Early Air Mail Flights

By SM Sgt. Wilbur Tackaberry

 

Robertson Aircraft planes and hangars. Robertson was a major contractor to carry air mail between St. Louis and Chicago. Source: The Show Me Spirit: A 50 Year History of the Missouri Air National Guard, 1923-1973.

On February 6, 1925 local newspapers carried a story, "Flying Field Bought for Use of City". The purchase was part of a plan to bring Government Air Mail Service to St. Louis. This was the site on which the International Air Races were held in October 1923. The land was purchased by Albert Bond Lambert and the St. Louis Aeronautical Corporation. A deed filed at the Recorder’s office in Clayton shows a purchase of the property from Mrs. J. Weldon for $68,352.

Use of the facility was guaranteed to the City of St. Louis and the United States Government free of charge, for a ten-year period, for aviation and aeronautical purposes, but particularly for the air mail service which it hoped to bring to St. Louis.

A delegation was formed to visit Washington and inform the Government of the field’s "new status" and endeavor to bring the air mail service here.

The Postmaster General had put into effect the Air Mail Act of 1925. This new act authorized private operators to contract for air mail service and apply for civil air mail routes. Hundreds of inquiries were received by the Postmaster General’s office from interested citizens and airline operators. One of these inquiries came from Robertson Aviation who was awarded a contract and a route from St. Louis to Chicago.

On April 15, 1926 Charles Lindbergh, who had been hired by the Robertson Brothers, made his first flight as an air mail pilot from St. Louis to Chicago. Along the route Lindbergh had selected nine landing fields at intervals of about every 30 miles. It was anticipated that these locations would provide assistance to the pilots if needed.

The airplanes used were rebuilt Army surplus DHs with liberty engines and two open cockpits. Mail was stacked in the front seat and flown from the rear. Exposure to the elements was an accepted hazard to flying during this period.

The new air mail service had one major drawback. A letter sent from St. Louis to New York would reach its destination only one day in advance of one sent by train—weather permitting. Businessmen generally agreed that the chance of delay plus the extra cost of mail delivery overbalanced the saving of a day in mail delivery. At times the cargo on a flight consisted of only a single lightly filled pouch. [Left Photo Maj William Robertson]

The lack of weather information and ground lights was a serious handicap to the air mail pilot. During these flights "Slim" Lindbergh had several near accidents. One of these incidents occurred on a flight to Chicago with the mail. Lindbergh encountered heavy fog and could not land. He searched unsuccessfully for the "beacons" which marked the airways but the near zero conditions soon exhausted his fuel supply. When his fuel gauge showed empty he bailed out. He had not bothered to cut the ignition switch and, only moments after "hitting the silk" the engine restarted. The aircraft began descending in a wide circle and came close to hitting him several times as he swung beneath his parachute. After touching ground, he located the aircraft wreckage with the aid of a farmer and recovered the cargo. The mail pouch was transported to the nearest railroad station and sent on its way. To the modern day late show TV viewer or history buff, the experiences of the early air mail pilot were not unlike those of the pony express rider after a running encounter with a band of renegade Indians.

Lindbergh had two other emergencies in impossible weather—landing both times by parachute. He displayed considerable daring during his service as an air mail pilot, but he also displayed a need for "life insurance". His close friend was MSG Jimmy Tate, parachute rigger for the 110th Observation Squadron, Missouri National Guard. MSG Tate was the only man Lindbergh would allow to repack his parachute. To the best of our knowledge Tate’s talent was put to test no less than five times during Lindbergh’s flying career.

"Slim" jokingly reported that when he telephoned his St. Louis office after a mishap, Major Bill Robertson, his boss, had but three questions, asked in the following order, "What happened to the plane ?", "Did you save the mail ?", and "How are you ?"

Undoubtedly the thought also occurred to him that, with a properly designed aircraft and with fuel and speed control he could fly non-stop from New York to Paris. For most young men of the period who had barely enough resources to maintain his room and board. This was an "impossible dream", but for Charles A. "Slim" Lindbergh, stunt flyer, airmail pilot, and National Guard officer, the impossible would soon become a reality. [Photo: 1928,  Jimmy Tate (right) and Stan Girding (left)]

 

 

Dan Robertson [enlargement]

Air Mail Reenactment at Lambert Field [enlargement]

 


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