U.S. Post Office Begins Transcontinental Airmail Delivery

The U.S. Post Office Department’s transcontinental airmail service gained widespread public acceptance and led to enhanced congressional support for airmail service in general.

Summary of Event

Through the efforts of the Post Office Department, primarily the efforts of Otto Praeger, second assistant postmaster general during Woodrow Wilson’s presidential administration, the U.S. Congress in 1917 was persuaded to fund a formal experiment to determine the feasibility of scheduled airmail service. This test, the first since about thirty earlier experiments in 1911-1912, called for U.S. Army pilots and planes to carry mail between New York City and Washington, D.C., with an intermediate stop in Philadelphia. Under Congress’s funding conditions, the Post Office Department would administer the program. Senator Morris “Sam” Sheppard of Texas, who had long argued for airmail service, was to prove instrumental in obtaining airmail appropriations, the first of which were authorized in 1916 from the Post Office Department’s “Steamboat or Other Powerboat Service” line item. U.S. Postal Service
Post Office Department, U.S.
[kw]U.S. Post Office Begins Transcontinental Airmail Delivery (Sept. 8, 1920)
[kw]Post Office Begins Transcontinental Airmail Delivery, U.S. (Sept. 8, 1920)
[kw]Transcontinental Airmail Delivery, U.S. Post Office Begins (Sept. 8, 1920)
[kw]Airmail Delivery, U.S. Post Office Begins Transcontinental (Sept. 8, 1920)
U.S. Postal Service
Post Office Department, U.S.
[g]United States;Sept. 8, 1920: U.S. Post Office Begins Transcontinental Airmail Delivery[05180]
[c]Transportation;Sept. 8, 1920: U.S. Post Office Begins Transcontinental Airmail Delivery[05180]
[c]Space and aviation;Sept. 8, 1920: U.S. Post Office Begins Transcontinental Airmail Delivery[05180]
[c]Economics;Sept. 8, 1920: U.S. Post Office Begins Transcontinental Airmail Delivery[05180]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Sept. 8, 1920: U.S. Post Office Begins Transcontinental Airmail Delivery[05180]
Praeger, Otto
Sheppard, Morris
Burleson, Albert Sidney
Wilson, Woodrow
[p]Wilson, Woodrow;airmail
Harding, Warren G.

The war situation in Europe delayed any chance of experimentation until President Wilson intervened in 1918. Realizing that airmail service might provide some advantages to the business sector, Wilson directed the secretary of war to supply army pilots and airplanes for an experimental operation. The experiment began on May 15, 1918, and proved successful enough that on August 12, 1918, the Post Office Department assumed responsibility for the entire operation, including pilots and aircraft. During the airmail service’s first year of operation, 1,208 flights were completed, with 90 others aborted because of weather or mechanical problems.

Even with this admirable performance, the Post Office’s primary goal remained to establish an airmail system rather than to earn profits. Moreover, postal officials began at this early date to remind Congress and the public that the Post Office did not consider itself to be an operating agency and that the department had no intention of remaining indefinitely in the transportation business.

Under Praeger’s forceful leadership, one year after its inauguration of airmail service the Post Office Department began service between Chicago and Cleveland, the first of its transcontinental route segments. Six weeks later, airmail service was extended eastward from Cleveland to New York City. During 1919, with three routes in operation (including the original route between New York and Washington, D.C.), eight Post Office airplanes were flying nineteen hundred miles daily, with a 95 percent completion rate. The next major transcontinental route segment became operational on May 15, 1920, when service was extended westward from Chicago to Omaha, Nebraska. Four months later, on September 8, 1920, the final link was added, connecting Omaha to San Francisco.

The lack of suitable air-to-ground communications and navigation equipment, as well as the rather primitive aircraft instrumentation then available, made night operations impossible. Mail sacks had to be transferred to trains for carriage overnight, a problem that hampered further improvement in service until Congress decided to appropriate funds in fiscal year 1922 to establish an experimental lighted airway between Chicago and Cheyenne, Wyoming.

Urging this appropriation, ironically enough, was President Warren G. Harding, who had publicly proclaimed during the 1920 presidential campaign that airmail service was a waste of money. The candidate’s public pronouncement became especially troubling for the Post Office Department when Harding won the election. Faced with an incoming president who had taken a stance in opposition to airmail service, Praeger and Postmaster General Albert Sidney Burleson decided to rush the development of an overnight airmail service in a bold attempt to capture media attention and public acclaim, in the hope that this might cause Harding to rethink his position.

Because of this strategy, the first attempt at overnight service was conducted in February—not an ideal time of year, weatherwise, for a first try at night operations. With considerable fanfare, two mail planes set out from each coast at daybreak on February 22, 1921. The two westbound flights were grounded in Chicago because of blizzard conditions, causing the airmail to be transferred to a train, much to the chagrin of Burleson and Praeger. The Chicago-area weather also grounded one of the relief pilots for the eastbound planes, who had been en route to Omaha. One of the two eastbound flights crashed near Elko, Nevada, killing the pilot, W. F. Lewis; Lewis, W. F. the other continued on to North Platte, Nebraska, where pilot James H. “Jack” Knight Knight, James H. took over.

Knight, flying in worsening weather conditions, found no relief pilot waiting in Omaha and immediately departed for Des Moines, where snow accumulation precluded his landing for fuel. He continued to Iowa City, where a night watchman at the airfield, hearing an unexpected airplane, lit a flare that allowed Knight to land. Although he had never flown the route east of Omaha, Knight continued to Chicago, arriving at 8:40 a.m. after flying 830 miles through dangerous winter weather conditions. The airmail continued on its eastbound journey and arrived late that afternoon in New York City. The mail had been carried 2,660 miles in an elapsed time of 33 hours and 20 minutes; the same distance by train would have taken 108 hours.

Overnight, Jack Knight’s heroism captured the public’s imagination. Media coverage and the public’s positive reaction to transcontinental airmail service caused Harding to recant his earlier remarks, and he urged Congress to support the new service. As a result, annual appropriations for both the transcontinental airmail route and its night operations first became available in late 1921, Harding’s first year in office, with $1.3 million to be used to expand airmail service and develop lighting for airways and airports. Over the next six years, these two separate appropriations would average a combined annual total of approximately $2.5 million.

The Post Office Department’s first lighted airway was installed between Chicago and Cheyenne, Wyoming, and became fully operational in the spring of 1923. Over the next twelve months, more route miles were equipped with navigational beacon lights until finally, on July 1, 1924, the last segment was lighted. Following a thirty-day test period, true around-the-clock transcontinental airmail service was inaugurated.


Although the Post Office had not expected to make a profit from its new service, by the end of the first year of airmail operations postal revenues of $162,000 had been realized, an excess of $19,000 over the operation’s cost of $143,000, or $64.80 per flight hour. The service’s early success led Praeger to concentrate the department’s efforts on developing a transcontinental route that could serve as the foundation for a gradually expanding airmail system with connecting flights extending outward to the north and south. The first of these routes connected St. Louis with Chicago in August, 1920.

By the end of 1921, ninety-eight airmail planes were in service, half of which were surplus and virtually obsolete de Havilland DH-4’s that the Post Office had obtained from the army and refurbished at a cost of $2,000 per plane. These were the only airplanes available, because at the time aircraft companies had no incentive to develop commercial planes. A need for larger aircraft capable of carrying a few passengers in addition to mail came about only after passage of the 1925 Air Mail Act (also known as the Kelly Act), Air Mail Act (1925)
Kelly Act (1925) which authorized the Post Office to contract with private operators for the carriage of airmail.

The Post Office Department’s successful airmail operation was publicly recognized in both 1922 and 1923, when the Air Mail Service received the coveted Collier Trophy, awarded annually for the greatest achievement in aviation in the United States. By the end of the first six years of airmail service, Post Office pilots had flown 6.9 million miles and carried 255 million letters. Almost fifteen thousand of the flights were made in fog or storms, and the Post Office proudly pointed to the service’s average operating efficiency of almost 92 percent over the six-year period.

Upon completion of navigational beacons on the transcontinental route in July, 1924, around-the-clock cross-country airmail service became a reality. Westbound airmail took thirty-four hours, and eastbound airmail took twenty-nine hours. One year later, businesses in New York and Chicago were benefiting from overnight airmail service. Airmail postage on the transcontinental route was set at eight cents per ounce for transit in each of three zones: New York-Chicago; Chicago-Rock Springs, Wyoming; and Rock Springs-San Francisco.

To support its coast-to-coast operation, the Post Office Department established seventeen weather-reporting stations linked by radio, installed 289 flashing beacons along the route, equipped and lighted emergency landing fields an average of thirty miles apart, and installed radios at all of its main stations. Airmail service needs, especially those of the transcontinental operation, brought about the development of night and instrument flying, federal airways, air-to-ground communications, multiengine aircraft, hard-surface runways, and the National Weather Service.

In late 1925, Harry F. Guggenheim, in an address at the newly established School of Aeronautics of New York University, hailed the U.S. Air Mail Service as the only brilliant achievement in American commercial aviation. He stated that with this one notable exception, the United States lagged far behind Europe in commercial aviation.

Airmail volume on the transcontinental route grew rapidly with widespread public acceptance of the service and recognition, particularly by the business community, of the distinct advantages that coast-to-coast airmail service offered. During the fiscal year that ended on June 30, 1924, Post Office pilots on the transcontinental route flew slightly more than two million miles, with a completion rate of 96 percent. In the following year, 9.3 million first-class letters were carried, providing the Post Office with revenues that exceeded costs by $600,000. In July, 1925, alone, the profit amounted to $60,434. The actual cost of transporting mail by air was 21 cents per mile; even with overhead costs included, the cost was only 50 cents per mile.

In 1925, Congress passed the Kelly Act in response to urging by the Post Office Department. This act authorized the department to award contracts to private operators for the carriage of airmail. In effect, the Post Office began to phase itself out of airmail transport. By mid-1926, private carriers were operating the twelve original routes, all of which were feeders that linked with the transcontinental route still being operated by the Post Office Department.

In mid-1927, the transcontinental route was divided at Chicago into two segments, with Boeing Air Transport successfully bidding for the western portion and National Air Transport the eastern segment. Mail volume on the coast-to-coast route continued to grow rapidly, to the point that in February, 1928, Boeing Air Transport carried 32 percent of all airmail in the United States just on its Chicago-San Francisco route.

During 1927, the Post Office continued to phase itself out of airmail operations as more and more routes were transferred to private operators. The final Post Office flight was conducted on September 9 of that year, ending one noteworthy era while ushering in another, one that would be dominated by the rapidly developing airline industry. The obvious success of the Post Office’s efforts, particularly on its transcontinental route, led to continued expansion of airmail service as well as the inception of passenger service. More important, it convinced Congress that the time had arrived for private operators to carry the mail. It was from this group of original private carriers that the American airline industry evolved.

The Post Office’s achievements, laudable as they were, had costs beyond the department’s annual congressional appropriations. In the nine years and four months of government-operated airmail service, forty-three Post Office pilots were killed and twenty-three suffered serious injury, with most accidents occurring on the transcontinental route segment across the Allegheny Mountains in Pennsylvania, a section that became known in the press as the “Hell Stretch” and the “Graveyard of the Air Mail.” In that same time, twenty-five thousand miles of government-improved airways came into existence, almost 60 percent of which were lighted, and rotating beacons were installed at approximately one thousand airports.

The Post Office’s airmail service had cost the government $17.5 million, but partially offsetting this was $5 million in postal revenue. By the end of 1928, all forty-eight states had airmail service, every branch post office had a box marked “air mail,” transcontinental passenger air service was being offered, and the fledgling airline industry had established a foothold—quite a bargain for the $12.5 million the Post Office Department lost on airmail. U.S. Postal Service
Post Office Department, U.S.

Further Reading

  • Christy, J., and L. R. Cook. American Aviation: An Illustrated History. 2d ed. Blue Ridge Summit, Pa.: TAB Books, 1994. Offers a panoramic view of the evolution of American aviation. Focuses primarily on the military but contains some interesting material on early airmail service and the beginnings of the airline system.
  • Johnson, Robert E. Airway One. Chicago: Lakeside Press, 1974. Interesting corporate narrative authored by a member of top management at United Airlines (1929-1972). Includes a fascinating look at United’s developmental years, together with its predecessors that began operating after passage of the Kelly Act.
  • Kane, Robert M. Air Transportation. 14th ed. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt, 2002. Undergraduate textbook provides a section on history that includes excellent coverage of the early airmail days and the Kelly Act’s ramifications. Material on subsequent aviation legislation nicely supplements earlier coverage.
  • Loening, Grover. Takeoff into Greatness. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1968. Fascinating autobiography by one of the Wright brothers’ pupils who established himself as one of the leaders in aircraft design and manufacture during the 1920’s. Interesting recollections of the early airmail operations, with details, some technical, on the first group of private airmail carriers.
  • Wells, Alexander T., and John G. Wensveen. Air Transportation: A Management Perspective. 5th ed. Monterey, Calif.: Brooks/Cole, 2003. Textbook aimed at undergraduates includes a brief but thorough discussion of contract airmail service and the original twelve contract airmail routes.

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