From Reno to San Francisco

Pilots flying the mail cross-country in 1921 followed these directions to find landmarks along the way.

Reno, Nevada, Postmaster Austin Jackson (left) hands a mail bag to pilot Harry Huking in his DH-4 mailplane, July 1924. NASM (SI-A-44465-E)

Here's how Airmail pilots were directed from Reno to San Francisco in 1921.

0 Miles. Leaving the Reno field the pilot should head his ship southwest and gain altitude of at least 10,000 feet to pass safely over the Sierras. Practically all of this altitude should be obtained near the field before starting on the course.

20. Lake Tahoe—The northern edge of Lake Tahoe is 6 miles south of the course.

25. Truckee—On the Southern Pacific near the point where Lake Tahoe Railway joins the Southern Pacific from the south. Two and a half miles to the northwest of Truckee lies a very good summertime emergency landing field. All approaches are clear and a space available for a landing 600 by 2,000 feet. A big boulder painted white stands on the northwest side of the field and beside it is a white wind indicator. This field is to be avoided in winter, as snow gathers on it to a frequent depth of 4 feet. Soon after passing Truckee the Sierras are crossed. On the direct course 10,000 feet will clear the highest peak, but an altitude of 15,000 feet should be maintained. The Southern Pacific Railroad tracks veer to the west and north and from here on to Sacramento are at a varying distance of 5 to 20 miles north and west of the course.

65. Colfax—Seventeen miles northwest of the course on the Southern Pacific Railroad. Elevation here is 2,422 feet. A small level field lies one-half mile south of the city. The field should be used only in an emergency, as it is difficult to get into and during the rainy season is very soft. The field is 600 by 300 feet.

85. Shingle Springs—Seven miles south and east of the course, on the Placerville Branch of the Southern Pacific that runs from Placerville to Sacramento. There is a field here one-half mile west of Shingle Springs, bounded on the north by a highway running to Placerville and on the south by the Southern Pacific tracks. The field is 1,500 yards long north and south and 300 yards wide east and west. The ground is level, hard, and smooth. The elevation here is approximately 1,000 feet.

95. The Southern Pacific, running from Placerville to Sacramento, is crossed at right angles 1 mile southeast of where it makes a right-angular bend and approximately parallels the course for the next 15 miles. The course lies from 1 to 3 miles southeast of this track.

112. Mather Field—Is the Army Air Service station in the Sacramento Valley, equipped like all Air Service flying fields. It is located to the east of Sacramento and near the small siding called Mills, 2 miles north and east of the course. A huge white water tower serves as an excellent landmark as well as the three lines of buildings on the ground. Three railroads are crossed in a stretch of less than 10 miles soon after leaving Mather Field. The Southern Pacific Railroad is to the northeast of the course at a varying distance of 10 to 15 miles after leaving Mather Field. Southwest of the course the Sacramento River will be seen soon after crossing the three railroad tracks at a distance of 5 to 10 miles.

152. Suison [Suisun] Bay—Into which the Sacramento River empties, a large oblong body of water parallel to the course. The pilot will fly along the southwest side of this bay.

162. Martinez—On the southeast corner of Suison bay. One mile northwest of the course.

177.  Durant Field, Oakland, Calif.—On the eastern side of San Francisco Bay. The field runs almost due east and west and has a hangar, wind indicator, and T laid out on it. By coming in from the east over the hangar an unobstructed run of about 2,000 feet is obtained. North and south the field is rather narrow and somewhat rough. All supplies necessary for reservicing a ship may be obtained here. From here fly directly across San Francisco Bay. The course goes directly over Alcatraz Island, covered with white Government buildings. Goat Island, larger than Alcatraz, and more irregularly shaped, on which is located the Naval Station to be seen to the south.

187.  Marina Field—Is stationed on the south of San Francisco Bay, 3 miles from the Golden Gate, on the east portion of the old fair grounds. It can be identified by the Palace of Fine Arts Building, which has a large dome roof, at the west end of the field; a monument 150 feet high, the Column of Progress, is on the north side of the field. The city of San Francisco is to the south. There is a prevailing southwest wind here. A double line of wires borders the eastern edge of the field and this, in conjunction with the gas plant in the same vicinity, force the pilot to come in high. The pilot should hold the ship off until the runway is reached coming in either direction, as both the east and west edges of the field are very rough. Landings should not be attempted from any direction other than the east and west.

Reprinted by permission from Pilots' Directions: The Transcontinental Airway and Its History, edited by William M. Leary, University of Iowa Press, 1990.




Airmail pilot William “Wild Bill” Hopson (seen here circa 1921) submitted a photograph of himself to the Air Mail Service along with the note: “Enclosed please find photo of bum pilot…. When finished with picture just post in cellar, it’s guaranteed to keep away all rats, mice and other vermin.” He would eventually log more than 4,000 hours of flight time, and cover some 413,000 miles. NASM (SI 75-7024)
On August 6, 1918, pioneers of the airmail came together at the Standard Aero Corporation factory in Elizabeth, New Jersey, where the six JR-1B aircraft that would begin the service were manufactured. Otto Praeger (second from left), the second assistant postmaster general, has been called “the father of airmail.” He hired engineer Benjamin Lipsner (fourth from right) to run the operations. Lipsner in turn hired four pilots and one reserve pilot. From right, the first four civilian pilots: Robert Shank, Max Miller (killed in a crash in September 1920), Maurice Newton, and Edward Gardner (to Lipsner’s right). NASM SI-83-8168
U.S. Airmail flights begin. On May 15, 1918, Army Lieutenant James C. Edgerton, having received a parcel of mail flown from New York, takes off from Bustleton Field in Philadelphia toward Washington, D.C. NASM (SI-A-38903-4)
Second Lieutenant George Boyle (right) thought he’d scored a coup when he learned he was assigned to fly the mail out of Washington, D.C. on the first day of service. Unfortunately, the rookie got lost twice during his attempt to fly from Washington, D.C. to Philadelphia, the route’s halfway point. “The Atlantic Ocean and lack of gas prevent him going further,” noted Major Reuben Fleet (left), who was assigned the task of setting up the first regularly scheduled airmail service. Here, Major Fleet and Lieutenant Boyle review a map of their flight route on the Polo Grounds in Washington, May 15, 1918. NASM (00138840)
When de Havilland DH-4s first flew mail across the country, the mail sacks would have to be transferred to a train to keep the mail moving at night. By 1923, mail was transferred to another DH-4, which could follow a lighted airway from Chicago to Omaha, Nebraska, where this photograph was taken. NASM (SI-75-7026)
An unidentified clerk at the Fort Crook landing field in Omaha, Nebraska, poses with a dispatch board listing the stops on the Chicago, Illinois to Cheyenne, Wyoming, airmail run. Airmail movements were tracked by moving cardboard disks with pilots’ names and airplane’s numbers. NASM (SI-91-7061)
Mechanics who serviced the DH-4s (one in the hangar in background) were sometimes blamed for the inadequacies of the Liberty engines that powered them. This group worked at the Fort Crook airfield, in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1928, after the Post Office had handed off the mail to contract carriers. NASM (SI-91-7029)
Between January 1922 and June 1927, airmail pilots flew more than 14 million miles, delivering more than 250 million letters. National Air Transport flew Boeing 40s, and was one of the first companies to form in 1925 after legislation authorized the government to award contracts for airmail delivery. NASM (SI-89-12166)
Charles Lindbergh was one of three pilots who flew for the St. Louis-based Robertson Aircraft Corporation, which won the contract to fly mail between St. Louis and Chicago in 1926. Possibly because Lindbergh crashed two of the company’s four airplanes—bailing out once because his engine quit and a second time after a snowstorm kept him from landing and he ran out of gas—Robertson sold its operations to a company that eventually became American Airlines. NASM (SI-78-12207)
James “Jack” Knight (left) was one of the best-known airmail pilots, making a heroic night flight from Omaha, Nebraska, to Chicago, Illinois, on February 23, 1921. At the conclusion of his epic journey, Knight told the New York Times “I feel fine, except that I need some eats and some sleep.” Other pilots weren’t so sanguine. Clarence Lange would briefly quit the Air Mail Service, reporting shattered nerves due to the strain of night flying. Knight and Lange are shown here modeling winter flying clothing issued by the government in January 1922. NASM (SI-83-8165)
Pilot Eugene Johnson lands in Hazelhurst, New York, carrying mail from the West Coast, in the first transcontinental air mail flight on August 22, 1923. Coast-to-coast flying was made possible only with the advent of night flying. As the Los Angeles Times breathlessly reported in 1923, “The line of lights by which the night transit of the airplanes between Chicago and Cheyenne is guided appeals to the imagination as well as to practical instincts…. This chain of glittering points seems to have a mystical significance. It may be regarded as typical of the light of science, showing the way to mankind in his flight against time and distance.” NASM (SI-A-32904-M)
Addison Pemberton's Boeing 40C (background) and Larry Tobin's 1927 Stearman C3B biplane are two of the three airplanes that will retrace the 1920s cross-country airmail route in September 2008. George Perks
The planned route for the 2008 transcontinental mail flight:
Sept. 10 – Depart New York Republic field (FRG) 9:30AM. Arrive Belafonte, PA. (N96) late morning. Depart and arrive Cleveland (BKL) late afternoon, early evening. Overnight stop.
Sept. 11 – Depart Cleveland (BKL) 9:30AM. Arrive late morning Bryan, Ohio (OG6). Depart and arrive Chicago Lansing Airport (IGQ) late afternoon. Arrive early evening Iowa City (IOW) Overnight stop.
Sept. 12 – Depart Iowa City 9:30AM. Arrive Omaha, NB (OMA) late morning. Depart and arrive North Platt NB(LBF) late afternoon. Overnight stop.
Sept.13 – Depart North Platt, NB 9:30AM. Arrive late morning Cheyenne, WY (CYS) Depart and arrive mid afternoon Rawlins, WY (RWL). Depart and arrive Rock Springs, WY (RKS) early evening. Overnight stop.
Sept.14 – Arrive late morning Salt Lake # 2 (U42). Depart and arrive Elko, NV (EKO) late afternoon. Depart and arrive Reno, NV (RNO) early evening. Overnight stop.
Sept. 15 – Depart Reno, NV 9:30AM. Depart and arrive Hayward, CA (HWD) late morning. Depart Hayward, CA mid day for SFO or Chrissy Field to be determined and return to Hayward, CA. R. Davies
Working on the Boeing 40C in Pemberton's shop in Spokane, Washington. Ryan Pemberton
Ben Scott's 1930 Stearman 4E Speedmail. George Perks
The Boeing 40C as it looked during construction in April 2007. Ryan Pemberton
Left: Pilot Grant Donaldson shakes Bill Boeing's hand while standing on the wheel of his Boeing 40C in 1928. Right: Same airplane, 80 years later, with pilot Addison Pemberton shaking Bill Boeing, Jr.'s hand. George Perks
Pemberton takes the Boeing 40C on a test flight in February 20008. George Perks

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