05 April 2018

The 'suicide club' of the early US Air Mail Service

In August 1918, the [US] post took over airmail operations from the military, and the department's own civilian pilots began to fly its own biplanes, which were either custom-built or remodeled for postal service. (De Havilland's DH-4, which had a more powerful 400-horsepower engine, superseded the Jenny as the fleet's workhorse). Much like the Pony [Express] riders, the aviators were expected to satisfy their employers' obsessions with speed and sticking to the schedule regardless of conditions. They raced their finicky, flimsy, unreliable aircraft through dense fogs, blizzards, and towering mountain ranges, protected mostly by the small planes' responsiveness and slow speeds. Of the 200 pilots who belonged to the service's "suicide club" between 1918 and 1926, 35 died on duty, but many more emerged bloody and battered from crashes.

Somehow, the Air Mail Service managed to complete 90 percent of its flights, although emergency landings were common. Pilot Dean Smith telegraphed a cryptic explanation to headquarters after his engine quit in midair, causing an unusual disaster: "Only place to land on cow. Killed cow. Wrecked plane. Scared me. Smith." While carrying the mail from Elko, Nevada, to Boise, Idaho, Paul Scott was forced to land by a broken oil line; then, followed by a pack of wolves, he walked 27 miles for help. When Henry Boonstra's carburetor froze during a snowstorm, he set the plane down on a 9400-foot-high Utah mountain, grabbed the mail, and stumbled through heavy drifts for 33 hours before reaching a ranch house. The resident shepherd lent him a horse, and the pilot finally reached the nearest village and phone three days later. The aviators accepted such hair-raising risks less for the salary than from the desire to hold one of the few jobs in the world that allowed them to fly. As Smith put it, "Alone in an empty cockpit, there is nothing and everything to see. It was so alive and rich a life that any other conceivable choice seemed dull, prosaic and humdrum".

Thrill-seeking behaviour has a strong genetic component, and the right stuff clearly ran in the family of Katherine Stinson, the first woman authorised to fly the US mail. Her parents operated a flight school in Texas, her sister Marjorie trained combat pilots in World War I, and her brother Eddie founded the Stinson Aircraft Company. The "Flying Schoolgirl" took America by storm with her loop-the-loops and skywriting, to say nothing of her leather garb and trousers, then still a rarity for women. In 1913, she amazed the crowd at the Montana State Fair by dropping mailbags from her sketchy wood-and-fabric plane, then went on to enthrall fans abroad before volunteering to be a combat pilot in 1917. She was rejected because of her sex but helped the cause by flying for pledges that brought $2 million to the Red Cross. In 1918, Stinson signed on as a regular Air Mail Service pilot and, despite a crash landing en route from Chicago to New York, managed to break a record for covering 783 miles in 11 hours. (Around 1920, tuberculosis forced her back to earth; she moved to New Mexico for her health, became a successful architect, and lived to the age of 86).

- Winifred Gallagher, How the Post Office Created America, New York, 2016, p224-5.

See also:
Blog: From London to Amsterdam, 1922, 20 February 2017
Blog: Seattle Museum of Flight, 25 April 2013
Blog: Le Bourget Air & Space Museum, 18 March 2011
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