The origins of Airmail in the USA

The origins of Airmail in the USA

Today we’re used to sending and getting mail in a matter of days thanks to the appearance of “Airmail”. Using specially designed cargo planes your mail flies around the world and arrives on the other side of the world in no time. However, a century ago airmail was still in its early beginnings; using small wooden biplanes and taking small burlap bags in the cockpit. 

Airmail first took off in the early 1910s with experimental flights testing the feasibility of the concept. The United States was seen as a pioneer in this concept. Indeed, due to its huge size and sparsely populated inland, transporting a letter from the East to the West coast could take up to 4 days by rail. 

In the USA, the USPS established the Air Mail Service of the U.S. Post Office Department on May 15th, 1918. Originally, the Department used World War I surplus DH-4 De Havilland bombers. These were not designed for long-distance flying nor for carrying cargo.

The USPS started the service with 40 pilots in 1918. By 1920 at least half had lost their lives mostly due to weather-related accidents and technical failures. These pilots were pioneers and heroes, flying without instruments and in the worst weather conditions.

At that time, the USPS refused to delay take-offs due to bad weather conditions as on-time delivery was what mattered the most. 

Aeronautical technology progressed quickly. Combined with investments in infrastructure and safety guidelines, the first transcontinental flights took plane in 1924. These routes became competitive and attractive as night flights became possible. Dubbed the “Lighted Airway”, this air-route was equipped with lighted emergency runways and beacons allowing pilots to guide themselves no matter the visibility. At that time this was a critical infrastructure investment as flight instruments were rudimentary making it close to impossible to fly without daylight.

By the end of 1924, transcontinental airmail took only 34 hours to go from East to West thanks to night flying. 

By 1926, the US government had decided to open the postal aviation market to private companies. On the 15th of February 1926, Airmail started to be exclusively transported by commercial aviation companies. By then, there were a large amount of technical developments which made Airmail more efficient and safer. Engines were more reliable; aerodynamics were better understood, and instruments had become relatively precise. The Ford Motor Company was at the heart of this development. Both their Trimotor and Stout 2 AT Pullman became the backbone of commercial aviation in the mid-1920s. 

As the USPS opened up to civil aviation for mail transportation, money started to pour in. Indeed, flying had become a commercially viable operation and from there technological and infrastructure investments were systematically pursued to increase safety, efficiency and size of the entire operation across the US. By 1927, fatality rates had improved from 1 per 100,000 miles flown to 1 per 1.4 million miles flown. Airmail has been launched and became a cornerstone of the US’s economic development. Today, sending a letter by airplane is straightforward and simple but we should always remember the founders of Airmail and the sacrifices made. 

At Aeromat, we honor their legacy and have inspired our Vol de Nuit collection from these perilous beginnings and the heroes who made it happen.

A map of the “Lighted Airway” by 1924 – this was the first transcontinental route in the US

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