- Historic Sites
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
To what purpose had twelve fliers given their lives and a nationwide brouhaha raged? In June Congress passed the Air Mail Act of 1934, which forbade interlocking directorships, set a $17,500 ceiling on salaries in subsidized firms, limited each company to three air-mail routes at a maximum of forty cents a mile, and specified that any person convicted of collusion to prevent competitive bidding must pay a $10,000 fine and/or spend five years in the federal penitentiary. More significantly the act empowered the President to appoint a Federal Aviation Commission to study and recommend broad policy. Its report eventually resulted in the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938, creating the Civil Aeronautics Authority.
But the old commercial contractors, who held a virtual monopoly on the multiengined aircraft that could offer more reliable service, returned. Purged of individuals who had been present at the 1930 “spoils conference” and with their corporate names changed, they were allowed to bid for temporary contracts that were later extended. Several independents also obtained, at last, some government contracts to supplement their passenger revenues. The cost of air-mail subsidies fell from nineteen million dollars in fiscal 1932 to nine million dollars for the first year of the new program.
Despite its humiliation the Air Corps, too, eventually profited. A special committee of civilians and military officers, named by Secretary Dern to review the status of the Air Corps, recommended against an independent air force; but the seed of this concept was planted and would come to fruition in 1947. The committee reported bluntly that the Air Corps had been handicapped since the World War by stingy appropriations and lack of training in instrument, night, radio-beacon, cross-country, and bad-weather flying. The President himself asked Congress to authorize an additional ten million dollars, a bonanza sum in times of economic depression, to be spent for new planes and equipment. From that time on there was a steady build-up of Air Corps strength and efficiency.
Although most Americans lost interest in the air-mail fiasco even before the elections of November, 1934, its principals did not fade so abruptly from the national scene. Hugo Black, he dogged Senate investigator who set in motion these events, got his first taste of national fame and attracted favor from a President who would later name him to the Supreme Court. “Hap” Arnold, who commanded the western air-mail zone, was to become the inspiring leader of the Army Air Force from 1938 through World War II . Horace Hickam, commander of the central air-mail zone, was killed in an air accident late in 1934, and an airfield in remote Hawaii was named in his memory. Millions of Americans would be familiar with Hickam Field after the tragic morning of December 7, 1941.
In December, 1942, seven years after the Black committee hearings, the United States Court of Claims rendered judgment on a damage suit brought by the original air-mail contractors. Roosevelt and Parley were justified in annulling the contracts, the court ruled, because the companies and Postmaster General Brown had colluded to prevent competitive bidding. Franklin Roosevelt, although embroiled in wartime anxieties, told an aide that he had read the opinion and enjoyed it.
But that sentimental Irishman Jim Parley, estranged by then from the man he had helped put in the White House, remembered the air-mail episode as one of his saddest experiences in public life. “I cannot think of it now,” he wrote in 1948, “without being stirred by regrets.”
Benny Foulois, his long career scarred by public controversy over the performance of his corps during the stormy winter of 1934, retired from the Air Corps on December 31, 1935, after piloting his 0-38 on a last sentimental solo above the snow-covered Virginia countryside. He lived until 1967 and died believing that his twelve pilots were sacrificed for a higher cause than delivering the mail—for a powerful United States Air Force capable of responding to the challenges of Hitler and Pearl Harbor.