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FreightWaves Classics: “Aerial newsboy” was a pioneering pilot

On January 7, 1911, the first bulk delivery of newspapers via an airplane occurred in California. This took place just over seven years after the Wright Brothers’ made aviation history during their pioneering flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Orville and Wilbur Wright were the first to successfully fly an airplane on December 17, 1903. 
(Photo: biograpy.com)
Orville and Wilbur Wright were the first to successfully fly an airplane on December 17, 1903.
(Photo: biograpy.com)

Background

Didier Masson (February 23, 1886 – June 2, 1950) was also a pioneering aviator who was born in Asnières, France. 

After serving in the French Army, Masson was hired as a mechanic by Louis Paulhan, another French aviator. In 1910 Paulhan won the very first Daily Mail aviation prize for the first flight between London and Manchester, England.

Later in 1910 Paulhan and Masson traveled to the United States to make a barnstorming tour of the country. The two appeared at an air meet in Boston on August 19, 1910. With Paulhan’s help, Masson continued to accumulate both solo and dual flight time even though he did not have enough money to purchase his own airplane.

Miss E. L. Todd in her plane with Didier Masson in 1910.
Photo: Collection of Dean Unger/earlyaviators.com)
Miss E. L. Todd in her plane with Didier Masson in 1910.
Photo: Collection of Dean Unger/earlyaviators.com)

In early November, at Garden City, New York, Masson successfully test-hopped a biplane built by aviation pioneer E. Lillian Todd. She had designed and built a biplane, but had difficulty finding a motor to power her aircraft. A modified Rinek motor was found and mounted. 

Masson taxied the airplane across the ground, then went to the air for 20 feet, made a turn at the far end of the field and returned to his starting spot, where he was enthusiastically received by Miss Todd and the crowd.

Delivering newspapers

By the beginning of the second decade of the 20th century, there were more airplanes than ever before, but they were still fragile machines whose engines produced very little horsepower (which meant that these fragile aircraft were not capable of carrying very much weight).

Masson arrived in Los Angeles in late 1910; and in January 1911, he set out to “simultaneously be the first aviator to deliver newspapers by air and to set a world’s nonstop distance record in the process.” His flight was projected to take one hour and 45 minutes; he planned to carry several bundles of the Los Angeles Times north to San Bernardino, stopping in Pomona to unload some of the newspapers and then reaching San Bernardino by 10:00 a.m. to deliver the remaining newspapers. 

However, the flight did not go exactly as planned. At 7:05 a.m. on January 7, 1911, Masson took off from Los Angeles. The newspaper bundles were strapped to the wings of his Curtiss-Farman biplane, which was nicknamed “Pegasus.” 

This San Bernardino Sun newspaper photo from Jan. 5, 1911, shows aviator Didier Masson at the controls of the Curtiss biplane that he named Pegasus. Note the stacks of newspapers drawn in by the newspaper to promote Masson’s upcoming flight from Los Angeles to San Bernardino, that would become the world’s first commercial delivery flight. (Photo: San Bernardino Sun)
This San Bernardino Sun newspaper photo from Jan. 5, 1911, shows aviator Didier Masson at the controls of the Curtiss biplane that he named Pegasus. Note the stacks of newspapers drawn in by the newspaper to promote Masson’s upcoming flight from Los Angeles to San Bernardino, that would become the world’s first commercial delivery flight. (Photo: San Bernardino Sun)

Unfortunately, Masson made a navigational error; he missed Pomona and was lost in the hills north of the town. He tried to get his bearings, “dodging canyons and cliffs while also dealing with strong winds.” Ultimately, Pegasus ran out of fuel and Masson had to make a forced landing. Although Masson was uninjured, one of the plane’s oil tubes broke.

It took time to contact his mechanic, who finally arrived to replace the damaged tube. After the repair and refueling, Masson took off and resumed his flight to San Bernardino. He arrived there at 12:40 p.m. (although his actual flight time was only about 80 minutes). 

He landed in the city’s Association Park and unpacked the newspapers he had brought with him. He subsequently spent time in the city, had lunch at the Elks Club and performed an impromptu aerobatics show.

Following that feat, the 24-year-old pilot was nicknamed the “Aerial Newsboy” by one newspaper. Later that month, Masson won a prize for amateur pilots at the Tanforan race track in San Francisco. He continued to fly in different areas of California, including an exhibition at Watsonville on May Day. He made enough money to buy two monoplanes.

Didier Masson holding the controls of an early airplane. 
(Photo: Collection of William Goltman/earlyaviators.com)
Didier Masson holding the controls of an early airplane.
(Photo: Collection of William Goltman/earlyaviators.com)

On to Hawaii

On June 3, Masson arrived in Honolulu (by ship), accompanied by Clarence H. Walker, Walker’s wife and Curtiss biplane. Walker staged a flying exhibition on June 11; the promoter lost money, although Walker was paid his $1,250 fee. 

On June 16, Masson’s monoplanes arrived by ship. At 6:11 a.m. on the morning of June 18, 1911, Masson took off on the first of 10 promised flights, from Leilehua to Kapiolani Park. He flew over Schofield Barracks to let U.S. Army officers see him. However, the return flight from Kapiolani Park at 1:30 p.m. did not go as smoothly. Even though the airplane was serviced after landing, it would not start, which angered spectators. As the group’s anger grew, Masson was saved from the crowd by local police and soldiers. Four days later, Masson crashed that same plane from an altitude of 100 feet. The airplane was destroyed, but Masson was uninjured.

Masson at the controls of an early biplane. (Photo: simanaitissays.com)
Masson at the controls of an early biplane. (Photo: simanaitissays.com)

O Canada!

A few months later (in October 1911), Masson was in Alberta, Canada. After several failed attempts, he succeeded in flying over Victoria Park on October 20. Spectators were thrilled by his flying exhibition, but when he was ready to land he had to buzz grazing horses to frighten them away so that he could land in their field. 

Near the end of October, Masson hoped to complete a Canadian record distance flight. He was going to follow a train from Edmonton to Calgary. A special train was assembled; it was full of spectators who had paid $20 each to watch Masson’s flight from the train cars. The weather was uncooperative; after several days of cold, windy and snowy weather, Masson finally took off. However, his fuel tank broke its mountings and dropped on his head. Although he was dazed in the accident, Masson landed safely.

Mexico is next

Masson was working as an instructor for the Martin Aircraft Company in California when he accepted a contract to become a mercenary soldier. Masson was hired by Mexican revolutionary leader Venustiano Carranza. He received “$5,000 as an airplane purchase fee, an allotment of $750 for equipment costs, $300 per month salary, $50 per flight for sorties flown in Mexico, and at least $250 for every bombing sortie flown.” Masson flew an airplane bought from Glenn Martin in 1912 and smuggled it into Mexico through Arizona. 

The name of the airplane was “Sonora.” It was capable of carrying two people, or one person and 150 pounds of bombs. After Masson made a reconnaissance flight over Guaymas Harbor, he and a member of Carranza’s group used the aircraft to attack Mexican gunboats for the first aerial bombing of a surface ship. (Some historians claim that this was the second aerial bombing…) On May 10, 1913, Masson and his “bombadier” flew over at least five Mexican gunboats and dropped four hand-made pipe bombs. All of the bombs missed, but the captains of the gunboats, realizing that they were defenseless from attacks by air, steamed out of Guaymas Harbor to safety. Masson also piloted an unknown number of follow-up bombing missions.

Didier Masson at the controls of a "bomber" used by Mexican revolutionaries. (Photo: m.facebook.com)
Didier Masson at the controls of a “bomber” used by Mexican revolutionaries. (Photo: m.facebook.com)

The following was originally published in Aviation History magazine: “Didier Masson sat in the pilot’s seat and warmed up his open biplane on a primitive runway in the hills of the Mexican state of Sonora. He was apprehensive over what was about to take place. A French citizen who had entered Mexico illegally from the United States, he was not concerned that he was about to become a participant in a revolution of a country in which he had no stake. Ideologies were no problem to a mercenary, and it was clearly Masson’s passion for flying, not his passion for the revolutionary cause, that had taken him to Mexico. His concern, instead, was that he knew very little about what his new flying assignment would demand of him in terms of skill, and even less about how much danger was involved.”

On August 5, Masson stopped flying for the Mexican revolutionaries and returned to the United States. He had not been paid in a month, and he did not want to bomb cities or towns in Mexico, which would like wound or kill innocent civilians. 

Masson in uniform. (Photo: Air Force Times)
Masson in uniform. (Photo: Air Force Times)

World War I

Didier Masson stands near a biplane during World War I. (Photo: findagrave.com)
Didier Masson stands near a biplane during World War I. (Photo: findagrave.com)

World War I began in August 1914. On September 8, 1914, Masson re-enlisted in his old unit. He was transferred to another unit for a brief period and then began military pilot training. He earned his Military Pilot’s Brevet on May 10, 1915. He was then assigned to Escadrille 18, which was operating airplanes named Caudrons. In September 1915, Masson received further training, learning to fly Nieuports. He was then forwarded to a Nieuport squadron in April 1916, and then began to instruct on April 16. He had this job for only two months and then was sent to the famed Lafayette Escadrille on June 16, 1916. Masson did not become an ace (five or more enemy aircraft downed), but he did shoot down his German opponent in a dogfight – after his Nieuport 17’s engine died. Afterward, he glided to safety near the French lines. 

A Pan American Clipper. (Photo: sfmuseum.org)
A Pan American Clipper. (Photo: sfmuseum.org)

Post-World War I

After the war ended in November 1918, Masson returned to Mexico and married. He worked as an airport manager for Pan American Airways in Central America. He also served as a French consular officer until the German invasion of France in 1940.

Didier Masson died in Mérida, Yucatan, Mexico, in June 1950 and is buried there.

Today, passengers and freight fly all over the globe in aircraft that are amazing machines. Didier Masson and other pilots and inventors helped make that possible.

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Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.