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First airmail route

This map shows the first air mail route between New York and Washington, D.C.

Curtiss JN4-H prepares to carry the mail

A Curtiss JN4-H prepares to carry the mail on a flight north from the Polo Field in Washington, D.C.

Fleet briefs Boyle before flight

Major Reuben Fleet on the left briefs airmail pilot Lt. George Boyle before he begins his flight on May 15, 1918. It didn't help. Boyle still got lost.

Mechanics help Boyle get ready for takeoff

May 15, 1918. Mechanics help U.S. Army Lt. George Boyle position a Curtiss JN4-H "Jenny" for takeoff during the inauguration of U.S. airmail service in Washington, D.C.

Belmont Park airfield

Lt. H.P. Culver arriving at Belmont Park with the first airmail from Washington, D.C., May 15, 1918.

Upside down airmail stamp

This 24-cent airmail stamp was printed upside down.

Six-cent airmail stamp

Airmail stamps were used to distinguish between airmail and regular mail. This 6-cent stamp was for airmail without special delivery. It was issued toward the end of 1918.

Mail is dropped to ground

May 15, 1918. The mail is dropped to the ground below.

The Nation's First Scheduled Airmail Service, 1918

The Federal Government's initial experiments with airmail had been modest in scope and funding. That changed early in 1918 when, accepting a suggestion from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), Congress appropriated $100,000 for the first regularly scheduled airmail service. The route was to cover 218 miles (349 kilometers) between Washington, D.C., and New York. In both directions, flights would land at Bustleton Field in Philadelphia for fresh planes and more mail.


Otto Praeger, assistant postmaster general, planned to have the U.S. Army Air Service (USAAS) fly one roundtrip every day but Sunday. Praeger would have preferred that post office pilots fly the mail, but he accepted an offer from Army Colonel E.A. Deeds to help operate the service. The colonel believed that airmail duty would provide cross-country flying experience for the Army pilots and that the army would provide the money to pay the pilots. Deeds picked Major Reuben H. Fleet to manage the flights that would begin regular airmail service.


On March 1, 1918, Major Fleet received orders to be ready to fly by May 15. Fleet knew, though, that the best airplanes he had could not fly even half the necessary distance. He ordered the Curtiss Company to install more powerful 150-horsepower (112-kilowatt) Hispano-Suiza engines in the Curtiss JN-4D Jennys that would be used and also equip them with hoppers (bins) in the front seat for mailbags and extra gas tanks. To pressure Fleet, Postmaster General Albert Burleson announced to the press that the airmail would start on time.


Postal officials wanted to invite President Woodrow Wilson to the first flight and have a big crowd on hand in downtown Washington. Fleet preferred to use the airport at College Park, Maryland, nine miles (14.5 kilometers) away because it had more space and fewer trees. The postal officials won. The mail would leave from the Polo Field, a much smaller grassy area between the Tidal Basin and the Potomac River in Washington that was surrounded by trees.


Fleet also disagreed with postal officials about the New York end of the route. The Post Office wanted to use the army field at Hazelhurst, Long Island, but Fleet wanted more space. This time Fleet got his way, and the flights were set for Belmont Park Racetrack.


Fleet chose four experienced army pilots, including Lieutenants Howard P. Culver and Torrey H. Webb. The Post Office insisted that Fleet add two more pilots who had political and family connections: Lieutenants George L. Boyle and James C. Edgerton. Both had completed pilot school but had barely flown.


A pilot would leave Washington and New York at the same time, land in Philadelphia to drop the mail and collect more. Fresh pilots and airplanes would then continue the rest of the way. On May 13, two days before his deadline, Fleet went by train to New York with five pilots. He was surprised to find his new planes still in crates at the army field at Hazelhurst. Fleet and the pilots rushed to assemble two of them, finishing on the 14th. Two of the pilots flew the planes to Philadelphia while Fleet assembled another one and started out toward Philadelphia, where he was to connect with the others before continuing on to Washington. But Fleet lost his way and arrived in Philadelphia too late in the day to continue. He left early the morning of the 15th, arriving in Washington less than three hours before Lieutenant Boyle was scheduled to leave for Philadelphia.


President Wilson stood by for the ceremony to mark the first official flight and signed a letter carrying the first airmail stamp. It would be auctioned for charity when it arrived in New York. Fleet handed Boyle a map that showed the route from Union Station in Washington, north to Philadelphia 128 miles (205 kilometers) away and told him to follow the railroad tracks. At 10:45 a.m., Boyle tried to start the plane's engine—three times. Major Fleet had not refueled it. The huge crowd laughed as mechanics ran for gas.


Boyle took off 45 minutes late. He carried 3,300 letters weighing 140 pounds (64 kilograms) and barely cleared the trees. Boyle circled, then flew away—but to the south. Just 24 miles (38 kilometers) away, on a farm near Waldorf, Maryland, Boyle landed and flipped over. He was unhurt, but his mail had to be unloaded and put onto a train to Philadelphia.


Meanwhile, Lieutenant Webb took off at 11:30 a.m. from Belmont Park in New York and arrived at 12:40 p.m. in Philadelphia. Webb handed Lieutenant Edgerton 150 pounds (68 kilograms) of mail. Edgerton took off and landed in Washington at 2:30 p.m. to a small but cheering crowd.


Back in Philadelphia, Lieutenant Culver had been waiting for Boyle for hours, not knowing that Boyle had crashed and that the mail was on a train. Culver finally left for New York at 2:15 p.m. with 200 letters, making it to the Belmont Park Racetrack.


Postal officials tried Boyle again on May 17. The young lieutenant was engaged to marry Margaret McChord, whose father was chairman of the Interstate Commerce Commission, and postal officials wanted this powerful family on their side. Fleet argued against Boyle but lost.


This time, Edgerton flew alongside Boyle as far as the northern end of the Chesapeake Bay, where Edgerton, thinking Boyle could find his way north, turned back. But Boyle managed to fly eastward around the Chesapeake Bay and almost into the Atlantic Ocean, running out of gas and landing on a farm. He bought gas and oil from the farmer and took off again. This time he flew within a few miles of the Philadelphia post office but crashed into trees at a golf course. His plane's wings ripped off but again, Boyle was unhurt. He returned to Washington by train. Even then, Post Office officials wanted to give Boyle a third chance. Fleet refused and replaced Boyle with Lieutenant Killgore, who flew successfully to Philadelphia.


Other pilots also failed at navigation. Maps showed large cities but no elevations or landmarks. Pilots carried only a simple magnetic compass that was distorted by the metal of the airplane. Praeger pressured everyone to keep to the schedule, six days per week, regardless of the weather.


Luckily, the airplanes got larger and faster. Army pilots tested the new Curtiss R-4L with a 400-horsepower (299-kilowatt) Liberty engine, then the JN-6H Jenny with a V-8 engine. In the first month of operation, the Army flew 10,800 pounds (4,909 kilograms) of airmail 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) at an average speed of 70 miles per hour (112 kilometers per hour). 


Yet the public did not send much mail by air mainly because airmail stamps cost more than stamps for mail sent by train. The government tried to help by reducing the price of airmail stamps in July from 24 cents to 16 cents. But it was a losing situation. Cheaper stamps meant less revenue. Still, if the Post Office charged a price that was high enough to cover its costs, people refused to send mail by air. The year 1918 was the first and last time that airmail made a profit.


The Army stopped flying the mail on August 12, when the Post Office began carrying the mail. In less than three months, the Army had made 270 flights totaling 421 hours and 30 minutes. Its pilots carried 40,500 pounds (18,409 kilograms) of mail. Only 16 flights had to land because of mechanical failure and 53 due to weather. No army pilots had died and only a few had been injured.


Nevertheless, these three months had been difficult. Praeger felt that the Army had been reluctant to support the undertaking and had not been committed to meeting a regular schedule. Of course, the Army Air Service pilots felt differently. They were faced with unreliable compasses and only a few maps. Flying in good weather would have been difficult; flying in bad weather, as Praeger wanted, was unrealistic. Time would tell whether the Post Office could do better.





Bruns, James H. Mail on the Move. Polo, Ill.: Transportation Trails, 1992.

_____________ Turk Bird--The High-Flying Life and Times of Eddie Gardner. National Postal Museum, Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998.

Christy, Joe and Wells, Alexander T. American Aviation--An Illustrated History. Blue Ridge Summit, Pa.: Tab Books Inc., 1987.

Ethell, Jeffrey L. Smithsonian Frontiers of Flight. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, New York: Orion Books, 1992.

Leary, William M. Aerial Pioneers – The U.S. Air Mail Service, 1918-1927. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1985.


Glines, C.V “The Airmail Takes Wing” (condensed). http://www.aerofiles.com/airmail.html..

Wright, Nancy Allison. “The Reluctant Pioneer and Air Mail's Origin.” http://www.airmailpioneers.org/history/milestone1.html.


Further Reading:

Amick, George. “How the Airmail Got Off the Ground.” American History (August 1998): 48-59.

Boughner, Fred. Airmail Antics. Sidney, Ohio: Amos Press Inc., 1988.

Holmes, Donald B. Airmail, An illustrated History 1793-1981. New York: Clarkson N. Potter Inc., 1981.

Jackson, Donald Dale. Flying the Mail. Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1982.

Shamburger, Page. Tracks Across the Sky. New York: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1964.


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Content of Standard

American Association for the Advancement of Science


Funding influences the direction of science by virtue of the decisions that are made on which research to support.

International Technology Education Association

Standard 7

Students will develop an understanding of the influence of technology on history.

International Technology Education Association

Standard 10

Students will develop an understanding of the role of troubleshooting and experimentation in problem solving