Tough guys and lame ducks – U.S. Air Mail pilots

Arnold Fischer
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4 minutes

There have been a number of fundamental certainties established in aviation over its 130-year long history: for one thing, getting into technically unreliable aircraft is not recommended if you are hoping for sustained dependability.

Air Mail pilots – the Suicide Club

Poorly dimensioned structures in aircraft are not a good idea either if you are continually pushing the aircraft to the limits of physics. Nor is flying without redundant systems if your compasses and instruments are seriously at risk of failure. And neither is being determined to reach your destination in a single-engine aircraft confronted by poor weather. These were all factors faced by the U.S. Air Mail pilots at the beginning of the 1920s. In 1921 alone, the U.S. Mail Service suffered over 1,700 emergency landings – half of which were due to technical faults, and the other half due to poor weather conditions.

Rain, storms, fog and darkness, burning engines or simply immovable obstacles when attempting to find their way flying at low altitude – these pilots truly were real men. Men who really pushed their limits to the extreme – and might be called adrenaline junkies today. The majority had served in the First World War, in other words they had already survived so much and continued to push back the limits. Some called this daring group of survival artists the “Suicide Club”.

Wikimedia Commons – Copyright: Harris & Ewing, Photographers – May 1918

Pilots celebrated like pop starts

34 pilots, that is every sixth Air Mail pilot, lost their lives delivering the mail between 1918 and 1927. These tough guys were soon regarded as the true heroes of their time by the American population. The aircraft – disused second-hand army aircraft – were often patched together with wire and glue and their engines were not designed for continuous operation. The carburettors continually iced up causing the engines to stop working. The aircraft had no navigational instruments apart from a compass, and they flew over land at low level, often flying at night as well.

Dean Smith was one of these heroes who were celebrated like pop stars. Some years later he wrote in his memoirs: “Life was so exciting and full that any alternative felt monotonous, prosaic and dull.” A further extract from Smiths’ life a few hours after he had narrowly escaped death: “On course. Westwards. Low-level flight. Engine damage. Emergency landing only possible on a cow. Cow dead. Engine breakage. Scared to death.”

At full throttle through the fog

The everyday life of an Air Mail pilot might have sounded something like this: climbing on board the overloaded and underpowered disused twin-wing aircraft at the crack of dawn. Then spinning the propeller (literally) and embarking on the 30-hour flight from the east to the west coast in the morning light. As it was often still foggy, the pilots initially had no option other than to follow a prominent railway line or river, even if it was not directly on their course. This, in turn, limited the operational radius of the aircraft and the mail often took much longer than expected. A functioning fuel display? There was not one on board. The engine? Outdated, used and vulnerable. The weather? There was never consistent or continuous weather conditions between the Atlantic and Pacific. Weather reports? There were none and, if there were, they were fairly imprecise. The pilot had no option other than to adapt to every constantly changing situation and make the best of things.

Concrete arrows as directional aids

The pilots frequently flew above solid cloud cover, particularly if it was at ground level. Without knowing whether they would be able to descend later with a view of the ground, if fuel or daylight was nearing an end or if there was a storm on their path. Sometimes the only alternative was a parachute. Or they flew with zero visibility several metres above river beds in the hope that they would see obstacles, like bridges, in good time. Which they often did at the last minute, faced with the decision of whether to go “over or under”.

The American Mail Service introduced the world’s first civil navigation aids on the ground to try to counter crashes and emergency landings. 21-metre-long arrows were cast in concrete and located on the ground every 16 kilometres along the most popular Air Mail flying routes on which, in turn, 15-metre high steel masts were positioned. Rotating lights were fitted onto the masts, which lit up the concrete arrows bright yellow by night and in poor weather and also sent out a Morse code signal. This enabled the pilots to discover which station they were just flying over. You can still see many of these arrows dotted across the landscape of the USA today.

Wikimedia Commons – Copyright: Dppowell – 30 July 2014

Facing the future with old equipment: the Air Mail pilot heroes paved the way for the subsequent operation of the first passenger aircraft. Charles Lindbergh was also an Air Mail pilot. He ejected twice from his aircraft and survived both times – and was subsequently immortalised as the first man to conquer the transatlantic route.

Would you like to read more about heroes of aviation? Then you might also like this article.

Main photo Wikimedia Commons – Harris & Ewing, Photographers – 1939

by Arnold Fischer

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