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Scare Mail
Just thirty minutes into his first flight as a U.S. Air Mail pilot, Dean Smith discovered that his new job could be deadly. Without warning, the engine of his deHavilland DH-4 airplane suddenly quit. Below lay mile after mile of forest--and a tiny clearing that was the only hope for a safe landing.

Dean Smith Fighting rain and a steady wind, Smith steered his tiny, powerless aircraft toward the clearing. The plane narrowly cleared the bank of trees and swooped to the ground. But just as Smith's landing gear touched the earth, it slammed into a hidden ledge, crumpling the DH-4 like a piece of paper. The crash ejected Smith, who plowed into the brush with his seat belt still across his lap.

A local farmer used his horse and wagon to carry Smith and his mail bags to the nearest railroad station. There, the bruised and battered pilot continued his journey by train. He had survived his first crash--but it would not be his last. In the early days of Air Mail, pilots risked their lives on every flight.

Postmaster General Otto PraegerUnited States Air Mail service began on May 15, 1918, under the command of Second Assistant Postmaster General Otto Praeger. Praeger wasn't a pilot, but he wanted to prove that planes could deliver mail faster than trains could. Praeger's men flew a variety of aircraft. They soon came to rely on the deHavilland DH-4.

deHavilland DH-4The DH-4 was small. Its top speed was only about 120 miles per hour, but it could maneuver easily. Its open cockpit provided little protection from weather. The DH-4's compass often gave inaccurate readings, so pilots usually navigated by "contact flying"-- looking at landmarks on the ground such as roads, rivers, and railroad tracks. Since pilots couldn't fly at night, the mail was transferred to trains when darkness fell.

The first air mail route ran Washington, DC to New York City. For a skilled pilot, this route was relatively easy. It featured prominent landmarks and fields for emergency landings. But when the postal service decided to extend air mail across Pennsylvania's Allegheny Mountains to Cleveland, danger arose.

The Alleghenies were heavily forested, without many navigation landmarks. They often lay hidden in clouds, and were home to some of the worst weather in the East. But since Praeger needed to prove that value of air mail, he pushed pilots to fly even in rain, snow, and heavy fog.

If anyone could meet the challenge, the daring young pilots of the Air Mail service could. Many had flown in combat during World War I. Some had performed in barnstorming air shows. And as Air Mail expanded westward to Chicago and beyond, these men proved their bravery and resourcefulness again and again.

Plane crash Pilot Frank Yeager even discovered a new way to "fly" in heavy fog. He drove his plane on the ground across 35 miles of foggy prairie, rising into the air only to hop the barbed-wire fences that stood in his way. Another pilot, Wesley L. Smith, used a half-empty whiskey bottle as a flight instrument. When the whiskey in the bottle was level, he knew his plane's wings were level as well.

Still, these early pilots faced deadly odds. Between October 1919 and July 1921, twenty-six Air Mail employees died in plane crashes--more than one fatality per month. The average air mail pilot could expect to fly less than two years before dying on the job.

Radio operatorThanks to the work of pilots, mechanics, engineers, and administrators, Air Mail became steadily safer. Starting in 1920, pilots were issued parachutes. At first, many complained about having to carry them. But once a few lives were saved, they stopped complaining. New flight instruments and devices such as headlights on the wings made it easier for pilots to control and land their planes. And the quality of maintenance improved.

After a dramatic coast-to-coast flight in February, 1921, proved mail could be flown at night, the U.S. government set up a system of light beacons and lighted airfields across the country. The beacons guided night fliers, and the lighted fields provided safe landing spots.

group of mail pilotsThat same year, Otto Praeger, was replaced as head of the Air Mail service. The safety record had already began to improve, and it continued to do so. Between July of 1921 and September of 1922, not a single Air Mail employee died in a plane crash. By the end of 1923, pilot safety became a top priority of the Air Mail service. And soon, as the small planes gave way to larger, more reliable ones, Air Mail became even safer.

The first years of the Air Mail had been dramatic and dangerous. One of the pilots who survived was Dean Smith, whose telegram to Air Mail headquarters after a crash in Iowa serves as one of the best reminders of the wild and wooly days of early Air Mail. It read simply:

Suggestions for further readings. "On Trip 4 westbound. Flying low. Engine quit. Only place to land on cow. Killed cow. Wrecked plane. Scared me. Smith."

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