U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission home page

 

Chinese airmail flag

The Chinese air mail flag-probably the oldest of its kind in existence.



Jean Blanchard

The Frenchman Jean Francois Blanchard carried the first written message by air when he traveled by balloon from Philadelphia to New Jersey in 1793.



Wiseman model

A re-creation of Fred Wiseman's first flight.



Fred Wiseman flying

A drawing of Fred Wiseman in Santa Rosa, California, early in 1911.



First Ovington mail flight

The first air mail dispatch was made in September 1911. The plane was a Bleriot monoplane piloted by Earle L. Ovington.



Ovington's Dragonfly

Earle Ovington flies over the Post Office tent in his Dragonfly, September 23, 1911.



Airmail stamp honoring Ovington

Air mail stamp honored the first U.S. air mail flight-Earle Ovington's 1911 flight.



Proposal for carrying the mail by air

The government issued a proposal to carry the mail in 1916. But no one wanted to take the risk. Airmail delivery didn't actually begin until 1918.



Katherine Stinson

Katherine Stinson was one of few woman stunt pilots. In 1915, she flew mail from the fairgrounds in Tucson, Arizona to a spot near the post office.



Airmail Before 1918

For thousands of years, pigeons carried small notes by air. Men on foot, horseback, or in boats carried all other mail and packages until the early balloon flights of the 1700s. In the United States, Jean Francois Blanchard carried the first written message by air when he flew by balloon from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to rural New Jersey on January 7, 1793. He carried a “passport” written by President George Washington advising others to offer Blanchard whatever assistance he needed. The President supported this event, but the Post Office at that time paid for mail to be carried only by stagecoach or barge and later by train, not by air.

 

John Wise, the well-known aeronaut, made the world's first official airmail flight. On August 17, 1859, he left Lafayette, Indiana, in his balloon Jupiter bound for Philadelphia or New York City. The local postmaster had permitted him to carry 123 letters and 23 circulars—at no government expense. But the wind blew Wise southward rather than east. After only 30 miles (48 kilometers), he was forced to descend. The public thought poorly of the experiment and of the Post Office for supporting it. It marked, however, the start of the government-private sector partnership that would carry the mail by air after the invention of the airplane.

 

Abroad, during the siege of Paris in the Franco-Prussian War, balloons carried messages from a Paris that was completely surrounded by the Prussians to the outside world and the provisional government at Tours. The first trip took place on September 23, 1870, when professional aeronaut Jules Durouf departed from the Place St. Pierre in Montmartre in Le Neptune with 227 pounds (103 kilograms) of mail. He landed his balloon safely three hours and 15 minutes later behind enemy lines at the Chateau de Craconville. Because of the prevailing winds, which headed only out of Paris, balloons could not carry mail back into Paris. So a later balloon, La Ville de Florence, transported carrier pigeons as well as mail that the French used to carry messages back into Paris.

 

In the early 20th century, stunt flying became popular, and it was stunt pilots who first carried the mail. In June 1910, a stunt pilot, Charlie Hamilton, carried a piece of mail from New York Governor Charles Evans Hughes to Pennsylvania Governor Edwin Stuart in Philadelphia and a reply back to New York. This record-setting roundtrip netted Hamilton the huge sum of $10,000. His flight received wide publicity and drew attention to commercial uses of aviation.

 

Soon after, Congressman Morris Sheppard of Texas introduced a bill in Congress to study the practicality of flying mail between New York and Washington, D.C. The bill died in committee, but it was enough to get Postmaster General Frank H. Hitchcock to authorize the first official mail flight from the deck of a steamship. But bad weather forced its cancellation, and a year would pass before the government again considered airmail.

 

Meanwhile Hitchcock, who had expressed a “keen interest” in airmail, continued to promote airmail by authorizing local postmasters to send mail by air—at no expense to the government. On February 17, 1911, the post office of Petaluma, California, had flying enthusiast Fred Wiseman fly 18 miles (29 kilometers) to Santa Rosa, California. Wiseman carried 50 newspapers, a sack of coffee, and three letters in his own plane. The post office and Wiseman wanted to beat the mail train and the truck that normally carried the mail. Wiseman flew just four miles (6.4 kilometers) before his propeller broke. He then sat for two days while it was fixed. His actual flying time, though, was only 12 minutes 20 seconds, which would have beaten the train and truck if he had managed to fly the distance in one stretch.

 

The first successful mail service with a sworn-in pilot took place at an air show in September 1911. On September 23, Earle L. Ovington took an oath in Mineola, New York, and became the first official (unpaid) U.S. airmail pilot for the duration of the weeklong show. He flew his 70-horsepower (52-kilowatt) Blériot monoplane six miles (9.6 kilometers) to the Mineola post office and dropped the pouch of mail out of his cockpit for the postmaster to collect. During the week, he carried a total of 32,415 postcards, 3,993 letters, and 1,062 circulars.

 

During the next few years, other aviators made unpaid flights. In 1915, Katherine Stinson, one of the few female pilots, amazed a crowd in the southwestern United States by flying mail from the fairgrounds in Tucson, Arizona, to a vacant lot near the post office, where she dropped the mail to postal workers waiting below. Eventually both the public and President Woodrow Wilson's administration began to think airmail might be worth tax money. In 1912, Postmaster General Albert Burleson made his first request to Congress for $50,000 for airmail. He asked again in 1913 and 1914. But not until 1916, with the prodding of Otto Praeger, the second assistant postmaster general, did Congress release $50,000 to authorize the Post Office to contract with private carriers to carry the mail, after the Post Office had already begun to advertise for airmail carriers to fly in Alaska. However, this venture was dead before it began. Private companies thought the money was too little to risk their pilots and airplanes and none came forward to enter the airmail business. Prospects for a practical airmail system depended on direct, sustained federal action, something that would not become a reality before 1918 .

 

--Roger Mola

 

Sources:

Bilstein, Roger E. Flight in America: From the Wrights to the Astronauts. Revised Edition. 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.

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.

Komons, Nick A. Bonfires to Beacons: Federal Civil Aviation Policy Under the Air Commerce Act, 1926-1938. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989.

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

Rolt, L.T.C. The Aeronauts: A History of Ballooning - 1783-1903. New York: Walker and Company, 1966.

 

On-Line References:

“Flight Into History: Earle Ovington Was First.” http://www.airmailpioneers.org/history/milestone3.html.

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

“Who's on First?” http://www.airmailpioneers.org/history/milestone4.html.

 

Further Reading:

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.

 

Educational Organization

Standard Designation  (where applicable

Content of Standard

International Technology Education Association

Standard 10

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

International Technology Education Association

Standard 7

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