The Route: Iowa City to North Platte

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

DH-4 mailplanes at Fort Crook airfield, Omaha, Nebraska, in the mid-1920s. NASM (SI-89-12152)

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

Iowa City to Omaha

Miles from Chicago

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.

215.    Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway.

233.    Chicago & North Western Railway.

240.    Montezuma—Directly on course on Minneapolis & St. Louis Railway.

249.    Minneapolis & St. Louis Railway.

253.    Minneapolis & St. Louis Railway.—Short line.

255.         Minneapolis & St. Louis Railway.

271.    Monroe—Slightly south of course on Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad. Three lines out of this town.

296.    Des Moines—Five miles north of course. Largest city near course between Iowa City and Omaha. Keep the Raccoon River in sight until about 18 miles out. From here on keep the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific in sight. This railroad follows the direction of the Raccoon River for this distance. The Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific is 2 to 7 miles north of the course.

368.    Atlantic, Iowa—Three miles north of the course on the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railway. At Atlantic the railroads branch in five directions. If on the course at this point, that is, 3 miles south of Atlantic, fly nearly due west until Council Bluffs is seen.

413.    Council Bluffs, Iowa—Five miles east of the Missouri River.

418.    Missouri River, which is very irregular in its course and width at this point.

424.    Omaha, Nebr.—Field is west of city and can be identified by large hangar with white circle and cross on roof. North of field is large race track and grandstand. There are two good approaches, from north and west.

Omaha to North Platte


0.    Omaha, Nebr.—The air mail field is on the western outskirts of the city, and is 5 miles west of the Missouri River. The field is rectangular, the long way of the rectangle being east and west. On the north side of the field is a long grand stand facing northward and extending east and west. To the north of the grand stand is a large field with an elliptical race track in it This race track is an excellent landmark, and the oval may be used for landing if necessary. The west side of the mail field is bounded by a brook, a few trees, and a railroad track. On the south the field is bounded by a paved road which ends to the eastward at the Missouri River. This same road runs due west for several miles beyond the mail field. On the south side of the field are some high trees and a few telephone poles. A private hangar is situated across the road from the air mail field with the word “Airdrome” painted on the roof. The air mail hangar is located in the southeast corner of the field. The east side of the field is bounded by two steel wireless towers and a hill covered with high trees. From the northwest is the best approach, although landings can be made from any direction if made into the wind.

20.    The Platte River is crossed at right angles by flying due west from the Omaha field. By noting section lines the pilot can determine the correct compass course correcting for drift, as North Platte and Cheyenne are almost due west of Omaha. For a distance of 70 miles the Platte River is north of the course never at a greater distance than 10 miles. The Platte River should be crossed between two bridges, one 2 miles north and the other 2 miles south of the course.

21.    Yutan—Directly on the course 1 mile west of the Platte River, 5 lines of railroads form a junction at this point.

33.    Wahoo—A fair-sized town 3 miles south of the course. Six railroads radiate from Wahoo. An excellent emergency landing field is located one-half mile south of Wahoo; a smooth barley field approximately 1 mile long and a quarter of a mile wide. By noting section lines and flying 25 miles west for each mile south, a direct course may be maintained.

59.    David City—A quarter of a mile north of the course. Six railroads radiate from this city also.

82.    Osceola—Four miles south of the course. The Union Pacific tracks almost parallel the course from David City to Osceola, where they turn to the southward. Osceola may be identified by a mile race track just south of the town.

96.    The Platte River is crossed again and runs southwestward. The Union Pacific Railroad is crossed just beyond the Platte River a half a mile north of the small town of Clarks. Twelve miles southwest is Central City on the Union Pacific Railroad. This city is 7 miles south of the course. Central City is directly east of North Platte. If the pilot passes directly over this city, the east-west section lines can be followed directly into North Platte. Thirty-five miles southwest of Clarks is Grand Island in a direct line with Central City. Grand Island is 20 miles south of the course. At Grand Island there is a commercial flying field where supplies of oil and gas may be purchased.

132. St. Paul, directly on the course.—Ten miles east of St. Paul one branch of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad runs directly west to St. Paul and lies on the course. Five railroads radiate out of St. Paul. The Middle Loup River is crossed 1 mile east of St. Paul.

161.    Loup City—Is 5 miles north of the course on the east bank of Middle Loup River, which is crossed almost due south of Loup City. The Union Pacific Railroad paralleling the river is crossed 1 mile east of the river.

176.     The Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad tracks following a tiny stream are crossed. The railroad runs northwest-southeast at this point.

183.    Mason City—On the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad; is 2 miles north of the course.

216.    The Union Pacific Railroad, running northeast-southwest, is crossed midway between Lodi and Oconto; Lodi to the north and Oconto to the south. A small creek runs through Oconto which distinguishes it from Lodi.

248.    North Platte—After crossing the Union Pacific Railroad no distinguishing landmarks are available, but flying west the Platte River will be seen to the south, gradually getting nearer to the course. The city of North Platte is located at the junction of the north and south branches of the Platte River. The field is located on the east bank of the north branch about 2 ½ miles east of the town, just 100 yards south of the Lincoln Highway Bridge. Another bridge, the Union Pacific Railroad bridge, crosses the stream a mile farther north. The field is triangular with the hangar at the apex of the triangle and on the bank of the river. The field, which is bounded on the southwest by the river bank and on the north side by a ditch, has an excellent turf covered surface always in a dry condition. The field is longer east and west and the best approach is from the end away from the hangar. Cross field landings should not be attempted near the hangar, as the field is narrow at this point. The altitude of North Platte is 2,800 feet or about 2,000 feet higher than the Omaha field.

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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