Barnstorming The U.S. Mail

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But the heaviest burden of blame fell upon the five-foot five-inch chief of the Air Corps, Major General Benjamin D. Foulois, who had learned to fly in 1910 by corresponding with Wilbur and Orville Wright and became the first military aviator to pilot an Army plane. Now Foulois sent urgent orders to his three zone commanders, Major Byron Q. Jones in the east, Lieutenant Colonel Horace M. Hickam in the central zone, and Lieutenant Colonel Henry H. “Hap” Arnold in the west. Pilots were to make no night flights unless their radios and instruments were fully checked out; no mail was to be flown when the weather was bad; and planes were to be meticulously gone over before takeoff.

Even so accidents did not end. On the night of March 9 four more members of the Air Corps died when planes plummeted to earth in Ohio, Florida, and Wyoming.

Early the next morning “Benny” Foulois and General Douglas MacArthur, Army chief of staff, were ushered into a large bedroom on the second floor of the White House where their commander in chief, propped with pillows and surrounded by newspapers and reports, was ensconced in the majestic Lincoln bed. Fpulois, who had never met Roosevelt, was somewhat surprised that the famous grin, so often seen in the newsreels, was nowhere in evidence. “Without a word of greeting,” he reported later, the President, scowling fiercely through his pince-nez, barked at him: “General, when are these air mail killings going to stop?”

An exasperated Roosevelt, stung by public disfavor for the first time since entering the White House, tried to extricate himself by delivering a bluntly worded directive to MacArthur, Foulois, and Secretary of War George H. Bern. The Air Corps must end the fatal accidents, the President ordered, or stop flying the mails. Next day Foulois suspended all flights and set out to inspect his bases, leaving Roosevelt to reflect upon the galling fact that his own impulsiveness was partly to blame for the Air Corps’ plight.

The prelude to all this had begun in 1933 when Senator Hugo Black of Alabama, ardent Roosevelt supporter and chairman of a special Senate investigating committee, had started a probe of federal air-mail contracts. His findings made dramatic headlines over the nation: three giant holding companies—Aviation Corporation of Delaware, United Aircraft and Transport Corporation, and North American Aviation—monopolized federal contracts to carry the air mail. These consolidations of major airlines, together with Northwest Airways, Inc., which held one contract, had received 97 per cent of all air-mail subsidy funds in 1932.

 

Senator Black had further complaints. Contracts had been awarded when Post Office officials met—Black said “colluded”—with favored airline representatives in 1930 in an anteroom of the Postmaster General’s office. There had been neither public advertising nor competitive bidding; indeed, the big three were instructed to agree among themselves as to which routes each wanted. Operators of such small airlines as Braniff Airways were left out in the financial cold, although one told Black he had offered to carry the mail for seventy cents a mile when the Post Office was paying almost three dollars. Another testified that he had sold his company to one of the larger airlines as a result of Post Office pressure.

Colorful epithets—”collusion,” “favoritism,” and “secret spoils conference”—enlivened press coverage. So did revelations of dazzling profits. One young entrepreneur ran an aviation investment of forty dollars to paper profits of more than five million dollars in four years. Another told the committee he had actually realized nine million dollars from an initial investment of two hundred and fifty-three dollars in airline stocks. “Stock pyramiding!” fumed Black.

 

In vain Walter F. Brown, who as Herbert Hoover’s Postmaster General had approved the air-mail contracts, tried to attract public attention to his side of the story. His aim, he insisted, had been to develop an efficient, modern aviation system. “There was no sense,” he told the Black committee, “in taking this government’s money and dishing it out … to every little fellow that was flying around the map and was not going to do anything … to develop aviation in the broad sense.” By using subsidy money strategically Brown hoped to create a strong, integrated airline network that would carry mail, passengers, and express. He compared the growth of airlines to that of railroads in the previous century. Absorption of small, uneconomical lines by large carriers was, Brown believed, inevitable.

But the drama of the hearings overrode such economic theorizing. Comic episodes amused official Washington but outraged many Americans imbued with the ethic of fair play. Postal clerks told Black they had been ordered by Brown to burn papers dealing with air-mail contracts before the Democrats took office in 1933. Not true, Brown at first replied. He had merely disposed of personal letters so as not to leave the office “all cluttered up” for his successor, James A. Parley. But upon second thought Brown appeared in Parley’s office lugging a suitcase stuffed with contract records. He had “unexpectedly” found them, he said, among some personal papers. Chairman Black, unmollified, retorted that important records were still missing.