A cheering crowd greeted President Wilson as he arrived on the polo grounds in Washington, D.C., indicating that the day’s major event was about to occur. A siren signaled that the first-flight mail from the local post office was arriving on the field in a truck with large white signs on either side, proclaiming “United States Air Mail Service.” One of four mailbags was opened so the president could drop in his autographed letter with the new 24-cent stamp on it. The stamp had already been canceled with a special “First Trip” postmark.
The last bit of business to dispense with before flowers and farewell kisses was the presentation of military-aviation model Hamilton watches to the army officer-in-charge Major Rueben Fleet and pilot 2nd Lt. George Boyle by company president Charles F. Miller. Within days, the company touted in its advertising that “the entire flock of aviators” wore Hamilton watches, “the watch of aeroplane accuracy .”
Finally Second Assistant Postmaster General Otto Praeger saw the president turn to Fleet and heard him murmur, “All right you may go.”
The flowers given to Boyle ended up in his fiancé Margaret’s arms, and after a lingering farewell kiss, the young pilot climbed into Curtiss Jenny 38262 to prepare to take off with the first bags of airmail and head north to Philadelphia. Army guards shooed the crowd away from the plane so Boyle could start the engine. Sergeant Waters and four mechanics stood ready at the propellers.
“Switch off!” Waters shouted.
“Switch off!” Boyle repeated.
Waters grabbed one end of the propeller with one hand, while one of his men took hold of the other end. The remaining men helped pull the prop through. The blade made one stiff turn. The men repeated the operation twice more that should have pumped gas into the engine.
Then the sergeant yelled “Contact!” and Boyle repeated the same. He switched on the engine and the crewmen pulled the prop through again.
But instead of starting up, the engine coughed, the prop made one turn and started into a second one, then suddenly backlashed into an upright position and stood still. A puff of heavy smoke billowed from the exhaust stacks, and everything went quiet.
The crew repeated this procedure several more times to no avail. Field logistics officer Captain Benjamin Lipsner’s nightmares were coming true. As the mechanics checked the engine, spark plugs, and everything else they could think of, those standing near the president could hear him mutter, “We’re losing a lot of valuable time here.” Lipsner checked the gauge and it read full. He stepped back, mystified. “A Jenny could be hard to start sometimes, but usually you could trace down the cause,” he recalled.” I couldn’t think of a thing.”
Then, something finally occurred to him. The Jenny’s gas gauge was designed to register in level flight, but Boyle’s plane was sitting with its tail on the ground. A check of the tank itself revealed that it was empty. Fleet had flown the plane from Philadelphia that morning and upon landing, had assumed that Lipsner, who was in charge of field operations, would automatically order his crew to service the plane. Not only had that not been done, but as Lipsner and his crew now scrambled around to fill the Jenny’s gas tank, they discovered that there was no gas at the field. The ground crew quickly siphoned gas out of other planes parked nearby and dumped it into 38262’s tank.
Finally, the Jenny’s Hispano-Suiza engine sparked to life with a satisfying roar. Crewmen pulled the chocks away from the wheels. Then Boyle blasted the power to free the tailskid from the turf and turned to start his takeoff. Only fifteen minutes late after all, he taxied to the field and took off into the wind, barely clearing the trees.
Satisfied the cloudland mail has been successfully launched, the president, Praeger, the press, and everyone else began to leave the field. Lipsner, watching Boyle climb away, realized after a few minutes that the inexperienced pilot was on a course in the direction opposite of that he had been instructed to fly.
“The first scheduled airmail was in the air,” said Lipsner, “but it was flying in the wrong direction.”
Source: This excerpt from Stamp of the Century is derived from a variety of sources.
Amick, George (1986). The Inverted Jenny: Money, Mystery, Mania. Amos Press, Inc.
Praeger, Otto. unpublished memoir, Moss From a Rolling Stone.
Lipsner, Benjamin (1951). The Airmail, Jennies to Jets. Wilcox and Follett.