After becoming the first pilot to fly through a thunderstorm and live to tell about it, James Clark Edgerton went on to make twenty perfect flights in June. Airmail began flying between New York and Boston soon after scheduled service began between Washington, D.C., and New York on May 15, 1918. Though service was hampered by more bad weather and dicey landings, the Post Office Department pronounced the new line a success. And so, airmail service settled into a routine that summer.
Unfortunately, the service was not turning out to be as lucrative as the post office had hoped. Businesses surveyed before the first flights professed their enthusiasm for speedier delivery but balked at paying the high 24-cent rate just to save a few hours. In July the Post Office dropped the rate to sixteen cents per ounce, and by the end of the year they dropped it to six cents. They completely eliminated the surcharge for airmail the next year.
Second Assistant Postmaster General Otto Praeger knew it was a matter of time before he lost his military pilots to overseas duty in the Great War. What really bothered him, though, were growing numbers of army pilots refusing to fly in bad weather. Infuriated, Praeger took note of every cancellation and developed his own plans that summer to seize the airmail service from the army and run it as a civilian activity.
As negotiations for a transfer of equipment from the War Department to the Post Office Department proceeded, Otto Praeger hired Captain Benjamim Lipsner to be his first airmail superintendent. While on military assignment to the Post Office to launch the first flights, Lipsner had impressed Praeger with the initiative he showed in developing a comprehensive cost accounting and record-keeping system. Glad to join Praeger’s team, the captain resigned his commission and started work as a civilian in mid-July.
Pilots quickly learned that the $3,600 annual salary for an airmail pilot greatly exceeded army pay, and they had been sending letters to the Post Office throughout the summer asking for work. One young pilot named Max Miller lobbied his old friend Ben Lipsner after turning down an instructor’s job, writing, “I promised you if you can use me, that I’d be with you, and I don’t know anybody else I’d rather work with.”
Praeger’s standard written reply to all pilot queries was the same: “Only aviators who will agree to fly…regardless of weather conditions…will be utilized.” Miller was the first one to say yes. He was hired as a mechanic in June and was promoted to aviator slightly more than a month later.
Despite progress in aircraft production, the Senate Military Committee found President Wilson’s reorganization of the aviation program wanting. Throughout a hot, muggy August, the committee continued to investigate allegations of delay and waste, fueled by letters from General Pershing claiming pilots were losing their lives in faulty De Haviland-4 aircraft. In hearings about the loss of life, money spent, and future plans, future Inverted Jenny owner Senator Joseph Frelinghuysen was one of many senators grilling John D. Ryan, who directed production, and others. The committee eventually piled up 1,126 pages of published testimony.
While hearings continued, plans moved ahead for taking over the airmail service. On August 6, Praeger and Lipsner posed for photos surrounded by newly hired pilots Max Miller, Eddie Gardner, Maurice Newton, and Robert Shank. They had come to the airfield used by the Standard Aircraft Company in Elizabeth, New Jersey, to take possession of six new Standard Aircraft JR 1-Bs, looking a lot like the Curtiss JN4s they had been purchased to supplement.
Four days later, the War Department relinquished airmail operations to the Post Office Department. The Post Office had already moved its operations from the polo grounds by the Lincoln Monument to a small airport nearby in College Park, MD (now serving as the College Park Aviation Museum). On Monday, August 12, Max Miller left College Park in a Standard JR 1B, and civilian airmail service took flight.
Praeger knew he still had battles to fight to keep the service going. “The miracle about the air mail lay not so much in the actual operation of the airplanes on schedule,” he wrote in an unpublished memoir, “as in beating down the opposition of well meaning people who contended that the airplane, commercially, had not yet arrived, or if it had, that none but military men could operate such a service.”
Throughout the summer and into the fall, the Post Office Department sparred with Congress over continued appropriations for airmail. And yet, the postmaster general remained unfazed. “There is nothing to worry about for the future of the air mail,” Albert Burleson told Praeger. “Too many cities are clamoring for this service.”
Sources: Material is derived from Aerial Pioneers by William Leary, Otto Praeger’s unpublished memoir, Moss from a Rolling Stone, and National Postal Museum files and blogs, including Nancy Pope’s “The Postal Airmail Service,” retrieved from http://postalmuseumblog.si.edu/2012/08/the-postal-airmail-service.html.