Mavericks of the SkyMavericks of the Sky
by Barry Rosenberg & Catherine Macaulay

I breezed through this book in a weekend. The story of the first few years of the U.S. Airmail Service, it’s full of action and adventure — and frequent comedy. The thought that crossed my mind more than once as I read was — “They ought to turn this into a movie.”

In 1917, the U.S. entered WWI with an air force that was still new and untried. But then, aviation itself as a field was barely over a decade old at that point. Planes, engines, and piloting skills were all going through a period of rapid experimentation and development. Everyone was working through a steep learning curve.

Flying the mail originated not in a particular demand for faster mail delivery, but from a crying need to develop pilots’ skills at cross-country flying. The first chapter of the book lays out the problem succinctly:

The country had been at war for just over a year and already dozens of flyers had been killed. … The problem had less to do with the superior dogfighting skills of aces like Baron Manfred von Richthoven than with the fact that the airmen were simply getting lost. With only a rudimentary compass to navigate by, and facing unfamiliar enemy terrain beneath their wings, they were unable to find their way back to base and eventually ran out of fuel and crashed. They were proficient with stick and rudder, but they lacked the ABC’s of cross-country flying.

Between them, the Army and the Post Office came up with a novel solution to the problem:

Beginning May 15, 1918, pilots of the U.S. Army Signal Corps would begin delivering Uncle Sam’s mail in order to gain firsthand experience in the art of navigation. Contact flying — that’s what pilots needed, experience at flying over long stretches of unfamiliar territory. And now, with the help of the U.S. Post Office Department, they were about to be given that skill by flying the mail 218 miles between New York and Washington. The idea was to put a green Army pilot on the mail run for a couple months and give him experience at flying from city to city without slamming into a mountain or riding into a thunderstorm. Theoretically, he’d then be ready to be shipped off to the front. 

From the day this plan was dropped into the lap of Major Reuben Fleet until the day he was expected to pull off the first scheduled mail run in front of an assortment of dignitaries, including the President, was a mere nine days. In barely over a week, Fleet was expected to get a whole new program up and running, from scratch to fully functional. It was an unreasonable expectation, but somehow it had to be done.

First, three airfields had to be found and prepped — one at each endpoint in New York and Washington, and one at the midway point in the relay. Major Fleet easily found an open pasture in Pennsylvania for the mid-point, and arranged to use the grassy infield of Belmont Racetrack for the New York terminus. But the Washington airfield was chosen for him. It was a small picnic ground near the Lincoln Memorial, for the convenience of President Wilson and the dignitaries. It was a dinky space hemmed in by trees — with one tree right smack in the middle of the landing space. Major Fleet argued in vain. Overruled. The best he could manage was to have that tree in the middle of the runway surreptitiously cut down one night.

Six pilots were needed for the first run, four to fly the four legs of the mail relay, and two back-ups. Of the six, two were the kind of inexperienced pilots that the program was intended to nurture. But with the eyes of the President on this first run, Fleet had hoped to use the four more experienced pilots that first day, saving the rookies for future flights with less publicity. Again, overruled. The two new pilots were connected to important men in Washington, and they were to have the honor of being part of this first run. They were sure they could do it. Major Fleet crossed his fingers and hoped for the best.

Meanwhile, the planes had been purchased on a rush order — Curtiss Jennies equipped with new powerful engines for long-distance cargo hauling. To everyone’s frustration, they were not delivered until two nights before they were to fly. And they were delivered in crates on trucks, unassembled, with missing and broken parts, and maddeningly confusing assembly instructions. “Fleet’s team had only eighteen hours to uncrate, assemble, service, tune, and flight-check each aircraft. Like so many frantic parents trying to assemble their children’s toys on Christmas Eve, Fleet’s crew began a long night’s struggle to piece together the half-dozen aircraft.” It was a mad race against the clock to have flyable planes by the next day, so there would be time to ferry three of them to Washington and Pennsylvania and get them into position.

After an all-night plane-assembly session in New York, only three of the planes were ready to fly. Four were necessary to complete the relay. With no time to lose, Fleet himself undertook to make the longest preparatory flight, ferrying one plane to the Washington terminus where it would be ready for the return run. The other two planes, in the hands of two of the relay pilots, set out for Pennsylvania. The fourth plane was still under construction, hopefully to be ready in time for the takeoff from Belmont Racetrack.

Fleet and the other two pilots flew through a pea-soup fog out of New York, struggling to reach the Pennsylvania airfield before darkness. Early the next morning, Fleet took off for Washington, arriving just in time to greet the arriving dignitaries and to give instructions to the rookie pilot who would fly this first leg of the relay. To everyone’s relief, they had word that the fourth plane had made it to Belmont and was ready for takeoff. The postal truck loaded the mail onto the Jenny, making special ceremonial flourishes over a letter added to the mailbag by the president.

So far, so good. Until the moment of takeoff, that is. The Jenny was out of fuel, after Fleet’s morning trip from Pennsylvania. A supply of fuel had been ordered to be ready and waiting, but the Lieutenant who had been delegated that job had neglected to get it done. Amidst much fury and embarrassment, hasty improvisation was the only option. After using a hose to siphon gas out of another nearby gas tank, the plane finally got off the ground.

Unfortunately, the rookie pilot promptly got lost. He went 30 miles the wrong way before making a rough landing in a freshly plowed field. By the time the word of this predicament got to the transfer point in Pennsylvania, the second leg of the relay was already late for takeoff. With not a scrap of mail in his plane, the second pilot in the relay took off anyway, knowing that there was a crowd waiting at Belmont Racetrack who expected to see the plane arrive. He flew in to cheers and applause. “Who cared that President Wilson’s letter and all the other mail from Washington was lying upside down in a Maryland field? It was the feat being honored.”

The Long Island Railroad had brought the mailbags from New York out to Belmont. They were loaded into the waiting plane with lengthy speeches by assorted officials, and the pilot took off. This leg of the relay went perfectly. The pilot reached the hand-off point in Pennsylvania, transferred the postal cargo, and saw the final leg of the relay take off six minutes later. The final pilot was one of the two rookies, but unlike the other, he did not embarrass himself by getting lost. Squeaking past the encircling trees and the crowds on the field, he brought his plane in for a safe landing at the Washington picnic ground and actually delivered the first sacks of airmail to make it to their destination.

All of this excitement happens in just the first three chapters of the book. Take my word for it — the rest of the book is just as action-packed, and if I were to describe it all, this blog post would be far longer than it already is. As we watch the struggles of the airmail service to expand routes across the country, we meet all the daring pilots who learned by dangerous experience how to fly over mountains, how to fly at night, how to fly in fog and rain and wind and snow, how to find landmarks and create useful flight maps. Cross-country aviation was a death-defying job in those days, and the number of pilots killed in action in the mail service reminds the reader shockingly that the mail service was not any safer than wartime flying.

By the time the airmail service was separated from its origins as a military adjunct, standing on its own as a division of the post office, it had come a long way from its shaky start. Planes were flying across the Appalachians and the Rockies, carrying mail from coast to coast. And rarely losing either the mail or the pilots anymore, thanks to everything that had been learned by the hard experience of those early airmail pilots.