Via Air Mail

At first airplanes were considered entertainment and sport. Until World War I made people realize planes could be useful as a form of transportation, air travel wasn’t considered very practical. But after World War I the U.S. government looked to airplanes to provide a service that most Americans wanted.

Faster Mail

After World War I, while stunt pilots were flying their Curtiss Jennies over crowds at the county fair, other people were finding practical uses for the airplane. The U.S. Post Office decided that airplanes were just the thing to speed up mail service.

Before airmail became a regular service, many demonstration flights were flown. Pilots like Carl Duede of Stuart, Iowa believed the mail could be carried by air, and he proved it. Duede flew a demonstration flight from Des Moines to Guthrie Center, Iowa in 1919. He carried 100 copies of the Des Moines Capitol newspaper. It took him 53 minutes to travel 65 miles.

The first regular airmail routes linked large eastern cities like New York and Washington, D.C. By 1920 airmail service reached westward to Chicago. Then it was decided to provide coast-to-coast service between New York City and San Francisco.

Transcontinental Air Mail Begins

Until this time, all airmail flights had been made during the daylight. Mail was loaded on trains to continue the journey during the night. With the beginning of transcontinental service, the Post Office decided to fly the mail all the way without stopping for darkness. The stretch between Chicago and Cheyenne, Wyoming was chosen for night flight because it had no mountains. Flying over the mountains was dangerous, especially when visibility was poor. Planes did not yet have an instrument to tell the pilot if the plane was climbing or diving toward the ground.

An Airway System Is Built

To aid flyers the post office planned and built an airway system. Radio stations were installed at each field on the transcontinental route. Between Chicago and Cheyenne the airway was lighted with beacons placed every three miles. The beacons flashed all night to help pilots find the way through the darkness. Every airmail landing field had a rotating searchlight. Red lights on the tops of high buildings and towers warned pilots away.

Because of Iowa’s central location, the planned “airway” crossed the state just as the wagon trails, the first transcontinental railroad, and the Lincoln Highway had in earlier times. Iowa City was about as far as an airplane from Chicago could fly on a tank of gas, so it became one of the airmail stops. Emergency landing fields were built at these Iowa towns: Donahue, Moscow, Williamsburg, Montezuma, Reasnor, Carlisle, Booneville, Casey, Atlantic, and Oakland.

In June 1924 the transcontinental airway was ready. All across the nation people gathered at airports to see the airmail planes land. In Iowa City over 3,000 onlookers were on hand to see the airmail plane arrive. The bag of mail sat importantly in the passenger seat of the small biplane, behind the pilot’s cockpit. In the bag there was a special letter for each city where the airplanes would land.

The Odds Weren’t Good

Even with the lighting system and other safety measures flying both day and night in all kinds of weather was dangerous business. By 1925 thirty-one of the first 51 pilots hired by the post office were dead. Among them was John Percy Woodward from Mitchellville, Iowa, who crashed into a mountainside near Cheyenne, Wyoming. For his heroic effort to deliver the mail on time, in spite of a blinding snowstorm, the people of Salt Lake City named their airport after him.

In 1926 the post office decided to contract with small private airline companies to carry the mail. Often this income from the post office contracts was the only thing that kept the young companies going. From these few companies with their daring pilots and old planes, grew such modern airlines as United, Western Airlines and TWA.

Adapted from original article in The Goldfinch 2, No. 1 (September 1980). Iowa City: State Historical Society of Iowa.
© State Historical Society of Iowa



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