The Father of Airmail Looks Back

On the 20th anniversary of airmail service, three key players recalled the early days.

From left to right, Airmail Pilot Robert Shank; Dr. Julius Juhlin, postmaster general of Sweden; and Second Assistant Postmaster General Otto Praeger pose for a photograph at the Washington, D.C., airfield in College Park, Maryland, on March 8, 1919.

In May 1938, the United States celebrated National Air Mail Week, a campaign promoted by postmaster general James A. Farley. The festivities included essay and poster contests, and each American town was invited to create a cachet (a commemorative design or slogan) that would be printed on envelopes mailed on May 19, the highlight of the celebration.

During the weeklong commemoration, many of the figures associated with early airmail service were interviewed in print and on the radio. Following is a transcript from an interview broadcast on KFSD, a San Diego, California, radio station. Featured is Otto Praeger, the assistant postmaster general; Major Reuben Fleet, the first operations manager of the airmail service; and Edward Havens, one of the first airmail mechanics.

Radio Station KFSD—8:15 p.m., Wednesday, May 18, 1938.

Interview with Mr. Otto Praeger, Major Reuben H. Fleet and Mr. Ed Havens, in regard to early air mail, by Tom Bomar, manager aviation department, San Diego Chamber of Commerce.

Bomar:  This is National Air Mail Week, celebrating the 20th Anniversary of air mail service in the United States. We have here in the studio off KFSD tonight three residents of San Diego who were the leaders in the establishment of the original air mail service 20 years ago. These men are Mr. Otto Praeger, Assistant Postmaster General in charge of the first air mail, Major Reuben H. Fleet, first operations manager of the air mail service and now president of Consolidated Aircraft Corporation, and Mr. Edward D. Havens, one of the first mechanics in the air mail service and now a civilian employee of the Naval Air Station at North Island. I am going to ask these gentlemen to tell you about those early days of air mail. Mr. Praeger, what were your instructions in establishing the air mail service?

Praeger:  When Postmaster General Albert Sidney Burleson assigned to me the task of organizing and operating the U.S. air mail he added the specific instruction that the air  mail once started must not stop, but must be constantly improved and expanded until it would become, like the steamship and the railroad, a permanent transportation feature of the postal service. And so it was with this in mind that we began organizing the service early in 1918. Postal air fields were promptly established, the personnel selected, the equipment bought, the date for the opening set for May 15—and the air mail was off.

Bomar:  Was it really as easy as that?

Praeger:  Well, the job was hardly easy. While the pioneer pilots, with many hours of successful flying to their credit, felt that the airplanes could be flown successfully on schedule, there was a rather general feeling that aviation was not yet sufficiently advanced to maintain mail schedules by airplanes. Strangely enough, some well known aircraft manufacturers themselves doubted the advisability of embarking upon a regular air mail service, and a number of them came to Washington to urge me not to undertake the project. However, with a staff of some of the best civilian flyers and thoroughly competent mechanics at our command, we went ahead with the preparations for the service.

Bomar:  Wait a minute, Mr. Praeger. I thought you began with Army pilots.

Praeger:  True. At this point the United States Army stepped into the picture with the suggestion that air mail flying would fit in excellently with its training program and it offered to operate the service without cost to the Post Office Department during the period of the war. This was gratefully agreed to, but soon the Army had a change of heart, and a Colonel in the Air Service called upon me to urge the Department to give up the idea of operating an air mail, citing the usual line of objections set forth by doubters. The Colonel was not so certain that he could dissuade the Post Office Department from starting the air mail, for he brought with him a Major of the Air Service, young, unusually capable, and full of pep. And that is where Major Reuben H. Fleet, now President of the Consolidated Aircraft Corporation of San Diego, entered the picture of the air mail. The Colonel, seeing that the Post Office Department would not change its intentions, turned sharply to Major Fleet and said, “All right, Major, it’s your baby,” and left the room. The Postmaster General officially designated Major Fleet as Superintendent of Air Mail Service. With great energy he organized his staff and assembled his equipment, and with military precision started the actual flying operations of the Air Mail promptly on the hour set on May 15, 1918.

I might add that the Army operated the Air Mail for three months, and then turned it back to the Post Office Department as a smooth running service between Washington and New York.

Bomar:  After the Air Mail got started, how did it fare? How did it develop; how did the public take to it?

Praeger:  In the beginning, every city wanted the Air Mail service, but educating the communities to pay a higher rate of postage for Air Mail than ordinary mail, was somewhat difficult. However, the Air Mail was such a flying success and the possible expedition of the mail over long distances was so evident, that before the first year was out the Postmaster General authorized extension of the Washington—New York line into a trans-continental air route. The second lap in the service was from New York to Chicago, the third, Chicago to Omaha, and finally, in the summer of 1920 the service was completed to San Francisco.

Bomar:  But that was all daylight flying, was it not?

Praeger:  Yes. The Air Mail was carried by airplane in the daytime and at the end of each day it was transferred to the night trains, to be taken off again early next day by the mail plane. Of course, the Department realized that night flying was necessary to round out the service which the airplane could render for expedition of the mails. So, while the mail was being operated by daylight flying, extensive experiments were being made on night flying, and finally on February 22, 1921, the first experimental day and night through flight between New York and San Francisco was made in a little over 33 hours elapsed time.

Bomar:  I take it that the Air Mail operation was not without its thrills.

Praeger:  Mr. Bomar, in those early days, operating the United States transcontinental Air Mail with discarded war planes, day in and day out, winter and summer, was in fact a succession of thrills. The devotion to duty, and the great personal courage of the individual flyers, was what put the Air Mail service over. Captain Jack Knight’s exploit on the first day and night trip, when he carried the mail through snow and storm during the night is a classic that pilots still talk about, and that is only one of the many tales of our postal pilots, involving forced landings in mountain fastnesses and bringing the mails, sometimes after accidents, safely overland to the nearest habitation. And so, true to the best traditions of the postal service, the Air Mail sped on its way, day after day and year after year, and this week the nation is celebrating the twenty years of its unbroken operation in fulfillment of Postmaster General Burleson’s first instruction that the Air Mail once started must never stop, but must be developed to the fullest possibility of mechanical flight.

Bomar:  Thank you, Mr. Praeger. That was most interesting. And now let me introduce Mr. Ed Havens of La Mesa who holds Pass #72 of the Aerial Mail service dated December 14, 1918. Ed Havens has the somewhat dubious distinction of having participated in the first non-stop delivery of mail from airplane to ground. What about it, Mr. Havens?

Havens:  There were many amusing incidents in those early days of the air mail, such as the case of W.L. Smith, who took off one morning from Washington with the mail, for Newark. He never reached Newark and was not heard from for 24 hours. We assumed he had cracked up en route until we received a telegram from him up in Connecticut saying, “I over-shot the field.” But you asked about the non-stop delivery. Well, Pop Stephens and I were detailed to fly a pouch of mail and a carton of eggs on the plaza in front of the Washington Post Office. I was to hang out on the wing of the plane and release the parachute when the pilot gave me the signal. The collar of my leather coat kept swatting me in the face and I was hanging on the wing with one arm and holding the parachute with the other, so that I missed the pilot’s signal. The result was that our pouch was released too late and landed several blocks from the Post Office plaza. I am afraid our demonstration was not very successful.

Bomar:  I suppose your job of repairing engines and planes in those early days was a lot different from the present?

Havens:  I’ll say it was. In the first place the engines were mostly Liberties and repairs to engines and planes were required much more frequently than they are with modern equipment. We had a real job on our hands keeping the air mail equipment mechanically perfect in those days.

Bomar:  Thanks, Mr. Havens. I wish we had time for you to tell some more of those interesting anecdotes of the early days. But I want to call on Major Reuben Fleet, president of San Diego’s leading industry, Consolidated Aircraft Corporation. Major Fleet, you were loaned by the Army Air Corps for the purpose of organizing the air mail service at the request of Mr. Praeger, were you not?

Fleet:  Yes, Tom, I was, and I want to say that the success of the air mail in its early days was due almost entirely to the dynamic personality and the determination of Otto Praeger. Every possible stumbling block was placed in his way to prevent him from starting air mail service. The reason the Army volunteered its personnel for this job was that the Air Corps saw an opportunity to secure very useful training for its pilots in carrying mail cross country, day by day.

Bomar:  Your pilots then for this first service were all Army officers, weren’t they?

Fleet:  Yes. Our first flight was on May 15, 1918. All of the dignitaries of Washington, headed by President Woodrow Wilson and Postmaster General Albert Burleson, were there for the occasion. Lieutenant George Boyle, the pilot of the plane leaving Washington, was in the air about 20 minutes when he became lost and decided to land and get his bearings. He picked a rough field and in landing, nosed over and broke his propeller. So the northbound flight ended at a little town in Maryland thirty miles north of Washington.

At the same time, Lieutenant LeRoy H. Webb, a Californian, took off from the old Belmont racetrack on Long Island and headed south. One hour and twenty minutes later he made a perfect landing at Philadelphia, having traveled 90 miles. That was the first successful scheduled air mail flight.

The mail was transferred from Lieutenant Webb’s plane to that of Lieutenant J.C. Edgerton, who then took off for Washington, 128 miles south. Edgerton really had a tough job. The weather was pretty bad, and in those days pilots flew entirely by visual navigation, that is you spotted a railroad and followed the track. If you ran into a bank of fog you started looking for a place to land pronto. You just had to be good or you didn’t get there. Well, Lieutenant Edgerton roared into Washington one hour and forty minutes after leaving Philadelphia, and the first successful air mail flight on a scheduled regular route had been completed. That was at 4 p.m. on May 15, 1918. And that was only 20 years ago. Today, our modern transports are carrying mail, passengers and express in ever increasing quantities to all parts of the world, over land and sea. Larger and faster and more comfortable planes, improved communication systems, and many other developments have resulted in making air transportation the safest, fastest, most economical and most comfortable means of travel.

Flights of the type of Lindbergh’s have demonstrated the reliability of aerial equipment; increasing familiarity with airplanes has broken down the natural fear of people for anything new; but it is my opinion that the air mail service, during the past 20 years, has been the main vital factor in bringing air transport to its present stage of development throughout the world. And I am happy to pay tribute to Otto Praeger, the father of air mail and to Ed Havens, one of the first men charged with the responsibility of keeping air mail planes mechanically fit to fly and to Jack Knight, the pioneer night flier and to the many others who have devoted their energies and in many cases their lives, that the air mail might go through.

Bomar:  Thank you Major Fleet, I am sure we all agree with you, and on behalf of our radio audience and the Aviation Committee of the Chamber of Commerce, I wish to express sincere appreciation to you and Mr. Praeger and Mr. Havens for coming up here this evening and participating in this program.


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