Barnstorming The U.S. Mail


Three weeks and ten fatalities later Benny Foulois faced hostility from every side—Congress, press, public, and, so it seemed, nature herself. Attempting to obey what he considered the impossible order of his commander in chief that “deaths in the Army Air dorps must stop,” he pledged Roosevelt that mail would not be flown if the slightest question arose as to equipment safety or weather conditions. With the President’s approval mail flights were ordered to resume March K) on drastically curtailed routes. But Foulois, a grimly realistic pioneer of the air, knew there would be fatalities as long as man persisted in flying. In sad testimony to Foulois’ philosophy Lieutenant H. C. Richardson, a one-time airlines pilot called to active duty with the Air Corps, died March 17 when his Douglas 0-38 observation biplane crashed on a training flight near Cheyenne, Wyoming.


Messages from his bases further reinforced Foulois’ pessimism. Pilots in open-cockpit planes reported temperatures of twenty to forty-five degrees below zero, blinding snowstorms, fog and squalls, frostbitten fingers, ears, and noses. Airfields froze, then thawed to become quagmires of mud. One pilot, flying an unfamiliar route in a P -12 laden with mail and gas, lost radio contact and found his compass gyrating uselessly. His only guides were a set of railroad maps that showed no airway beacons, radio stations, or emergency landing fields. “I climbed out of that cockpit … an old man,” reported Lieutenant Beirne Lay, Jr.


Piloting a B -6 A from Cleveland to Chicago one bitterly cold night, Lieutenant Norman Sillin briefly lost consciousness. When he revived, he was horrified to see a rotating airway beacon just ahead of his plane’s nose. Realizing he was in a vertical dive, Lieutenant Sillin managed to level his plane three hundred feet from disaster.

Flying Hell’s Stretch in an O -39, Lieutenant H. M. McCoy noticed his engine belching black smoke. His antifreeze had escaped, and he was forced to land near Bishtown, Pennsylvania. A local miner, he claimed later, rushed up to advise: “Mister, you ought to try burning some of our coal instead of that there soft coal. It don’t smoke so much.” Lieutenant McCoy made it to Middletown Air Depot, where a new engine was installed, but it refused to turn over in the below-zero temperature. Mechanics swaddled the plane in a heavy tarpaulin and warmed it by a coal stove from a chicken brooder, torches, and improvised oil stoves. After ten hours they turned the crank, and the engine started.

Gunnery and rear seats had to be hastily stripped from small Armyplanes to make room for mail sacks. Stuffing one P -12 with a hundred and seventeen pounds of mail, mechanics found they could get all but a single sack aboard. “Start it up,” the pilot ordered. “I’ll carry the other sack in my lap.” One converted plane went into an unexpected spin shortly after takeoff. When its pilot managed to land safely, investigators found that empty cartridges from the guns had lodged in the tail and fouled the rubber cables and pulleys. Another pilot reported his seat was so loose that he flew most of the way from Macon, Georgia, to Jacksonville, Florida, clinging to the cockpit with his left arm. So frenzied was the conversion process that an Air Corps officer, visiting a nearby base, almost lost his new O -1 G to the mail service. While he chatted with friends in the operations office mechanics swarmed over his plane, removed its cowling and observer’s seat, and were busily installing a radio set and mail compartments when the frantic officer rushed to its rescue.

Though brave and eager, Air Corps pilots were novice mailmen. One took off without his mail and had to be recalled by a sarcastic radio operator. Another, twenty miles into his route and loaded with four hundred pounds of letters, radioed back: “Please find out from control officer where in hell this mail goes—my manifest is locked in mail compartment.” A third took the wrong leg of a radio beacon and reported ruefully: “Landed in Buffalo with the Cleveland mail.” A control officer, worried because he had no plane for a southern run, hurriedly met an arriving plane from the south, loaded the mail in a truck, and was halfway to the train station before he realized that he could use the same plane that had just come in. But a fast train could often make better time than a heavy-laden bomber fighting a strong head wind.

With such stories circulating actively, citizens of Washington, D.C., were alarmed one early spring day at the sight of a low-flying plane scattering leaflets. Had an Air Corps pilot gone berserk and begun to thiow his mail into the streets? Control officers were relieved and pleasantly surprised to discover that the plane was a commercial ship dropping advertisements.