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The Boeing Monomail Model 200 was a mail plane flown from 1930. The Douglas DC-2 was used to carry both passengers and mail. A Boeing 247 flies the mail for United Airlines in 1933. The U.S. Army flew the mail over these routes during 1934. Walter Folger Brown is sworn in before testifying at a Senate committee hearing investigating airmail contracts in February 1934. The Stinson SR-10F Reliant was used for picking up the mail in 1939 by means of a skyhook.
President Herbert Hoover, elected in 1928, appointed Walter Folger Brown as his postmaster general. Brown thought that much of the airmail system was inefficient and costly, and asked Congress for legislation that would give him the authority to change existing postal policy. With help from William MacCracken, former Assistant Secretary of Commerce and now a lobbyist for the airlines, the resulting McNary Watres Act (also called the Air Mail Act of 1930) was passed on April 29, 1930. It gave Brown almost dictatorial powers over the air transportation system.
The main provision of the act changed the way mail payments were computed. Now airmail carriers would be paid up to $1.25 per mile for having a cargo capacity on their planes of at least 25-cubic feet (0.7 cubic-meter), whether the planes carried anything or flew empty. If they had less capacity, the “per mile” rate would be less. There was no incentive to carry mail since the airline would receive the same amount for a plane of a certain size whether it carried anything or not. But an airline could easily get additional revenue by carrying passengers. Thus, there was an incentive to use larger planes that were suited to carrying more passengers. Awards would be made to the “lowest responsible bidder” that had owned an airline operated on a daily schedule of at least 250 miles (402 kilometers) for at least six months.
A second provision stated that any airmail carrier that had carried the mail for at least two years could exchange its mail contract for a “route certificate” good for 10 years. This would give the carrier the right to carry mail for 10 years.
The third provision, which was the most controversial, gave the postmaster general the authority to “extend or consolidate” routes when he deemed it to be “in the public interest,” however he interpreted it.
Within two weeks, at what was later often called the “Spoils Conference,” Postmaster Brown used his power to consolidate the airline routes to only three companies that later would evolve into the modern-day airlines: United Airlines kept the northern airmail route; Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT) and Western Air Express merged to form Transcontinental and Western (TWA), which flew across the middle of the United States; American Airways operated the southern route, which was extended to the West Coast. Their competitors were forced out. Brown also awarded bonuses if the airlines carried more passengers, and even more money if they bought larger aircraft powered by more than one engine and equipped with two-way radios and navigation aids.
When Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt brought his “New Deal” to Washington in March 1933, he and his supporters attacked many of Brown's policies. The small aviation companies complained that they had been left out of Brown's scheme. Alabama Democrat Senator Hugo Black established a committee to investigate airmail. In January 1934, he began hearings in which the former postmaster and the large aviation companies were depicted as greedy and corrupt. Black called the process of giving contracts “spoils” and said the business had gone only to friends of the Hoover administration.
Supporters of former postmaster Brown, however, could point to his practical achievements. During his tenure, aircraft had actually become more efficient and the cost of carrying the mail had fallen dramatically. In 1933, costs averaged just 54 cents per mile (34 cents/kilometer) over a wide system of 34 routes that spanned 27,000 miles (43,453 kilometers).
Still, the Black hearings raised serious questions about the legality of the contracts awarded under Brown's leadership. On February 19, 1934, President Roosevelt canceled all existing airmail contracts. As a temporary measure, the President directed General Benjamin D. Foulois of the Army Air Corps to organize a new airmail operation that would use military planes and pilots to fly the mail. The new postmaster general, James Farley, reduced the airmail route system to 9,000 miles (14,484 kilometers).
The change proved disastrous. Army pilots had not been trained for cross-country or bad weather flying, and their aircraft had no landing lights or navigation instruments found in civilian aircraft. During training alone, three pilots were killed. A storm in the first week of operation killed two more pilots, injured six, and destroyed eight planes. The Air Corps stopped flying for a week, then tried new aircraft such as the Martin B-10. More crashes followed. By March 10, 12 pilots had died in 66 crashes or forced landings. Costs to fly the mail quadrupled, rising to $2.21 per mile. The administration came under scorching criticism.
On May 8, Roosevelt and Postmaster Farley returned to private contract airmail, but with conditions attached. No airline company that had held a contract before the government takeover could now operate. To circumvent these rules, the airlines simply changed their names. American Airways became American Air Lines, Northwest Airways became Northwest Airlines, EAT/Eastern Air Transport was now Eastern Air Lines, and TWA changed to TWA Inc. Boeing Air Transport became United Air Lines.
Postmasters produced special seals, called cachets, to commemorate special occasions. The top cachet commemorates the first night airmail service between St. Paul, Minnesota, and Chicago on August 1, 1939. The lower stamp, issued in 1938 for National Air Mail Week, marks the 20th anniversary of airmail service. These two 1949 issues commemorate the Wright brothers. The top image, postmarked in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the site of the "first free controlled and sustained powered flight by man," commemorates the return of the Wright brothers' airplane from England to the United States. The lower image commemorates their first flight.
Senator Black looked for different ways to punish the airlines. On June 12, 1934, he introduced the Black-McKellar Bill, which became known as the Air Mail Act of 1934. Its main provision broke up the aviation holding companies, large corporations that owned both aircraft manufacturing companies and airlines. The act also stated that the government would set airmail contracts, routes, and schedules; fix subsidy rates and airmail payments; and regulate the airways and license pilots. Furthermore, the temporary, low bids that had been accepted from the airlines were locked in place. All of the airmail carriers began to lose money.
Still, airline service grew quickly. New aircraft were introduced that could carry both mail and passengers, in particular the Curtiss T-32 Condor and the 15-seat Ford and Fokker trimotors. The DC-2, followed by the DC-3 and Boeing 247 were introduced. Planes became more comfortable as heating and cooling were added. Regularly scheduled day and night service became common. Flying also became easier for the crew with the introduction of the Sperry Gyroscope automatic pilot and dual flight instruments. Planes could fly longer distances, and overseas airmail routes were introduced. In 1935, the first airmail run across the Pacific Ocean took place when a Martin M-130 made a 59-hour flight from San Francisco to Manila in the Philippines.
Airmail returned to normal and improved in efficiency. In 1941, all allegations of corruption against former postmaster Brown were dropped.
Along the way, the airlines tried different ways of moving the mail. One innovative scheme was called “skyhooking,” which brought the mail to towns that were too small for an airport. In skyhooking, a plane would hook outgoing mail that was hanging on a rope suspended between two posts using a grappling hook on the airplane's tail. Incoming mail would simply be dropped from the planea Stinson Reliant R10. The method required great piloting skill and also reliance on visual landmarks. Begun in May 1939 with a one-year trial, All American Airways Company made 23,000 mail pickups this way along two routes out of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and won a contract to continue the service for 10 years. By the summer of 1941, the line was serving more than 100 locations and picking up some 400,000 pieces of mail each month. However, All American could not get the Civil Aeronautics Board to extend the service to other regions of the country. The airline dropped its pickup operations in 1949 and converted to carrying passengers.
Rotary-wing craft were also used experimentally for mail delivery. Eastern Air Lines received two contracts that lasted about two years for delivering the mail by autogyro. On July 6, 1939, it began the world's first scheduled airmail service using a rotary-winged aircraft—a Kellet autogyro—to fly from the roof of the Philadelphia Post Office to the airport at Camden, New Jersey. On October 1, 1947, Los Angeles Airways began the world's first regularly scheduled helicopter mail service, operating within a 50-mile (80-kilometer) radius of Los Angeles International Airport.
In 1947, domestic U.S. airmail operations covered 43,411 miles (69,458 kilometers). Railway mail service declined as quickly as airmail grew. From 1956 to 1961, the number of mail trains dropped in half to 1,300. In 1968, there were just 46 trains carrying mail, while Post Office contractors flew 2.2 billion pieces of airmail plus 17 billion pieces of regular first-class mail to 500 cities.
In the late 1960s, the Post Office began to combine airmail with regular first class mail and to consolidate the two types of mail, charging the same for both. By October 1975, all first-class letters cost the same whether traveling by air, land, or sea. The air route system had grown to 12,000 daily scheduled flights carrying 1.3 billion pounds (5.9 million kilograms) per year. As of 1976, the cost of flying domestic mail was $191.5 million. In 2001, airmail revenue is only a tiny portion of the income for airlines. What began as a desire and need to carry mail by air became today's global system of passenger airlines.
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Bruns, James H. Mail on the Move. Polo, Illinois: Transportation Trails, 1992.
Chaikin, Andrew. Air and Space--The National Air and Space Museum Story of Flight. Boston: Bulfinch Press/Little, Brown and Company, 1997.
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