen ninety-six marked the 75th anniversary of that aviation milestone, the first time in history that airmail was carried between points at an announced time, irrespective of weather or time of day. That day and the next U.S. Air Mail Service pilots flying wire-braced, open-cockpit biplanes established a pattern that evolved into the present global air transportation network.
Since September 8, 1920, the service had flown the mail from New York to San Francisco during daytime only, transferring it to trains at night. As a result, elapsed time, should weather or mechanical difficulties not intervene, was 72 hours at best, or a mere 36-hour saving over the fastest all-rail trip.
Congress was not impressed. Having supported the airmail service from its fledgling startup period in 1918 through its first three tenuous years, lawmakers hesitated to appropriate additional funds to expand the service.
"What good is the airmail?" asked Representative Jasper Napoleon Tincher of Kansas (Republican), "It can only carry a shirttail full of mail."
What was needed was a dramatic demonstration of airmail's potential. Assistant Post Master General Otto Praeger decided that a round-the-clock relay of mail from New York to San Francisco in the worst weather of the year would prove airmail's clear-cut advantage over surface mail. The test would entail night flying, something so new that many pilots "doubted that you could keep an airplane right side up in the dark," said Allison.
To keep the mail moving, the 882-mile stretch from Cheyenne to Chicago would be flown in the dark, it would be the longest night flight ever made by civilian fliers. Doubts were many - the New York Sun editorialized that the flight was "homicidal insanity."
Forebodings about the safety of flying the mail were not groundless. In the prior three years 17 airmail service pilots had died in crashes traced to mechanical or weather-related causes. Airmail pilots at the time virtually flew by the seat of their pants. Their instrument panel included a magnetic compass, affected by everything metal on the plane. And when the air got rough on an easterly or westerly heading it oscillated all the way from north to south. Mail pilots had an altimeter, an airspeed indicator, a tachometer and a water temperature and fuel pressure gauge. They flew low - peering over the side of their planes to navigate - skimming rivers, railroad tracks and towns.
PHOTO: Jack Knight, known as the hero of the U.S. Air Mail Service, tests a radiotelephone, available to mail pilots once the Post Office established regular day/night transcontinental service. Photo courtesy of United Airlines.
"An instrument panel is just something to clutter up the cockpit and distract your attention from the railroad or riverbed you're following," said mail pilot Harold T. "Slim" Lewis.
Barnstormers and plane-walking stunt pilots could stay on the ground when the weather looked grim. Not airmail pilots. They were the first airmen to fly to a schedule, and they took what nature offered, be it wind, storm, fog, snow or hell. All those conditions greeted the men who inaugurated continual coast-to-coast scheduled flying on George Washington's birthday, 1921.
"Plenty of people were on hand to wish us clear skies and good luck that day," said Allison. "As it turned out we certainly needed luck and plenty of it."
While eastbound pilots out of San Francisco were blessed with clear skies, Allison and Leonhardt faced the furies. Snow, wind and a cotton-like fog turned flying the New York to Cleveland run into a prescription for disaster. The long, low ridges of the Allegheny mountain range that run NE/SW along central Pennsylvania are no place for a safe forced landing.
Fog, the airmail pilot's nemesis, frequently hangs low in its valleys. Heavy with brush, difficult to read from the air, susceptible to violent, capricious winds and weather changes, the "hell stretch" or Allegheny "graveyard" as pilots christened the humpbacked mountains, brought more airmail pilots to grief than any other part of the transcontinental route. This day Leonhardt's luck held, however, and he reached the refueling stop at Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, 22 minutes ahead of Allison.
Twenty-six minutes later, he was airborne again, ascending into a freezing mist. In short order, heavy layers of ice that had build up on his plane's wings and wires, disturbing the normal air flow and reducing lift, forced him down in a field near Du Bois, Pennsylvania. The forced landing badly damaged his tail skid and axle and thereby grounded him. Soon after passing Morristown, New Jersey, Allison's engine started missing.
"It was touch and go if I could reach Bellefonte," he recalled. Coming in over Nittany Mountain, Allison spotted Bellefonte's mail field just east of town, designated by a large white circle. He glided in for a safe landing. While he slugged down a cup of hot coffee, the Bellefonte field crew warmed up reserve plane number 192. After takeoff, Allison discovered that the propeller on the reserve DH-4B was badly out of balance, causing the entire craft to vibrate excessively.
"I was tempted to turn back and swap propellers with the plane I had just brought in, but because of the importance of the flight I kept on toward Cleveland," he said. The problem was later traced to a linen sheath that covered the propeller up to about 30 inches from each tip. (World War I de Havilland propellers often left the factory wrapped in linen to keep moisture off their laminated wood.) When field mechanics had installed the new propeller on the reserve plane they had neglected to remove the linen. In the rain and sleet, some of this protective casing loosened and peeled off.
"It would have been all right if all of it had come off," said Allison, "But one tip retained enough linen to throw the prop out of balance."
By the time Allison reached Brookville, Pennsylvania, the weather had closed in and a light freezing rain was falling. "The ceiling was so low I was forced to fly about 75 feet above the Allegheny River to avoid hitting the bluffs," he said. Weighted with ice, the DH-4B was unable, even on full power, to climb above a cable for transporting iron ore strung across the river flying under the cable, the plane missed the obstruction by less than 10 feet. Now fast losing altitude, the DH-4B descended toward the ice clogged river. Suddenly, the plane shuddered as if struck by lightening and massive amounts of ice which had accumulated on the wings, struts and wires cracked, groaned and tumbled into the river. The incessant vibrations from the unbalanced propeller had dislodged the ice buildup and allowed Allison to gain altitude and continue flying.
"That unbalanced prop saved me from going into the river at least three times during the 50-mile flight up the Allegheny," said Allison. Eventually the weather improved and Allison landed in Cleveland, numb with cold but proud to have "wangled the graft" (1921 pilots' slang for overcoming tough flying conditions.)
When he taxied up to the hangar, he was met by incredulous field hands, surprised at seeing him. They had expected Allison to meet the same fate as Leonhardt. Seven minutes after Allison landed in Cleveland, relay pilot Wesley L. Smith took to the air, bearing Allison's load of mail, headed for Chicago. He endured a turbulent ride through a raging storm but landed safely at Checkerboard Field, Maywood (Chicago), where he passed his mail to pilot William C. Hopson - who was also a daring wing-walker. Ten minutes after flying in heavy snowfall Hopson returned to the field, saying that there was no way he could battle this storm. Snow, rain and fog at both Chicago and the refueling stop, lowa City, had scratched the westward flight.
At this point airmail's future rested with the planes presumed to be flying eastward from California. Although good flying weather prevailed, the team from San Francisco flew part of their trip in predawn darkness. Leaving at 4:30 a.m., pilots Nutter and Little skimmed the fertile Sacramento valley east of San Francisco. Climbing to 18,000 feet, they crossed the snow-covered Sierra Nevada Mountains in early morning light, landing safely in Reno, Nevada, shortly before 7:00 a.m.
From there, John L. Eaton and William E. Lewis, a fledgling mail pilot with only four months experience, scooped up the mail and took off with it toward Elko, Nevada. Following the railroad tracks across the Great Basin country, the two pilots reached their destination without incident. Eaton landed first, spent seven minutes on the ground changing planes, then hopped off to Salt Lake City. Lewis also changed to a fresh plane then followed a few minutes later. But at this point tragedy overtook the expedition.
During a steep climb, Lewis's plane stalled at 500 feet. It went into a spin Lewis lost control and the aircraft plunged to the ground. The young pilot, who was scheduled to be married the next month, died on impact. Although shocked and saddened by the news, post office officials, pilots, and field personnel hurried to fill the gap. Less than two hours afterward, Lewis's intact mail sacks (the busted bags had been gathered and sent to the post office for rerouting) were transferred to another plane, this one piloted by William F. Blanchfield, and flown to Salt Lake City.
At Salt Lake City, Eaton, stepping out of his plane, learned that Lewis had crashed behind him. He turned his mail over to James P. Murray for that pilot's assault on the high mountain range to Cheyenne. An experienced pilot who'd spent all winter flying the high country, Murray easily droned over the rugged Wasatch and Laramie Mountains. As he completed his 381-mile run, pulling into Cheyenne's 6,100-foot-high airport at 4:57 p.m., darkness was descending.
Now came the real test. Could pilots flying unheated, unprotected open-cockpit planes navigate the blackness of night in the dead of winter? To find their way through the darkness, pilots could use their magnetic compasses, corrected for wind. For a visual fix on landing, they could touch off their wingtip flares. The twinkling lights of a city provided landmarks moonshine helped and bon fires, lighted by a devoted citizenry, were always welcomed.
First of the nighttime pilots, Frank Yager, carrying Murray's mail, departed at 4:59 p.m., crossing the Great Plains to North Platte, Nebraska, in deepening dusk. For the last 70 miles of his trip, twilight folded into darkness, as the moon hid behind low hanging clouds. The veteran mail pilot pulled all 400 horses from the Liberty engine, racing the clock at a 100 mph. He flew low following the Union Pacific Railroad tracks and later the frozen North Platte River to his destination.
At 7:48 p.m. Yager arrived at North Platte. Here began a flight that altered the course of aviation history, James "Jack" Knight's heroic flight through the night to save the airmail. Sporting a broken nose he had acquired three weeks earlier when his DH-4B mail plane crashed into a snow-covered peak in Wyoming's Laramie Mountains, Knight looked a sorry sight. Besides his aching nose, he was suffering residual effects from bruises and the concussion he'd acquired in the accident. As he admitted later, he didn't feel well enough to participate in the coast-to-coast airmail experiment, but he didn't want to be left out of the action so he signed on.
As soon as Knight spotted Yager's plane descending through the blackness of night into North Platte's airfield, he readied himself for the 248-mile relay to Omaha. Eager to get started, Knight was disappointed to discover that the engine on Yager's plane, the one he was scheduled to take to Omaha, failed to start. As a result he had to wait almost three hours, while mechanics repaired the plane's ignition. He paced the warm-up shack, smoked cigarettes and massaged his bandaged nose. Even at this point Knight must have felt fatigue. Unaware that he had been accepted for the cross-continent relay, the young pilot earlier that day had ferried a mail plane to Cheyenne and back. Finally, at 10:44 p.m., Knight roared down the runway before a large enthusiastic crowd. He began a steep ascent and disappeared into the night, climbing to an altitude of 2,200 feet.
"I dared climb no higher, because land markings were barely discernable at this level," he said. Clouds obscured the moon, but flying through the scud bothered him little, as he knew the route well by day. Through rare holes in the cloud cover, he recognized cities and towns along the way from their light patterns and caught glimpses of the dim silver thread of the Platte River.
Residents from five Nebraska towns along the route ignited bonfires in upended oil drums, which, like primitive beacons, spotlighted Knight's darkened corridor to Omaha.
"Squinting down at them through drifting snow swirls, I felt as though many friends were sending me up signals of bon voyage," he said. At l:l0 a.m. on February 23, Knight let down at Omaha's Fort Crook, a former Calvary post. A large crowd had gathered at the well-lighted field, eager to catch a glimpse of this heroic Icarus of the night. Dead tired, hungry and stiff from the cold, Knight looked forward to a good meal and a warm bed.
"This flying in the dark," he said, "takes it out of you." Knight anticipated turning his 16,000 letters over to either westbound relay pilot Hopson or Dean Smith. But, as he soon learned, the turnaround pilots scheduled to make the night flight from Omaha to Chicago and then back to Chicago were weather-bound in Chicago. And the only other available pilot who knew the route refused, because of the storm, to fly it. Knight volunteered his services, although he had never flown the 24-mile route from Omaha to Chicago via Iowa City before - even during the day. The weather looked terrible, snow flurries, winds and heavy clouds that blotted out the moon were forecast, and he was dead tired. But as airmail's options were fast running out, and nothing took precedence over the success of the airmail venture, Omaha's station manager, Bill Votaw, agreed to let the young pilot risk the flight.
"I pleaded for the opportunity to go on," said Knight. "There's not a pilot in the airmail service who would not have done the same."
For 20 minutes Knight pored over a road map of Iowa and Illinois, marking his course. Then he clambered into DH-4B number 188 - fueled and serviced - tucked himself into the cockpit, tacked his map to his instrument panel and opened the throttle. It was 1:59 a.m. His first destination was a refueling stop in Iowa City, 233 miles away.
"I was flying over territory absolutely strange," he said. "I knew nothing of the land markings, even if they had been visible." To boot, his road map showed there was no main road that he could follow. Since Des Moines was the only city that stood out on the map, Knight set his compass course for that city 140 miles away, en route to Iowa City. This time no bonfires provided a primitive beacon for Knight to follow because everyone, except the tenacious young pilot, had given up. The night was as dark as pitch from a cloud-enshrouded moon, but Knight droned east over Iowa.
An hour five minutes after takeoff he sighted the lighted dome of the state capitol, reassuring him he was on course. Twenty miles past Des Moines he encountered the forecast bad weather. Layers of clouds drifted beneath him, blocking his view of the earth. A strong wind whipped up from the northwest, beating his small plane like a tumbleweed in a storm. The turbulence caused him to increase throttle and thus burn precious fuel. To maintain visual contact and assess his drift, he nosed the craft down, descending as much as 2,000 feet. As he told it, when he felt his landing gear scrape the top of a tree, he pulled up. From then on he held the plane close to the ground even though the air was rough. The valleys were packed with fog and snow flurries pelted his windshield. Eventually, Knight sighted the railroad tracks leading to Iowa City.
As much a threat as bad weather was sleepiness. To keep awake Knight gripped the control stick between his knees and slapped at his face, body and arms. The cold wind, which pricked like needles when he stuck his head over the side, jolted him into alertness. The cold air whistled under his helmet straps.
PHOTO: A de Havilland-4B wings its way coast to coast, bearing 350 pounds of mail. Wingtip landing lights were added to U.S. Air Mail Service planes once cross-country routes were established on a regular basis. Photo courtesy United Airlines.
Finally, he sighted Iowa City, but with no lights to guide him he could not locate the airport. Thinking the project had been abandoned, the ground crew had all gone home. Knight circled the sleeping town for 12 minutes, hoping to rouse a sleeping field hand. Sure enough, upon hearing the drone of the distressed plane, the night watchman dashed out to the field and touched off several red flares.
Provided with a general layout of the field, Knight made a nearly perfect landing. ". by more luck than skill," he said. When he landed, his gas tank was practically empty. The time was 4:45 a.m.
The ground crew, now awakened, rushed to the field to service the plane. While the DH-4B was being gassed and serviced, Knight ate a ham sandwich, smoked cigarettes and waited to hear from Chicago that the weather was clearing. Although famished, he avoided eating too much, thinking it might induce more sleepiness. Finally, at 6:30 a.m. Knight revved his engine and took off for the Windy City. Even with the light from the awakening day, the exhausted pilot still flew nearly blind. A thick fog over the Mississippi lay like a white sheet over the land, forcing him to navigate by compass. He believed that by climbing to 5,000 feet he would find clear skies, and his instincts proved reliable.
Clear skies over Illinois eventually allowed him to see identifiable landmarks on the outskirts of Chicago. As Knight swept over the city, his engine began to sputter and pop for the first time on the trip.
"It was misbehaving, however, at a time when I was willing to forgive it," said Knight. "I was within gliding distance of the airmail field at Maywood."
It was 8:40 a.m. when Knight set his wheels down on Chicago's Checkerboard Field. He described his flight from Omaha to Chicago to a New York Times reporter, "I got tangled up in the fog and snow a little bit. Once or twice I had to go down and mow some trees to find out where l was, but it did not amount to much, except for all that stretch between Des Moines and Iowa City. Say, if you ever want to worry your head, just try to find Iowa City on a dark night with a good snow and fog hanging around. Finding Chicago - why, that was a cinch. I could see it a hundred miles away by the smoke and by the stockyard smell. But Iowa City - well, that was tough."
Knight had winged his way into aviation history, completing 672 miles of night-flying, the first all-night mail flight. He'd also set a record when his mail from San Francisco was delivered to Chicago in 29 hours. Otto Praeger spared no praise for the all-night flight, calling it "a demonstration of the entire feasibility of commercial night flying."
Only a few photographers greeted the young pilot, however. After all, they figured, what fool would fly through a night like this. Even though the worst was over, that didn't mean smooth flying lay ahead for the two relay pilots trusted with the experiment's critical final laps to New York. Within 20 minutes of Knight's landing, newly employed mail pilot Jack Webster took wing, bound for Cleveland. A low ceiling had him skimming trees tops and nearly force-landing his plane, but he stayed aloft. Even though he had never flown the route before and never had seen the Cleveland field, Webster delivered his mail pouches safely to Allison for the last leg of the trip.
Carrying six mail bags of transcontinental mail, Allison took off from Cleveland in DH-4B number 192, the same craft that vibrated the ice off his wings and wires and saved him from a cold winter's dunking in the Allegheny River the day before. This time the propeller spun like a top, but the weather posed as much a threat as ever. Allison encountered snow and sleet across Ohio but persevered, landing at Bellefonte for gas and oil at 2:42 p.m.
Sixteen minutes later he continued his assault on the Allegheny "Hell Stretch" and its hair-raising obstacle course. At 4:50 p.m. on February 23, Allison dipped his wings at Hazelhurst Field in New York, five minutes ahead of schedule, thus concluding the historic event. Praeger hailed the achievement as "the most momentous step in civil aviation" and prophesied it would revolutionize the carrying of mail worldwide. Newspapers touted the coast to-coast flight as a feat without parallel in civil aviation.
The big airmail gamble had paid off. For the first time in history, mail had been carried the 2,666 miles coast to coast in 25 hours, 53 minutes flying time at an average speed of 103 mph. Elapsed time from the time Nutter took off from San Francisco until Allison landed at New York was 33 hours 20 minutes, 75 hours shorter than the best train time.
Impressed by the feat and by the wide public acclaim, Congress at last appropriated the needed funds for the beleaguered mail service. The U.S. Air Mail Service and the first cross-country transcontinental experiment have long since faded into history. But because of the daring flight, the service's role in pioneering air transportation remains as a milestone in world aviation. The tragedy of pilot Lewis, the triumph of Knight and the courage and perseverance of Allison and the other mail pilots brought aviation to this glory point.
"We realized if we could make it go, it could amount to something," said Allison.
Nancy Allison Wright is editor of the Air Mail Pioneers News, a periodic newsletter of Air Mail Pioneers. Her father, Ernest M. "Allie" Allison, was former national treasurer and western division president of Air Mail Pioneers.