By the 1920s, much of the nation’s commerce was handled by mail via the U.S. Post Office. By the 2020s, much of the nation’s commerce is handled via the internet. As different as “snail mail” and the internet are, there are some similarities as well…
The U.S. postal system was established by the Second Continental Congress, and Benjamin Franklin was the first postmaster general. He established the foundation for many aspects of the nation’s mail system.
Airmail takes flight
Only a little more than a decade after the Wright brothers first flew their history-making but very rudimentary airplane, aircraft showed their ability to affect battles during World War I. Even before World War I ended (on November 11, 1918), the Post Office Department began the U.S. airmail service on August 12, 1918. Department officials purchased aircraft, hired pilots to fly them, and began mapping out airmail routes across the nation.
While it was not the reason that the Post Office created the U.S. Airmail Service, it nonetheless led to the development of commercial aviation. According to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Postal Museum, the funds the new industry received for carrying airmail “gave the airlines the capital and incentive to maintain and expand their routes and upgrade their services.”
In fact, if the “first commercial airlines had relied only on paying passengers, none would have survived its first year. In the early years, some carriers made 95% of their revenues from carrying the mail on contract airmail routes, known as CAMs.”
From 1918 to 1927, the Post Office Department “built and operated the nation’s airmail service, establishing routes, testing aircraft and training pilots. When the Department turned the service over to private contractors in 1927, the system was a point of national pride.” Therefore, it is not hyperbole to state that the United States Post Office Department “created the nation’s commercial aviation industry.”
What was the point of airmail? It is similar to today’s expedited shipping – to get a piece of mail or small parcel from one location to another as quickly as possible. Again, 100 years ago, the nation relied on the mail to do its business, and airmail made that business faster.
While airmail service was transferred to private contractors in 1927, the Post Office Department’s assistance did not end at that point in time. Both because of the size of airplanes in the 1920s and early 1930s and the prohibitive cost to fly, early passenger traffic was almost non-existent. It was the ongoing mail contracts that provided the financial security that underwrote and encouraged the growth of the nation’s commercial aviation system. The first “airlines” used revenue from airmail contracts to purchase the larger and safer airplanes that were being built, which encouraged the growth of early passenger traffic.
Air-to-ground transfer of mail
On June 15, 1928 the first successful aircraft-to-train transfer of mail took place near Belleville, in the southwestern part of Illinois. The exchange took place from a U.S. Army airship (also known as a dirigible) to an Illinois Central Railroad (IC) train.
The experimental delivery of mail in this manner was a joint effort of Colonel John A. Paegelow, who was the commanding officer of Scott Field (the Army aviation base Scott Field that was located near Belleville and is now Scott Air Force Base), and officials of the IC.
The U.S. War Department’s Air Corps News Letter explained the exchange in this way: “There was practically no advance preparation other than setting the time of the attempt and the place, one of the purposes of the test being to demonstrate the possibility of intercepting a train in an emergency and transferring mail or passengers from airship to train while both are in motion.”
The Illinois Central’s New Orleans-bound express train that took part in the test left Belleville at 7:21 a.m. on June 15. Concurrently, Paegelow was given a mail sack for use in the planned linkup with the train. The mail sack was quickly placed on board a C-class patrol airship at Scott Field. On board the airship, Lieutenants Karl S. Axtater and Edward H. White and four servicemen took off to catch the train and drop off the mail.
That was not an easy task. The airship’s crew had to deal with a number of obstacles during its chase, including the numerous block signals and crosswires that were along the tracks. The weather that morning also delivered its own challenges. The Air Corps News Letter reported, “A crosswind made it difficult to keep the ship, which is 210 feet long, in a position parallel to the train and there was danger of fouling the rudder in the telephone lines along the track.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge though, was the effort to synchronize the speed of the airship with the speed of the train. The train’s engineer slowed it down a couple of times to better match the speeds of each transportation mode, but that caused the airship to overshoot the train’s railway post office car (mail coach). However, despite the various obstacles, the transfer of mail was accomplished just a few miles outside Belleville.
“The dirigible was over the tracks as the train came into view,” reported the Associated Press (AP). “The airship crew, regulating its speed to correspond with that of the train, maneuvered into position over the mail coach.” The AP account also stated, “The dirigible was brought down over the train so that the [aircraft’s] control car rested on top of the coach for a moment as a member of the crew handed the sack to a mail clerk standing in the doorway of the coach.” After this first-of-a-kind multimodal mail delivery was successfully finished, the airship’s crew flew it back to Scott Field.
Airmail service and rates
Following several years of experimentation, regular airmail service began in 1918 and over the years rates varied considerably depending on distance and technology.
At the time that airmail began, the rate to mail a regular first-class letter or bill was two cents. The original airmail letter rate per ounce between any two points on the airmail route when service began was 24 cents per ounce. The first special-purpose U.S. airmail stamp was issued on May 13, 1918. The 24-cent fee was apportioned at two cents for postage, 12 cents for air service, and 10 cents for special delivery. On July 15, 1918, the rate was dropped to 16 cents for the first ounce and six cents for each additional ounce, and on December 15, 1918 the rate was dropped again to six cents per ounce when special delivery was made optional.
Domestic airmail, as a class of service, officially ended on May 1, 1977. By then all domestic first-class mail was being transported by the most expeditious means, whether by surface transportation or air, whether or not airmail postage had been paid.