The Route: Cleveland to Iowa City

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

Aerial view of an airmail light beacon tower, somewhere along the New York to Chicago route, in the mid-1920s. NASM (SI-78-12216)

U. S. Air Mail Service
Pilots’ Directions (February 1921)

Cleveland to Chicago

0.      Martin Field, Cleveland—Fly a little west of south for nearly 10 miles or about seven minutes flying and then due west, thus keeping over good emergency landing fields. The country between Cleveland and Chicago is divided into sections, section lines running due north and south and east and west. For the first 15 miles the lake shore is only a few miles north of the course.

20.    Elyria, Ohio—Five miles south of course. Five railroads radiate out of Elyria.

37.    Vermilion—Two miles north of the course. On Lake Erie. The New York Central Railroad follows the shore line of the lake from Vermilion to Sandusky.

55.    Sandusky—Five miles north of the course on Sandusky Bay, a large irregular body of water crossed by the New York Central Railroad. Continues due west from this point, following the east-west section lines.

112.    Maumee River, which you cross about 5 miles northeast of Grand Rapids and 5 miles south of Waterville. Waterville is on the east bank of the Maumee and Grand Rapids is on the south bank of the river where it turns east and parallels the course for 7 miles.

130.    Detroit, Toledo & Ironton Railroad, crossed at right angles. Wausen is 7 miles north of the course and Napoleon is 5 miles south, both on the above-mentioned railroad. By flying about 11 miles north from the point where the Maumee River is crossed and then due west the New York Central four-track railroad will be picked up just before reaching Bryan.

152.    Bryan is located on the south side of the New York Central tracks, where they are crossed by the Chicago & North Western and Northern Railroads. Landing field with hangar and T cinder runway is north of town. Field is two-way, 2,000 feet east and west. Best approach from the east.

172.    Hamilton—Two miles north of course and 4 miles north of Bryan. On the extreme south end of irregular-shaped lake. The Wabash Railroad runs to the south of Hamilton. By keeping the Wabash Railroad in sight for the next 125 miles, you will come in sight of Lake Michigan.

196.    Walcottville—At the intersection of the Wabash and Grand Rapids & Indiana Railroads.

220.    Goshen, Ind.—Three miles north of course. The Chicago & St. Louis Railroad is crossed at right angles 3 miles south and 1 mile east of Goshen.

243.    South Bend, Ind.—Seven miles north of course. The Chicago & St. Louis Railroad is crossed at right angles 7 miles south of South Bend.

265.    La Porte, Ind.—One mile north of course. The New York Central Railroad running east from La Porte parallels the course to the lower edge of Lake Michigan.

289.    Crisman, Ind.—Coaling station with large black coal chute north side of track; has also large race track with course 3 ½ miles north and 1 ½ miles east. Baltimore & Ohio Railroad crosses Wabash at Crisman. Leaving Crisman fly westerly, following shore of the lake, but keeping about 10 miles from waters edge to insure safe emergency landing.

314.    Lake Calumet—Largest and most westerly of three lakes. From northern extremity of Lake Calumet fly northwest on compass course of 315˚ Ashburn Field comes into view to the west and a large gas reservoir to the east. A large drainage canal will be seen ahead. To your left, where the Des Plaines River enters the drainage canal, the canal makes a 45˚ turn to the south. Follow the Des Plaines River for about 10 miles and you will see a large hospital and old race track. This is the speedway and adjoins the air-mail field on the west.

330.    Chicago air-mail field or Checkerboard field.—Three large air-mail hangars in southwest corner of field and private hangar in northeast corner. Four-way field, but best approach from the south. Telephone and high-tension wires to west and wires and trees to east of field. Land on large cinder runways. Sewage-disposal plant with excavations on west side of field. Landing area of this field large and ample. Telegraph and post-office address of this is Maywood, Ill. Field is 14 miles west of Chicago post office.

Chicago to Iowa City

0.    Maywood, Ill.—Checkerboard field. Fly directly west, picking up the third railroad to the north of the field. This is the Chicago & North Western. By keeping on the section lines and flying directly west this railroad can be kept in sight at all times until Iowa City is reached. It has white ballast and is doubled-tracked.

14.    Wheaton—Directly on course. Town rests in elongated U formed by Chicago & North Western Railroad. Water tower serves as a landmark.

24.    Geneva on the Fox River—One mile north of course. Two branches of the Chicago & North Western cross each other here at right angles.

84.    Dixon—Three miles north of course on Rock River.

96.    Twin Cities of Stirling and Rock Falls—One on each side of the Rock River.

130.    Mississippi River—The Mississippi River should be crossed about 6 miles below Clinton, Iowa, which is on the west bank of the Mississippi. Flying in the same direction, the Wapsipinacan [Wapsipinicon] River will show up soon after crossing the Mississippi. The Wapsipinacan empties into the Mississippi a few miles south of the course. Fly in the same general direction with this river in view for 24 miles. The Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific runs in the same general direction as this river and is never more than 3 miles from it until Dixon, Iowa, is reached.

154.    Dixon, Iowa—One mile north of the course and 1 mile west of the    Wapsipinacan River, which turns north at this point. Dixon lies between the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific and the C. N. W. & St. P., which cross about 1 mile east of Dixon.

173.    Tipton, Iowa—Five miles north of the course. Soon after Tipton is reached, Cedar Rapids will be crossed. The Cedar River flows southeast at this point.

191.    Iowa City, Iowa—On the eastern bank of the Iowa River. The Chicago Rock Island & Pacific has four lines running out of Iowa City. The air-mail field is south of town and on the western bank of the river. The field is small and is longer 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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