The San Diego Air & Space Museum’s Library & Archives recently launched a new online exhibit commemorating the 100th Anniversary of U.S. Airmail.
On a fog-shrouded May 15th, in 1918, the first airplane to provide regularly scheduled airmail service in the United States took off from the Potomac Park polo grounds in Washington, D.C., headed to New York City, a 218-mile route.
Sponsored by the U.S. Post Office, and personally sent off by President Woodrow Wilson, this has proven to be a most important day in our nation’s history, obviously leading to quicker mail deliveries, but more importantly, eventually also leading to an accelerated growth of aviation in America.
Delivering mail made flying potentially profitable. In time, manufacturers competed to build larger, more capable, faster and safer aircraft to carry the mail, which then led to expanded passenger service, and today’s airlines.
In 1918, the Army Air Service was directed to assume this new role. However, delivering the mail by air was not an easy task.
For example, the pilot of the first flight on May 15 got lost, landing in a farmer’s field.
Existing aircraft were clearly inadequate for their new role. There were no radios, no existing navigational charts, the aircraft were unproven, with open cockpits, and the initial Army Air Service pilots selected were inexperienced.
Pilots were forced to use roadmaps to navigate, typically following railroad tracks or rivers.
Consequently, in the early days of airmail service, many pilots lost their lives.
San Diego has a close connection to the initiation of airmail service, as the man who was directed to organize the first service was Reuben H. Fleet, founder of Consolidated Aircraft, who relocated his company to San Diego in 1935. At one time, Consolidated, later the Convair Division of General Dynamics, was San Diego’s largest employer.
A remarkable accomplishment, Fleet was given only 12 days to find the pilots and the equipment to make the first airmail service possible.
To honor Fleet and all of those who flew the mail, the San Diego Air & Space Museum has created an online exhibit celebrating this history. To view the Museum’s new online 100th Anniversary of Airmail exhibit, visit SanDiegoAirAndSpace.org.