The first airmail flight in history, preparing to depart from Belmont Park in Queens. Image via Cradle of Aviation Museum
Two crowds gathered together on an especially foggy May morning in 1918 — one on the Washington, D.C. Polo Field, and the other on the historic Belmont Park racetrack in just outside Queens. Both crowds, which included the likes of President Woodrow Wilson and then-Postmaster General Albert Burleson, were there to witness history; May 15th would be the day of the inaugural air mail service between New York City and Washington, D.C., with a stop in Philadelphia along the way.
Belmont Park, which had only eight years earlier been the site of an airshow that included the Wright Brothers, was to see one plane leave with D.C.-bound mail, and ideally, according to the records of the service’s officer-in-charge, Major Reuben H. Fleet, receive a New York-bound plane from Washington. Mail from each city included important documents including a letter from Burleson to the Postmaster of New York, Thomas Patten, and a letter from President Wilson to New York Governor Charles Whitman.
The service and its planning was not without its fair share of mishaps. Fleet had been notified by President Wilson’s cabinet of the plan with only fifteen days to prepare, after which Postmaster General Burleson lobbied for about two more months extra time. Even then, the single-engine JN-4H biplanes Fleet had commissioned to carry the mail arrived with numerous mechanical flaws due to their hastened production. On one occasion, Fleet’s mechanic plugged a lead-pencil sized hole in one plane’s engine with a rubber cork, lacking both the time and the tools to fix it properly.
Image via Mavericks of the Sky
As the day approached, the first two planes departed from both the Polo Field and Belmont Park. The north-bound plane from D.C., piloted by Lieutenant George Boyle, ended up overturned in a field about an hour south of Washington; Boyle, who had been instructed to use the train tracks as a guide, had become confused and flown in the wrong direction. Despite some initial reports that the mail had simply been smuggled onto a train to make deadline, Boyle had in reality flown back to D.C., and the mail was delivered the next day.
Image via New York Racing Board
Lieutenant Torrey H. Webb, departing from Belmont Park, arrived in D.C. three hours and five minutes later and right-side up. He became the first pilot to deliver mail by plane. Today, most everything, even some mail classified as ground mail, spends at least some time in an aircraft.
As for Boyle, he was given a second chance, ran out of gas, and nearly crashed into the Atlantic Ocean. Fleet responded to the Postal Service’s request for a third chance by sending him back to flying school.