The U.S. Post Office airmail service we take for granted today almost didn’t get off the ground.
Airplanes were still a fairly new invention when a Texas legislator, U.S. Rep. Morris Sheppard, introduced a bill in June 1910, to authorize the postmaster general to investigate the feasibility of “an aeroplane or airship mail route,” according to the U.S. Congressional Record.
The bill, however, never made it out of committee, according to an excerpt in Airmail: A Brief History, posted on www.usps.com. Interestingly, the account noted that the The New York Telegraph newspaper at the time deemed airmail service “a fanciful dream,” and predicted that when, or if, it did become available:
“Love letters will be carried in a rose-pink aeroplane, steered by Cupid’s wings and operated by perfumed gasoline. … [and] postmen will wear wired coat tails and on their feet will be wings.” — U.S. Congressional Record
But a few years later, limited airmail service did begin between New York and Washington, D.C., on May 15, 1918. By Sept. 20, 1920, the last leg of transcontinental airmail service — which carried mail from New York to San Francisco — was established.
That history, and Bryan’s significant role in that early airmail service, will be celebrated next month by the Airmail 100 Centennial Flight Project. From Sept. 8-11, private volunteer pilots will fly in relay over the original 2,680-mile New York-to-San Francisco transcontinental route — a route that for a time, included a refueling stop in Bryan, between the Cleveland-to-Chicago leg of the route.
One pilot is due to cover each of the 15 legs of the route, and the pilot on the Cleveland-to-Chicago leg is due to touch down at the Williams County Regional Airport in Bryan at 2:40 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 8,. The stop will be brief — about 20 minutes — before the flight continues on to Joliet, Illinois, according to Bill Moore, a pilot and lead organizer for the Airmail 100 Centennial Flight Project.
“We have a number of volunteer general aviation pilots, some of them with the Experimental Aviation Association. Each pilot will be flying one of the 15 original legs of the New York-to-San Francisco airmail route. We’ll be stopping in Bryan (because) Bryan was a refueling stop on the Cleveland-to-Chicago leg ... until the DC3 came on scene in early 1930s (with a) larger fuel capacity,” said Moore, from Omaha, Nebraska.
Moore explained that to begin airmail service, the post office received as surplus a number of British military World War I-era DH4 bombers. He said the post office outfitted them with more powerful 12-cylinder, 400-hp engines than they had originally, and they served until the DC3 came out in the early 1930s.
Moore said as technology improved, planes could fly farther without having to refuel. Eventually they bypassed almost all refueling stops like Bryan except for a very few that stayed as emergency fields.
Moore said because so few DH4s are still flying — “there are only a couple still around,” he said — most pilots in the Airmail 100 Centennial Flight Project will be piloting their more modern Cessnas, Beechcrafts and similar planes.
Moore said tentatively, the plan is to have local Boy Scouts put stamps and messages on special Bryan commemorative postcards and address them to their parents, teachers and coaches. The pilot who lands at Bryan will collect them and carry them all the way to San Francisco, “where they will be mailed into history,” Moore said.
“We also hope that Bryan, like each community that once hosted a U.S. Air Mail landing field, will issue a proclamation noting the historic significance their predecessors played in this nationally important and extremely risky venture,” he said.
According to www.usps.com, 34 of the approximately 200 pilots who flew the mail from August 1918 to September 1927 lost their lives due to plane crashes.
The Airmail 100 Centennial Flight Project website, http://airmail100.com, notes that possibly the reason the tiny farm community of Bryan was chosen as the mid-point refueling stop between Cleveland and Chicago “is because it sat astride a major rail line that early airmail pilots could follow, since they had no maps, just a slim guide book entitled ‘U.S. Air Mail Service Pilots’ Directions New York to San Francisco Route,’ published (just) five months after the 1920 flight.”
That original airfield, now an open field on the east side of the 800 block of North Main Street, between East Foster Street and Bryan Ford, is designated by a state historical marker.
Moore laughed when asked if participants will be asked to wear masks and social distance when the plane lands in Bryan Sept. 8.
“They’re already social distancing at 10,000 feet,” he said.