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The American Experience

Air Mail Maverick

Determined to become a first-rate pilot, Charles Lindbergh entered the Army Air Service Cadet Program in San Antonio, Texas, in March of 1924. Lindbergh was motivated to succeed in Army flight school as he never had been before. In his mind, " Air Service pilot's wings were like a silver passport to the realm of light." After a year of intense classroom study and flight experience in some of the most advanced planes of the day, Lindbergh graduated at the top of his class. His next task was to find out how to turn his love of flying into a career.

Airmail service had been in effect in the United States since 1918. It was considered the most dangerous job in the country. Statistics bore that out: 31 of the first 40 pilots hired to fly mail were killed in crashes. In the spring of 1920 the first transcontinental airmail service was established between New York and San Francisco, with "feeder routes" between Washington and New York, St. Louis and Chicago, and Chicago and Minneapolis. In the early years, the service was run by the U.S. Post Office, under control of the federal government. In 1925 a bill was passed that turned airmail service over to the private sector. In the spring of 1925, Charles Lindbergh was in St. Louis where he came to the attention of William B. and Frank Robinson, two World War I fliers who owned Robinson Aircraft Corporation. The Robinson brothers had been awarded the contract to fly mail between St. Louis and Chicago. They were greatly impressed with Lindbergh's skill as an aviator and his serious manner. They offered him the job as Chief Pilot of their new airmail service. Lindbergh loved a challenge, and flying airmail would present many.

The planes used by airmail pilots, mainly De Havillands, were referred to as "flaming coffins," because their fuel tanks, which were set between the engine and the cockpit, would often explode on crash landings. And crash landings were not uncommon. The De Havillands were also known for reaching dangerously high landing speeds, being too heavy, having poorly designed cockpits, and "the gliding angle of a brick." Airmail pilots, lacking any communication with ground crews, also had to contend with poorly-lit and poorly-designed landing fields. Weather conditions could be confounding, sometimes changing drastically every 50 or so miles.

Chief Pilot Lindbergh performed meticulous flight preparations, carefully plotting routes and landing spots. He and his staff flew five round-trip mail drops per week. Conditions demanded that he use all of his accumulated flying skills. His experience served him well, as he was forced to crash land on several occasions. When forced down, Lindbergh would fly low for as long as possible, using up fuel to lessen the chances of an explosion upon hitting the ground. On more than one occasion, he landed in a farmer's field with the aid of a flashlight. Despite facing numerous dangers and obstacles, Lindbergh and his pilots established an impressive record for the reliability of their airmail deliveries.

It was while Lindbergh was working as an airmail pilot that he first became interested in the race to claim the Orteig Prize. Twenty-five thousand dollars would be awarded to the first aviator to fly non-stop from Paris to New York, or vice-versa. By 1926, Lindbergh knew his next goal.




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