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Elko, Nevada hangar

Elko, Nevada was one of the stops on the first transcontinental mail flight.

Jack Knight

Jack Knight, hero of airmail.

Ernest Allison

Ernest M. Allison flew the last leg of the first transcontinental flight from Cleveland to New York, arriving in New York at 4:50 p.m. on September 23, 1921.

Transcontinental Flight and Jack Knight

The U.S. airmail service took in more money than it spent in 1918, the first year it operated. After that year, the service lost more money each year from increased costs because it had more routes, flew greater distances, and carried more mail that weighed more. The Post Office needed more money but wanted to avoid charging more for airmail stamps because then the price of airmail stamps would seem too high to postal customers and fewer would buy them. Rather, the Post Office wanted the Federal Government to use tax money to support the airmail system.


The U.S. transcontinental mail route began operating in September 1920. But, since pilots did not fly after dark, the mail was transferred to a railcar to travel during the night. At dawn, a waiting plane would take the mail sacks and fly on. A train alone needed 108 hours to cross the continental United States, but this mix of air and rail decreased the time to 78 hours.


The newly elected president, Warren Harding, former senator from Ohio, was unimpressed by the savings in time that airmail provided and felt that the service was a waste of money given that trains could carry the mail more cheaply. He threatened to veto any money that Congress gave to the airmail service.


To counter Harding's objections, Postmaster General Burleson and Assistant Postmaster General Otto Praeger devised a plan to demonstrate airmail's potential. They would fly mail across the country completely by air, without using the railroad. The transit time would fall dramatically and the American people and the President would agree to spend tax money to develop airmail. To get the most attention from the public, they chose February 22, 1921, Washington's Birthday, for the all-air cross-country test.


This flight would not be an easy task. Flying the mail was extremely uncomfortable. The pilots largely used World War I surplus de Havilland DH-4 biplanes that had been built for combat, not for long flights. The pilots were fully exposed to the weather, and they wore many layers of clothing, often made of leather because it was warm for its weight and blocked the wind even when wet. They wore fur collars, leather skullcaps, leather facemasks and goggles, and carried rags to wipe the constant spray of hot oil from the engine. The severe cold sometimes caused them to become disoriented, which made finding landmarks even harder.


Moreover, it would be difficult for pilots to find their way at night. Airmail pilots relied on visual landmarks, such as polo fields, railroad stations, or farms with a telephone to call for help. State road maps marked only the towns large enough for a post office and said nothing about the height of mountains or hazards. Even a church steeple was dangerous, since pilots flew as low as 50 feet (15 meters ) in snow or fog to see the landmarks. At night, landmarks disappeared completely from sight. Praeger envisioned that, at night, fires would line the entire transcontinental route. Post office workers would burn oil drums, bonfires, “parachute flares,” or torches at the junctions of railroads.


Praeger also planned to publish the notes that pilots had written in little black notebooks describing the landmarks along their routes. The Post Office collected the pilots' notes and worked with the mail stations located within five miles (eight kilometers) of the transcontinental route. The stations recorded distances, landmarks, the course by magnetic compass, and emergency and regular landing fields. On February 20, 1921, Praeger published this Transcontinental Air Mail Pilot's Log as an aid to navigation that eventually would lead to the modern system of printed navigation aids.


At 6:00 a.m. on February 22, 1921, two mail planes left Hazelhurst Field, Long Island, New York, heading west. Meanwhile, two other planes took off from Marina Field, San Francisco, California, at 4:00 a.m. Pacific Time, flying east. Relay planes waited at the regularly scheduled stops in between.


Pilot W.F. Lewis flew eastward, but just after he took off from Elko, Nevada, he crashed and died. Pilot J.L. Eaton was able to continue Lewis' route and arrived before noon in Salt Lake City. From there, Jim Murray flew to Cheyenne, Wyoming, to arrive just as night fell. Frank Yeager took off five minutes later for North Platte, Nebraska, along “the iron beam” route of the Union Pacific railroad. Yeager followed bonfires and emergency flares to land at 7:50 p.m. in North Platte but cracked the tailskid of his DH-4 plane when he landed.


James H. “Jack” Knight was waiting in North Platte for Yeager. After fixing the tailskid on the DH-4 plane, Knight left for Omaha at 10:44 p.m. He did not know that the relief pilot scheduled to meet him in Omaha was stuck in a snowstorm in Chicago. That same storm had also stopped the westbound pilots, whose mail was being loaded onto a train. Knight was unaware that he was the only pilot left flying and that the future of airmail depended on him.


Knight left North Platte and began picking his way toward Omaha. Though the night was bitter and frozen, it was clear enough for him to see torches and burning oil drums lit for him across the prairie, at Lexington, Kearney, and Central City, Nebraska. He landed in Omaha at 1:10 a.m., only to learn that he was the only pilot able to fly. Knight had never flown east of Omaha, but learning that no relief would come, he drank coffee, stuffed newspapers inside his fur and leather suit for insulation, and took off at 2:00 a.m.


More postal workers, and even farmers, lit bonfires for Knight across Iowa and Illinois. He followed the Rock Island railroad tracks to Des Moines, Iowa, but couldn't tell the depth of the snow on the field. Knight decided to climb again and keep flying for Iowa City, 120 miles (192 kilometers) to the east. He approached Iowa City and as he descended to check for landmarks, a night watchman heard his airplane. The watchman lit a railroad flare to mark the field center. Knight nearly crashed as he set down in the 25-mile-per-hour (40-kilometer-per-hour) winter wind.


Knight rested and warmed himself, then lifted off again at 6:30 a.m. for the final 200 miles (320 kilometer) to Chicago. A cold mist dulled his flight path. At 8:40 a.m., Knight reached Chicago Checkerboard Field. His all-night flight had covered 830 miles (1,328 kilometers) and he had found his way using a basic compass and a small, torn section of road map. Knight admitted later that he had broken his nose a few days earlier and the frozen wind and bumpy air were especially brutal. Newspaper reporters were waiting for Knight in Chicago, and his flight made front-page headlines nationwide.


Though Knight was a hero, the feat was a team victory. The Chicago snowstorm had finally cleared, and after Knight landed, pilot J.D. Webster took over flying east, leaving Chicago for Cleveland at 9:00 a.m. Ernest Allison continued from Cleveland to New York, arriving at Hazelhurst Field at 4:50 p.m.


Seven pilots had taken part in the transcontinental flight, taking 33 hours 20 minutes to fly 2,629 miles (3,652 kilometers). Only 26 hours of that time had been spent in the air. With this achievement and new interest in airmail by the public, President-elect Harding threw his support behind the bill giving federal money to airmail.


Money would be spent to light more routes, develop navigation aids, hire pilots, and buy aircraft. On July 1, 1924, airmail began regularly scheduled, 24-hour operation. Three zones were developed to both manage the routes and develop a more logical system of pricing the airmail for customers. The zones were New York-Chicago, Chicago-Rock Springs, and Rock Springs-San Francisco. Within each zone, airmail would cost eight cents per ounce.


Jack Knight had helped bind the continent with his courageous flight. Yet the public, airline industry, and government still disagreed on how to fund the airmail system. The public wanted to spend as little as possible on stamps. Airline companies faced high costs to fly their primitive planes. Congress and the President were willing to spend federal money at the moment, but companies that carried the mail by train started to lose business and objected to the government airmail subsidies. The 1925 Kelly Act would attempt to answer these conflicting needs.


--Roger Mola



Bilstein, Roger E. Flight in America  From the Wrights to the Astronauts. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

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

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

Chaikin, Andrew. Air and Space--The National Air and Space Museum Story of Flight. Boston: Bulfinch Press/Little, Brown and Company, 1997.

Christy, Joe, 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.


“The Airmail Takes Wing. http://www.aerofiles.com/airmail.html

Wright, Nancy Allison. “On Wings of Faith: Navigating the First Day/Night Transcontinental.” http://www.airmailpioneers.org/history/milestone2.html/


Further Reading:

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

Heppenheimer, T.A. Turbulent Skies; The History of Commercial Aviation. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1995.

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.

Lipsner, Benjamin B. The Airmail Jennies to Jets. As told to Leonard Finley Hiltsd. Chicago: Ill.: Wilcox and Follett Company, 1951.

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


Educational Organization

Standard Designation  (where applicable

Content of Standard

National Council for Geographic Education

Standard 1

How to use tools and technologies to acquire, process, and report information.

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.