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Barnstorming The U.S. Mail
“GENERAL,” F.D.R. DEMANDED, “WHEN ARE THESE AIR MAIL KILLINGS GOING TO STOP?”
August 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 5
As a whole, however, the public was sympathetic. When a pilot made a forced landing near a small Nebraska community, the mayor himself came out to assist at takeoff, bringing road machines to clear a makeshift runway. Eyeing a tall tree, the mayor ordered, “Cut it down.” Only a large red barn then obstructed the takeoff. “Can you clear that, lieutenant?” asked the mayor. “I don’t know,” the pilot replied. “Then,” ruled His Honor with a grandiose sweep of his arms, “burn her down!” Grateful for such friendly gestures, many pilots autographed airmail letters for stamp collectors. In return for this favor one avid collector offered to send “some beautiful crash pictures.”
While the Air Corps grappled with its mailbags, controversy in Washington intensified. General Foulois hinted darkly to the President that his planes were being sabotaged by agents of commercial aviation bent upon embarrassing the corps, but his evidence was scanty and inconclusive. Brigadier General William “Billy” Mitchell, ardent exponent of a separate air force, blamed aviation holding-companies for monopolizing the best flying equipment. To compare Air Corps planes to commercial ships, he said, was “like comparing a Model T Ford with a racing car.”
But many members of Congress, seeking a scapegoat, excoriated the hapless Parley, who all along had cautioned the administration to proceed slowly. At one point in the Black committee hearings former Postmaster General Brown testified that his successor had made a “personal remark” about the air-mail investigation. “Repeat it! Repeat!” shouted Chairman Black. Brown refused to do so without Parley’s consent. “Then we’ll get him in here,” declared the senator, biting on his cigar. A week later, with Parley on hand, Brown revealed his secret: Parley had told him that he had “no sympathy for these political investigations” and that Chairman Black was “just a publicity hound, but don’t tell anybody I told you, for I have to get along with him.” The crowded committee room exploded with laughter, led by Black himself. Parley tactfully denied making any such remark.
At the White House, trying to save face, Roosevelt stonily refused to comment on the Air Corps’ troubles, leaving Parley to take the lightning. The loyal Postmaster General recalled later that he was accustomed to abuse and criticism, but when he was called a murderer, he had looked to Roosevelt for help. “No help came,” Parley said sadly.
Congress, meantime, entertained a clamor of suggestions for a permanent solution to the problem of carrying the nation’s air mail. Forty bills defining aviation policy were introduced in the House. Amelia Earhart urged a federal department of transportation to oversee air, rail, and bus travel. Lindbergh and Rickenbacker favored an independent agency to control air travel only. Harold Ickes advised Roosevelt that the Post Office should build airplanes and carry the mail. The possibility that the Army might keep its new job permanently as a cheap and convenient method of strengthening national defense also flickered through Roosevelt’s mind.
The American public was not only alarmed over accidents but dissatisfied with Air Corps postal service. Small Army planes could only hold a hundred and fifty pounds of mail at best, while two-ton commercial ships could handle eighteen hundred to two thousand pounds. It often took six or more Army flights to equal the normal load of one airliner. Lacking sufficient hangars, Army mechanics sometimes spent three hours revving up the engine of a cold plane that had been staked down in an open field. Service became so uncertain that many business firms, in violation of postal standards, began wrapping bundles of letters as parcels to be shipped by air express aboard commercial flights.
Finally Roosevelt, Parley, and other administration officials, impatient with congressional foot dragging, decided to let temporary ninety-day mail contracts to commercial airlines, specifying that no company whose contract had been annulled for fraud and collusion might bid. While Post Office and airline representatives worked out the new bids Lieutenant Thurmond A. Wood, flying from Chicago to Omaha with twenty-three sacks of mail, hit a heavy thunderstorm and died in a crash. He was the twelfth—and final—fatality of the Air Corps’ disastrous tussle with the mail.
On June 1, to the general relief of the Roosevelt administration, the Air Corps carried its last load of mail. In seventy-eight days of service it had experienced fifty-seven accidents and twelve fatalities. Altogether it completed 65 per cent of scheduled flights, aborting or cancelling the remainder because of weather, accidents, or other factors. There was small consolation in the statistic that Air Corps planes had carried 777,389 pounds of mail without losing a single pound. Only five pilots had died while actually carrying the mail. Efficient Army rescue teams had salvaged every letter.