A Brief History of Air Mail

It all started a very long time, ago – there existed a sophisticated mail service in Ancient Rome; and the postal service of 2nd-century Rome was akin to our postal service today in that regardless of the weather or the circumstances, the mail would simply have to go through!  Horse-drawn carts meandered a good 50 miles per day over the masterfully-constructed roads that covered the sprawling Roman Empire.  Relay teams worked with one another, day and night, to ensure that the most important mail – usually political – would make a 170 mile trip within 24 hours!


As centuries passed, mail delivery became increasingly ‘sophisticated’; and the first aerial mail transportation occurred in 1870 in France.  Here, letters were carried by balloons cast adrift, guided by the wind.  It was on September of 1870 that 500 pounds of mail was carried, although the question remains:  Was the mail actually delivered?  With no way to control the balloons’ flights, the system was doomed shortly after its inception.  With that being said, however, balloon mail was also experimented with in 1877 in Nashville, Tennessee with, presumably, questionable results.


If we fast-forward to the 2nd decade of 20th-Century America, we find government-sponsored flights for domestic US Airmail which took place between 1911 and 1918.  It wasn’t until May 15 of 1918 that the first day of scheduled airmail came to be – the US Post Office Department officially established a new class of mail service – Air Mail was born!  On that date, the first airmail route was inaugurated between Washington DC and New York City.  The US Post Office Department had made an agreement with the War Department which would supply the planes and pilots while the Post Office would manage the mail and relevant details.  This historic flight carried 136 pounds of mail.  During a 76-day operation that followed, Air Service pilots delivered 20 tons of mail.  It should be noted, however, that of the initial 40 pilots, three died in flight crashes in a single year during 1919 and nine more crew died in 1920.


To further demonstrate the potential of utilizing aircraft for mail delivery, however, arrangements were made for a flight from San Francisco to New York City on February 22, 1921; and it was successful!  Including all stops, the flight took 33 hours and 21 minutes with an average speed of 104 mph, covering a distance of just over 2600 miles.  By 1924, transcontinental air mail delivery became serious business; and 5 years later, a total of 45 airlines were chosen for mail delivery.  The compensation for the carriers was a whopping $1.10 per mile!


A Scandal, Unexpected


It seems a scandal developed in 1926 in which the airlines divided, among themselves, the airmail routes; and this created an unethical monopoly which was fully supported and encouraged by, then, Postmaster General, Walter Folger Brown.  This monopoly prevented smaller carriers from making bids for flights.  As a result, a Senate investigation ensued; and President Roosevelt actually canceled all existing airmail contracts with the airlines and demanded that the Air Corps deliver all airmail until new contracts were established.  Eventually, competitive bidding was restored and airmail labor operations were closely regulated.  Unfortunately, the Air Corp mail operation encountered a number of crashes which resulted in 13 crew members losing their lives.


The Mail Planes of Yesteryear


Here are just a few of the first airmail planes used to transport their paper cargo within the continental US and Canada:


1: The Curtiss JN4H @ 94 mph ~ from New York to Chicago in 1918 ~ carried 180 pounds of mail


2: The Boeing C-7000 Seaplane @ 73 mph ~ from Seattle to Victoria BC in 1919 ~ carried 150 pounds of mail


3: The De HAVILLAND DH-4 @115 mph ~ from NYC to San Francisco in 1921 ~ carried 500 pounds of mail