On this day: the first successful transcontinental air mail flight

An historic event took place in postal history on this day in 1921 when the first successful U.S. transcontinental air mail flight arrived at New York’s Hazelhurst Field from San Francisco.

Air mail pilot William "Wild Bill" Hopson. Source: Daniel  Hines Air Mail Collection, American Philatelic Research Library.
Air mail pilot William “Wild Bill” Hopson. Source: Daniel Hines Air Mail Collection, American Philatelic Research Library.

Since September 8, 1920, airmail service had flown the mail back and forth from New York to San Francisco during the daytime only, transferring it to trains at night. As a result, the elapsed time for cross-country mail was 72 hours at best, or a mere 36-hour savings over the fastest all-railroad trip.

Congress, having supported the airmail service from its beginning in 1918 through its first three years, hesitated to appropriate additional funding to expand the service thinking that mail carried by airplanes would be too unreliable and unable to support the volume of mail necessary to make it viable.  Assistant Postmaster General Otto Praeger knew he needed a dramatic demonstration of airmail’s potential so he decided that a round-the-clock relay of mail from San Francisco to New York and New York to San Francisco in the worst possible weather would provide the best possible example of the potential of airmail as an alternative to as well as an addition to surface mail. The eventual experiment would entail night flying, strongly discouraged at the time, and seven pilots taking 33 hours 20 minutes in order to fly the 2,629-mile cross-country trip.

On the morning of February 22, 1921, four pilots set off: pilots Farr Nutter and Raymond J. Little set off from San Francisco heading east, and, at 6:14 a.m. from Hazelhurst Field on Long Island, New York, pilots Ernest M. Allison and Elmer G. Leonhardt set off heading west to Chicago. While eastbound pilots out of San Francisco were blessed with clear skies, Allison and Leonhardt faced many weather-related obstacles on their way to Chicago by way of Bellefonte and Cleveland, from ice to wind to fog and the infamous Allegheny Mountain’s “Hell Stretch” and its drafts and undercurrents.

With the increasingly bad weather on the day Leonhardt made it as far as a cornfield in DuBois, after refueling in Bellefonte, with the wind and ice permanently damaging his plane and eventually grounding him for good. Allison on the other hand endured an adventurous ride through the same violent storm but landed safely at Checkerboard Field, Maywood (Chicago), where he passed his mail on to pilot William C. Hopson. Hopson, now the only pilot travelling westward, lifted off and battled the storm for ten minutes before being grounded unable to resume his flight. With that the eventual fate of air mail and its transcontinental journey now lay in the hands of the pilots flying eastward from San Francisco.

The Bellefonte, PA airfield, ca. 1921-1922. Source: Daniel Hines Air Mail Collection, American Philatelic Research Library.
The Bellefonte, PA airfield, ca. 1921-1922. Source: Daniel Hines Air Mail Collection, American Philatelic Research Library.

Californian pilots Nutter and Little had experienced excellent flying weather after taking off and made their portion of the trip to Reno, Nevada without incident. In Reno they passed off their mail cargo to pilots John L. Eaton and William E. Lewis for the trip to Salt Lake City. Lewis unfortunately didn’t make it his scheduled destination and crashed in high winds shortly after his ascent, while Eaton made the trip to the Utah airfield. Lewis’ mail bags however were recovered on the ground and passed along to pilot William Blanchfield and flown to Salt Lake City for rerouting. Eaton passed along his mail sacks to experienced pilot James Murray for the high altitude flight to Cheyenne, Wyoming. Murray easily made the 381 mile trip to Cheyenne’s 6,100 foot high airfield arriving around 5:00 p.m. on February 22, 1921. Now came the most dangerous and possibly eventful part of the transcontinental journey: flying at night.

The first pilot to set off in the darkness was Frank Yager who carried Murray’s mail cargo on to North Platte, Nebraska where he arrived around 7:45 p.m. Now came the part of the flight that many postal historians believe saved airmail as a viable mode of transportation. Pilot James “Jack” Knight flew the longest stretch of the transcontinental experiment from North Platte, Nebraska to Chicago, Illinois. He stopped only twice during an all-night flight which covered 830 miles finding his way to Chicago and, using only a basic compass and a few small torn sections of local road maps, arrived at Chicago’s Checkerboard Field around 8:40 a.m the morning of February 23, 1921. There in Chicago pilot Jack Webster took Knight’s mail on to Cleveland where it was placed on the final leg of its journey with pilot Ernest M. Allison. Allison took off from Cleveland on the last stretch of the flight encountering snow and sleet across Ohio but eventually landing at the Bellefonte Airfield on February 23, 1921 for gas and oil around 2:40 p.m. Resting only sixteen minutes in Bellefonte he continued his flight across the Allegheny Mountains’ “Hell Stretch” arriving at the Hazelhurst Field in New York City at 4:50 p.m., five minutes ahead of schedule, thus concluding the historic transcontinental relay.

With all the modes of transportation used by mail carriers today, it is extraordinary how these pilots braved the conditions they did and believed in what they were doing back then in 1921 in order that we now have the airmail service that we do today.

For further reading, check out these references:

Flying the mail / Jackson, Donald Dale. — Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, c1982. – 176 p. : ill. (part col.), col. map, photos., ports. (photos.) ; 28 cm. (Book)
Location: APRL HE6238 .J12f 1982 (Chapter 2: Uncle Sam’s Flying Postmen” pp. 55-75)

Aerial pioneers : the U.S. air mail service, 1918-1927 / Leary, William M.. — Washington, D.C. Smithsonian Institution Press, c1985 – 309 p. : ill., maps (part on lining papers) ; 23 cm. (Book)
Location: APRL HE6238 .L438a (Chapter 7: “Transcontinental Air Mail” 113-125)

Website: www.airmailpioneers.org (various pages)