Barnstorming The U.S. Mail

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Flurries of wet snow camouflaged the runway of Cleveland airport in the early winter darkness. of Monday, February 19, 1934. Attended by a small group of chilled spectators and outlined by explosions of light from news cameras, a bulky figure in fleecelined flying suit, leather helmet, heavy boots, and furry gloves clambered into the open cockpit of a Boeing P -12 pursuit biplane. Lieutenant Charles R. Springer pulled down his goggles, fastened his seal belt, waved, and prepared to carry out his orders. By direction of President Franklin D. Roosevelt the United States Army Air Corps that stormy Monday had started to transport the nation’s air mail. Lieutenant Springer was to fly a leg of its first delivery.

What followed at Cleveland looked more like a Keystone Kops comedy than history in the making. The P -12’s engine sputtered and died. Lieutenant Springer and his mail sacks were hurriedly transferred to a second P -12. But a pin on its starter shaft broke, and a third plane was rushed onto the runway. Lieutenant Springer waved and roared off into the snow-filled sky, only to land again a few minutes later. “Get me a flashlight so I can find my way out of this damned town!” he yelled. The light bulb on his instrument panel had just burned out.

Equipped with a new bulb, Lieutenant Springer waved a final anticlimactic farewell and without further incident flew the Army’s first mail run from Cleveland to Louisville.

In New Jersey the next day Lieutenant Donald Wackwitz, two hours overdue, brought a big B -6 A Keystone bomber and ninety pounds of mail into snowbound Newark airport. Although he and Sergeant Paul Gibson wore leather face masks and new electrically heated flying suits, they had to be helped from the open cockpit. On the mountainous route from Cleveland, known in flying lore as Hell’s Stretch, Lieutenant Wackwitz found his radio dead and his airtemperature gauge at twelve degrees below zero. For a time his entire instrument panel was frosted over. Lost in the clouds, he descended to five hundred feet and wandered above Jersey rooftops until he found Newark.

In Alabama, Lieutenant John R. Sutherland, his compass thirty degrees off course, plopped his P -12 safely down near a town he mistook for Selma. To his surprise he found himself in Demopolis, fifty miles away. Citizens of Demopolis were understandably perplexed at the sight of an Army plane taxiing down their main street to the gas station. Next morning Lieutenant Sutherland took off, using a gravel road as a runway. When he landed in a plowed field outside Selma, his plane slowly nosed over, burying its propeller in the soft Alabama earth. A friendly gang of black prisoners, working nearby, helped Sutherland set it upright.

Launched into its sudden assignment with only ten days’ notice, the Air Corps had the misfortune to encounter a heavy storm right at the start. Throughout the first week of operations reports of faulty radios, overheated engines, forced landings, and narrow escapes clacked into regional headquarters. On Wednesday weather claimed its first fatality when Lieutenant Durwood O. Lowry, thirty miles off course in a Curtiss 0-39 observation plane, crashed onto a rain-soaked Ohio field.

On Thursday, Lieutenant H. L. Dietz, piloting a Curtiss 0-1 G ; from Camden, New Jersey, to Washington, D.C., was luckier. Early in the flight he watched helplessly as his map blew from its holder and vanished. Lost in a thick fog, his noisy radio almost unintelligible, he circled the small town of Marion Station, Maryland, while worried citizens below illuminated an emergency field with car headlights. His plane hit a tree, and Dietz, unconscious but destined to survive, was rushed to a hospital.

The week closed in a crescendo of disasters. On Friday a plane carrying Air Corps pilots to a Virginia base lost engine power and landed in icywater off the Jersey coast. Before rescuers arrived, five hours later, one pilot slid off the wing and drowned. In Texas another Army flier, forced by rain to make an emergency landing, died when his plane cartwheeled into a ditch.

Grieved and humiliated, the Air Corps counted its dead. Three fliers, practicing for their new assignments, had plunged to their deaths in mountain snowstorms and fog before actual operations began. Now three more had died in the first week of their airmail duties. Mystified citizens poured angry protests upon Congress, precipitating a Saturday-afternoon floor debate in the House that lasted six hours. In California a woman telephoned Air Corps Captain Ira C. Eaker: “You bloody butcher, you are killing these young boys!”

 

Anti-New Deal newspapers gave generous space to the “air-mail fiasco.” Editorials blamed Postmaster General James A. Parley, in whose name all commercial air-mail contracts had been abruptly cancelled because of congressional charges that they had been obtained by favoritism, graft, fraud, and collusion. Aero Digest chided: “Old Patronage Jim made a slight mistake when he started this air mail massacre.” Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, whose feat of shooting down twenty-six German planes in the World War had led to the vicepresidency of Eastern Air Transport, harshly accused the administration of “legalized murder.”