Cross-country flight marks 90th anniversary of airmail

Addison Pemberton prepared his Boeing 40C in Farmingdale, N.Y., to reenact the first transcontinental airmail flight.

Addison Pemberton prepared his Boeing 40C in Farmingdale, N.Y.,
to reenact the first transcontinental airmail flight.
(Howard Schnapp/Newsday via Associated Press)

By Frank Eltman

Associated Press / September 11, 2008

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. - Getting a message from New York to San Francisco these days is as easy as a click of a mouse. But nearly a century ago, sending a missive across the country was an ordeal that often placed mail carriers in mortal danger in experimental flying machines.

It's a piece of aviation history being celebrated this week with a flight that will replicate those harrowing cross-country journeys.

A trio of pilots in vintage airplanes took off yesterday from Long Island's Republic Airport on a six-day, 15-stop flight to San Francisco to mark the 90th anniversary of the Postal Service's involvement in airmail delivery.

"This airmail anniversary flight of historic biplanes is a compelling display of pilot skills that too often seem forgotten in an era of autopilots, GPS, and daily flights high above the weather," said Josh Stoff, curator of the Cradle of Aviation museum, which chronicles Long Island's rich aviation history.

Historians are quick to point out that the post office's launch of airmail helped jump-start commercial aviation in America, showing airplanes could fly safely across country on a regular basis.

The first-ever experimental airmail flight took place on Long Island in 1911, a 3-mile journey between Garden City Estates and Mineola. The first regularly scheduled intercity US airmail began on May 15, 1918, after Congress appropriated $100,000 to establish airmail routes.

Using planes on loan from the Army Signal Corps, pilots flew between Washington's Polo Grounds and Belmont Park on Long Island, stopping in Philadelphia on the way. The first transcontinental airmail flight took off Feb. 22, 1921, from Mineola to San Francisco.

Among the initial airmail pilots was a young Charles Lindbergh, who flew for the post office in the early 1920s as part of a squadron that often had to fly exclusively in the daylight, following railroad tracks and dirt roads to locate destinations. Lindbergh took off from Long Island on his historic 1927 trans-Atlantic flight to Paris.

The post office didn't stay in the airplane business for long.

By 1926, commercial airlines took over the flights and a year later, all airmail was carried under contract.

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The following is a compilation of emails and photos from the pilots .

What an awesome day.  Down Jones Beach at 400 ft, up to 700 ft for a tour down 31 Left at JFK.  Then back to the beach for a tour by Coney Island, over the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, and around Our Lady of Liberty.  Then over Newark at 1000 ft, with a police chopper taking photos as we go.  Can't wait for those pictures.

At Belefonte, PA a large , enthusiastic crowd greeted us.  The trip over the Alleghenies was impressive.
Glad we had good weather over those rugged, tree covered ridges.  Then on to Cleveland Lakefront, between downtown Cleveland and the lake.
  A rival to Chicago's Miegs Field before Mayor Dailey stole it. A bit crosswindy, but fun.  Another big reception.

Big day tomorrow.  On to Bryant, OH, Lansing, IL and Iowa City, weather permitting.

The three mail planes left New York this morning with a great send off from Republic field,  
on hand were all media reporters and dignitaries from the Post Office and the Air Power Museum.

 

Note:  Some of the following photos may be out of geographical sequence

 

Addison Pemberton being interviewed regarding the re-enactment flight.

 

Here Mary Weber of the US Post Office in full era costume
personally cancels the postage on many of the letters.

 

Our departure included a low pass over JFK airport at the request
of ATC so they could see the very rare old aircraft in our flight.

 

Next the three aircraft passed over the Statue Of
Liberty as we started our first day of the trip West.

 

Our first stop was at Bellefonte PA where the folks provided a terrific
reception with media, and over 200 residents came out to see the
planes.  This was one of the stops on the original flight 90 years ago.

 

Our last stop of the day was at Cleveland Ohio where again there was a
great reception with the Post Office on hand, local residents and many
others.  We will overnight here and be off early in the morning to continue
the trip West to San Francisco.

 

Date: Sun, 14 Sept 2008 23:16:21 +0000
Well, we are still here in beautiful Rochelle Ill.  now going into 5 days since we were
unable to launch today,  we had a break in the weather,  packed the planes, pulled
them through and then another storm started dumping on us.
 We have hope
that if there isn't fog in the morning that we will be able to make it to Iowa City.

In  the meantime we continue to give tours to folks
visiting the hangers to see the airplanes.


One more shot from the Boeing 40C just in case you are not tired of seeing them.

 

Our goal is to make North Platte NE tomorrow night if the weather gives us a break.

 

Date: Sun, 14 Sept 2008 21:03:49 EDT
I just had to share this quote from the Renee Brown, Postmaster of Reno with
regard to the flight delays.
'Life is not about waiting for the Storm to pass -
it is about learning to Dance in the Rain.'

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Westward Ho at last.
Sent: 9/15/2008 9:48:59 P.M. Pacific Daylight Time
Subject: Transcon airmail flight

Today the ceilings lifted barely enough for us to safely depart Rochelle
after spending 4 nights there waiting for a break in the weather.

We headed West towards our first stop at Iowa City

 

One danger that we faced while traveling with low ceilings that the original pilots
did not was the ever-present radio towers disappearing into the cloud deck above.

 

One of the more striking things is as you are flying along are the large windmill
electric generators,
 I was thinking about the contrast in technology when flying
in a 1928 airplane flying over this very modern equipment.

 

Once we got about 100 miles West, the skies cleared and we were on our way again.

 

Our spirits were high once again as you can tell as Larry Tobin
maneuvers his C3B in close and gives us a wave!!!

 

We traveled low to the ground over the farmlands
due to higher headwinds at the upper elevations.

 

 

Ben Scott brought his 4E Stearman Speedmail in for a photo while over the vast
farmlands of Iowa.
 Al Holloway in the front cockpit looks us over as they fly by.

 

 

Tomorrow we will rise early and push on to Cheyenne WY, then
to Rawlins WY and lastly to a overnight stay in Rock Springs WY.

At Rock Springs we will be joined by Mary Weber of the USPS who will
be traveling with us to San Francisco.


Wyoming was the only state that had three mail stops.

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Sent: 9/16/2008 9:44:15 P.M. Pacific Daylight Time
Subject: September 16 Airmail Flight

Today was the most spectacular day we have had regarding weather!  
We started out this morning from Grand Island NE

It was just beginning to become daylight as we pulled the planes from

the hanger, the air was dead calm and not a cloud in the sky.
Everyone was excited about flying the mail today!!!

 

Addison waves goodbye to Grand Island just as the sun comes
over the horizon behind us as we once again head West.

 

Our first stop this morning was at North Platte NE, where the Post Office was on
hand to process the mail, which was done efficiently as we had four legs to fly today.

Again as at other stops, a very interested group of folks from North Platte came out to
welcome us and take a first hand look at the antique airplanes that were flying coast to coast.

 

Cheyenne, Wyoming was our next stop where we were greeted by a very large group
of townspeople, the Post Office handled the mail while we visited with and enjoyed the
crowd.
 It was difficult to leave as there were so many questions from both young and
old, as well as many stories from people who had knowledge of the airmail planes
stopping here many years ago.

 

The Boeing 40c casts an interesting shadow just
seconds before touching down on the runway.

 

Our third mail stop today was at Rawlins WY, the altitude of this airport is nearly
7000 feet high and really reduced the performance of these vintage aircraft.

Very friendly residents came out to meet the pilots and see the aircraft.

 

We could tell that we were not over Iowa anymore, where once there were miles of
fertile farmland below us, now our vintage aircraft passed over harsh mountains and
sagebrush.
 We began the day cruising at altitudes below 2500 feet above sea level.
we finished the day flying at 10,000 feet to safely clear the peaks.

 

Our final stop of the day was in Rock Springs WY. The five of us were pretty tired

as we pushed the planes into a hanger for the night.  Today was probably the best
traveling day we have had but it also included the most stops in one day on the trip.

After the mail was processed we headed for the motel and for the first meal of the day!!

Tomorrow we will load up and head for Salt Lake and then to Elko and finally to Reno.
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Subject: Trans con mail flight second to last day
Date: Thurs, 18 Sept 2008 13:20:34 +0000

Only one more day and the adventure will be drawing to a close!
Yesterday we got an early start from Rock Springs WY.

 

When we departed Rock Springs, the Jr High school
had all the students out in the yard to see us depart.

 

Dropping down from high altitude over the rugged Utah mounts, down into Salt Lake City

 

Salt Lake tower asks for a low pass over international.

 

The mail was quickly canceled and the planes refueled.  
There was a nice lunch for us and a great reception.

 

The Boeing 40C flying over the Salt Flats on our way to the
next stop, Elko NV.
 We had great weather for this flight.

 

 

Larry Tobin makes a right break over the desert.  The little C3B has to really
pedal hard to keep up with the larger and more powerful Boeing and Speedmail.

 

The folks at Elko were very interested in the aircraft and we had a
great time visiting about the trip across the US from New York.

The Post Office processed the mail and we fueled the planes and were off for Reno.

 

At Rock Springs we picked up a passenger, Mary Weber of the US Post Office.
Mary will be traveling with us to San Francisco.


Our next leg is our last, we will make the hop over the hills to San Francisco
where there are programs and receptions to celebrate the completion of the adventure.

----------------------
Sent: 9/18/2008 10:48:24 P.M. Pacific Daylight Time
Subject: Mail flight final edition

The mail has been delivered!!!!!
We arrived at Hayward airport today and delivered the mailbag to the Post Master for delivery.

All of you that have sent mail via the trans con flight will be getting your mail soon.

Each letter was stamped at every stop across the nation.
 

A mix of old and new air traffic with Ben's Stearman and jet traffic

 

We stopped in at the Museum at SFO.  Here is a shot from the C3B over the airport.

 

We did a harbor tour by air.  Here the 40c flies by the San Francisco Bay Bridge.

 

The Golden Gate Bridge below the Boeing 40c
This scene was probably repeated many times 80 years ago.

 

Larry Tobin with SFO behind.
An interesting story regarding Larry is that on his last trip as a 767 captain for
TWA just prior to his retirement was a flight from New York to San Francisco.

On this trip he flew his Stearman on the same flight

So with Ben and Addison passing by the Golden Gate, we completed the
adventure of a lifetime flying 3 old bi-planes from New York to San Francisco.

The trip took over 28 hours of flying time and 8 days, with the loss of 4 days in Rochelle Ill

Tonight, Bud Field hosted us and invited nearly 100 guests to a dinner and a program
to celebrate completion of the New York to San Francisco AirMail re-enactment.

 

Subject:  Tobin C3B
Date:  Sat, 20 Sept 2008 14:41:30 EDT
From: Ben Scott

All:
I just heard from Addison at Hood River, OR.  Larry's C3B Stearman was destroyed in a crash landing but Larry is unhurt.  They were on their way home up the Columbia River Gorge, between Cascade Locks and Hood River, 1500 feet under a 2500 foot ceiling.   The engine quit, Larry put it in a field and hit trees.   The left wings were torn off, absorbing energy.   The airplane is destroyed, but Larry is unhurt.   The airplane is insured, but so sad to loose the oldest Stearman.  Addison's theory is carb ice.
He said he was running full heat and it was a textbook carburetor ice day.
  He felt that Larry's heat muff just didn't have the capacity to cope.  It could have happened in a lot worse places on the trip.
Bummer.
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Subject:    Fwd:  : plane crash
Date:  Sun, 21 Sept 2008 12:11:57 EDT

So glad good people were there to take care of Larry when he dropped in.
Subject: plane crash
Date: Sat, 20 Sept 2008 20:10:18 +0000

Larry and his family
First I would like to say I am so grateful that Larry is alive to tell his story and am blessed by meeting him.   It was our pleasure to assist Larry with anything he needed during this ordeal, you are welcome at our home any time.  Craig and I will watch over the plane until the insurance company and FAA have come to remove the plane.

Attached are a few photos of the crash.  
Wanda