100th Anniversary of Airmail

Early mail transport became catalyst for air transportation system.

Mailplane

Mailplane

Jon Whittle

Friday marked the 100th anniversary of the first U.S. mail flight, which took place on Sept. 23, 1911, when Earl Ovington took off from Long Island, New York, in a Bleriot monoplane, carrying about 15 pounds of letters. He flew to the Mineola post office, about 10 miles away, where his cargo continued to its final destination via ground transportation. The flight was an experiment, which was repeated every day until September 30.

After the initial experiment, another 31 experimental airmail flights took place before the Post Office Department urged Congress to fund the airmail service in 1912. But it wasn’t until 1916 that Congress finally appropriated $50,000 for the system, and in 1918, the first experimental airmail route was established between Washington, D.C. and New York City. Four Curtis Jenny airplanes, boasting airspeeds of 50 to 60 mph and a 150 lb mail cargo carrying capacity, were used for the mission.

With neither navigation aids nor radios, these early airmail pilots had a challenging task. The government recognized the importance of airmail, and Congress continued to help fund the system. The airmail system can be credited for being the catalyst for the development of night- and instrument flying operations, meteorological services, federal airways, hard surface runways, radio communications and multi-engine airplanes.

What eventually resulted from those early experimental airmail flights was an air transport system that our society has come to rely on heavily, not only for the transportation of mail, but eventually commercial air traffic.