The history of airmail in the United States


The U.S. Postal Service has always found different ways to get mail to places that were difficult to reach. And beginning as early as 1911, that meant doing so by air, as brave men and women hopped into aircrafts to deliver the mail less than a decade after the mode of transportation was invented.

The roots of the U.S. airmail program were planted in June of 1910 when Rep. Morris Sheppard of Texas introduced a bill to give the Postmaster General Frank Hitchcock the opportunity to explore whether an airship mail route was feasible.

The bill died in committee, but later that year, Hitchcock agreed to fly as a passenger in a monoplane to prove delivery through the air was possible.


USPS/Library of Congress

“It will not be long before we are carrying the mails this way, that is certain,” Hitchcock said at the time, according to the U.S. Postal Service archives.

In September of 1911, flights to deliver mail were authorized in New York and Earle Ovington piloted the first flight. The process was simple, he would drop the mailbag from the sky, and have it picked up by the postmaster in Mineola, New York.

The next few years saw many more experimental successful flights and and in 1912, officials began pushing Congress to make airmail a fully funded program, which they finally did, appropriating $50,000 in 1916 and $100,000 in 1917. In 1918, the Postmaster General and Secretary of War reached an agreement that the Army Signal Corps would lend its planes and pilots to the USPS.

On May 15, 1918, the United States Postal Service had its first day of scheduled airmail service, which featured simultaneous takeoffs from Washington D.C. and Long Island, both headed to Philadelphia. The first routes were only between New York and D.C. and by then, the Post Office had built up a small team of civilian pilots and mechanics. The pilots frequently had to make emergency landings and their earliest planes had to reliable instruments or radios, so pilots relied on landmarks. According the USPS, fatalities were rare because of the planes small size and slow landing speed.


USPS/Library of Congress

After the initial success of airmail in 1918, the USPS slowly began adding longer hauls with the goal of ultimately developing a route from New York to San Francisco. By September of 1920, the final route, from Omaha to San Francisco with stops in Wyoming and Utah, was in operation. Right around the same time, the radios with weather forecasts and stock market reports had been added to planes and airmail had proved to be 22 hours faster than the cross-country railway.

In the early 1920s, Congress was determining the future of airmail funding, so the department decided to take things up a notch and introduce night flying.

The first pilot to complete an airmail flight through the night was Jack Knight, who did so during the winter on a route that began in North Platte, Nebraska. Knight flew from North Platte to Omaha by himself and the pilot scheduled to fly to Chicago was a no show, so Knight continued his route, through a snowstorm, to deliver the mail. The mail, which started in New York, reached San Francisco in 33 hours, thanks mostly to Knight, who was dubbed The hero who saved airmail.

By 1924, night flying was a part of regular airmail delivery. Landing fields were created every 25 miles and 50-foot beacons were put up to help increase visibility. Additionally, almost 300 flashing gas beacons were put up between airfields. The trip from New York to San Fransisco featured 15 stops with the longest leg being between Omaha to Cheyenne, 476 miles.

“Before the air mail service can offer … its full measure of value it will be necessary to operate the planes at night as well as in the daytime,” Postmaster General Harry S. New said at the time.


USPS/Library of Congress

With airmail now a regular part of the post office delivery routine, the service was contracted out to commercial airlines in 1927 and in 1930, Airmail Act helped bolster the service by providing compensation to carriers based on carrying capacity, versus mail actually carried, and allowing the Postmaster General broad authority to change contracts and routes.

Between the 1930s and 1940s, transatlantic airmail to just about everywhere in the world was added. In 1958, a jetliner was used for the first time to deliver mail from New York to London. It took just 14 hours, less than half the time it took to get from New York to San Francisco 30 years prior.

In October of 1975, the Postal Service said First-Class postage, which was cheaper, would buy the same or better level of service as airmail, effectively ending the program. The Post Office’s airmail program officially ended on May 1, 1977

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