By Robert L. Harrison
The first regularly scheduled airmail service began on May 15, 1918 between New York and Washington, D. C. Airmail did not officially reach the Bay Area until September 9, 1920 when a plane carrying mail from New York arrived at the Marina airfield in San Francisco. The formal inauguration of transcontinental airmail service was the following day as reported in the September 10, 1920 San Francisco Call:
“Air mail service from San Francisco to New York was officially begun today, when airplane №71, piloted by Raymond J. Little of Oakland, hopped off from the Marina at 6:15, carrying several hundred pounds of mail for Eastern destinations.”
The airplanes initially utilized by the service were a modest advancement over those designed by the Wright brothers, but still quite primitive. The aircraft were typically constructed of linen stretched over wooden ribs and equipped with balky water-cooled engines. Pilots flew in open cockpits in all kinds of weather. Flying was limited to day time hours as there were no navigation aids and courses were plotted by using recognition of landmarks and the pilot’s skill at dead reckoning.
An example of such an early craft was the Curtiss JN-4, known as the “Jenny”. In the first months of airmail service the Post Office Department used six Jenny’s with their pilots borrowed from the Army. The Jenny was made famous by a stamp issued to commemorate the inauguration of airmail. A production error caused the image of the plane to be printed upside-down. Only one pane of the inverted image stamps was ever found making the stamps a highly prized collector’s item. In 2018 an Inverted Jenny stamp sold for $1,593,000.
As shown on the Inverted Jenny stamp the initial 1918 airmail postage was $0.24 (about $3.60 in 2021 dollars). At that rate airmail was eight times the fee for first class postage. The public was reluctant to pay the premium rate. In response the charge for airmail was lowered to $0.06 (about $0.90 in 2021 dollars) later that year. In 1919 first class postage was reduced from $0.03 to $0.02 (about $0.30 in 2021 dollars) per ounce.
Bay Area interest in airmail grew rapidly following the first regularly scheduled service. Many reports from the east stressed the successful speed up of mail service, further stimulating awareness of airmail’s potential. For example, the Sausalito News on September 20, 1919 reported comments by Otto Praeger, Assistant Post Master General: “Records for transportation of mail along the eastern seaboard and from New York City west are being established daily by the airplane mail service….The service has speeded mail delivery all over the country.”
By 1919 several west coast airmail routes were being explored. Mapping the route from San Diego to San Francisco was completed on Christmas Day that year. The plane departed San Diego with stops at Los Angeles, Mojave, Bakersfield, Fresno, and Stockton prior to landing at San Francisco’s Marina airfield. Total flying time for the 600 mile trip was 10 hours and 20 minutes at an average speed of 58 miles per hour. The pilots reported “favorable conditions” along the route. In 1920 the grassy field at the Marina was named Crissy Army Airfield for Major Dana H. Crissy who was killed in a crash landing attempt at Salt Lake City.
The first mail delivered by air to Marin County arrived on January 27, 1920. Rather than actually landing in Marin, a package of mail was dropped from the plane as it flew by. The package was addressed to the Marin Journal where the event was described in an article dated January 29, 1920: “It was the first mail delivery ever made in San Rafael by airplane.”
In August 1920 exploration continued on the transcontinental route for airmail. On August 6, 1920 the San Francisco Call reported: “The first of the transcontinental mail plane pathfinders…is due to arrive in San Francisco tomorrow.” The assessment of the coast to coast route found that the last leg from Reno could be made non-stop to San Francisco. When first put into scheduled service a stop a Sacramento was scheduled between the two cities.
The initial 2,680 mile transcontinental airmail route from San Francisco to New York involved 15 intermediate stops. The mail was flown by day and carried by train at night. Total time for the coast to coast delivery was about three and one-half days, nearly a day (22 hours) quicker than the all-rail time. By 1924 night flying was possible and the trip time was reduced to approximately 33 hours. The distance and time required for the all airplane continental crossing required six changes of pilots and planes.
Not surprisingly the early airmail service suffered many accidents. Fortunately because flights were at low elevation and slow airspeed the crashes that did occur were not usually fatal. A particularly vivid example of such a crash was headlined in the January 4, 1921 San Francisco Call: “Flier Drops 2000 Feet, Unhurt, Into Center of Street”. The article continued, “Falling through 2000 feet of fog into the heart of a residence section, narrowly missing a number of frame structures, striving heroically to recover control and to steer his ship clear of dwellings, Lieutenant Stanly S. Boggs, air mail pilot, miraculously escaped unhurt today when his De Haviland-4 mail plane crashed through a mass of trolley wires and telephone cables and was destroyed by flames….Boggs extracting himself from the cockpit, ran to a fire alarm box at Gough and Fulton streets, turned in an alarm, then raced back to his flaming plane to save, if possible, the mail.” Nine bags of mail were scorched but none were destroyed.
On January 19, 1922 the Republican leaning Marin Journal lauded the improvements made under the new Republican administration. The newspaper noted, “During 1920…there was an average of one fatality for every 100,000 miles flown. Since July 1, when the reforms of Postmaster General Hays were in full effect, there has been one fatality for every 800,000 miles flown….The speedy operation of the air mail has not been curtailed to produce that result. In recent months 98 per cent of all scheduled trips have been completed, a truly remarkable record.”
On September 15, 1926 airmail service between Seattle and Los Angeles was inaugurated. Cities along the route served included Portland, Medford, San Francisco, Fresno and Bakersfield. The Sausalito News published a list of mailing hours for the new service: “The service is daily except Monday. Airmail mailed in Sausalito before 7:30 a.m….is due to arrive in Los Angeles at 5 p.m. the same day….Airmail mailed before 5:30 p.m. is due to arrive at Medford at 9:30 a.m., Portland at noon, and at Seattle at 2 p.m. of the following day.”
By November 14, 1930 the News could report improvements to the west coast airway: “Installation of lights and other navigational aids permitting night flying have been completed on the airway from Seattle to Los Angeles.” Further upgrades completed in 1936 permitted “overnight delivery of letters from Sausalito to every city of 100,000 population on the Pacific Coast.”
Airmail became a fundamental part of the Postal Service in 1975. According to the October 14 issue of the Sausalito Marin Scope: “There is no longer an advantage for postal customers to buy airmail postage for domestic mail use, according to Postmaster J. W. Bell. Effective October 11, all domestic mail is to be sent by the fastest means available…. first class rates will apply regardless of destination.”
In just over 100 years airmail has evolved from its tentative start to the routine service expected when a letter is mailed today.