Flying by the seat of your pants

History of airmail in Wyoming

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TORRINGTON – Equipped with only what is now considered ancient technology in a crude plane, brave men took a gamble to ensure the future of airmail. These men, who flew into the night with only beacons on the ground to light their way, established the first all-air transcontinental mail route.

On Tuesday, Nov. 28, many members of the community filled the Platte Valley Community Room for this month’s Goshen County Historical Society’s (GCHS) guest speaker Dean McClain. His presentation was on the history of airmail in Wyoming. 

In 1976, McClain learned to fly in Casper out on a dirt strip with a 1946 Piper Cub plane. During his downtime, he would hang out at the airport and try to talk with different pilots. While most pilots would go home between 5 and 7 p.m., he said the mail pilots would come in at 10 p.m., fly all night and be back by 5 a.m.

“Those guys flew all night long in all weather and all by themselves,” McClain recalled. “I always kind of looked up to the mail pilots. They were kind of my mentor and later on some friends of mine.”

Early days of airmail

“They started flying mail in 1918 during World War I from New York City, New York to Washington, D.C., basically the capital to the capital of business,” McClain said. On this trip, the planes would stop in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania at the U.S. Mint.

During the war, the British signed a contract for a company in the U.S. to build airplanes. However, by the time the 4,000 planes were ready, the war had ended. The post office was able to get the airplanes for little to nothing. 

After establishing the airmail route, they wanted to add a route to Chicago, Illinois, since it was a big business center at the time. However, the Allegheny Mountains cause considerable trouble for air travel. 

“There were no maps and certainly no navigation at that time,” McClain explained. “When they did it, they tried to follow the railroad and traveled only in the daytime. [But the weather in the] Alleghenies made it a pretty risky business.”

Subsequently, next, they wanted to extend the route from coast to coast. They followed the railroad to Cheyenne, Cheyenne to Salt Lake, Utah and Salt Lake to San Francisco, California. 

“[During their trips,] they would stop at different points along the railroad since they were following along the railroad anyway,” McClain said. “In Wyoming, those stops would be Cheyenne, Rawlins and Rock Springs.”

At this time, it cost $0.24 for an airmail stamp, whereas it cost $0.02 for first-class mail. 

The airplanes would carry the mail during the day and the train would carry it at night when the planes were grounded. On average, regular mail by train would take five to six days to cross the country. With airmail, they were able to shave off a day.

For the first few years, this seemed to work; however, it wasn’t long before they had to make it over the next obstacle. 

“If they were ever going to make this work, they were going to have to fly all night; but that was a huge problem,” McClain continued. 

Fly by Knight

“Everything’s worse at night, [especially] out west where we don’t have big cities,” McClain explained. “[Around the cities], everything is lit up. The stars are [above the plane] and the lights are [below].”

“Out west it doesn’t work that way, especially back in that time,” he continued. “Many people didn’t have electricity. If it was dark and hazy you couldn’t tell where the horizon was, [or up from down].”

Unlike nowadays, pilots at the time didn’t have special instruments to help them. It was very common for pilots to get disoriented and cause a crash. 

“If you were flying and you didn’t put enough rudder in, the way you could tell is you would slide off the seat,” McClain said. “If you put in too much rudder and not enough aileron on it, you skidded off the seat. That’s where we get the term, ‘Flying by the seat of your pants.’”

It was these dangers that threatened to end airmail. In order to ensure the future of airmail, those involved asked Congress in 1921 to approve funding for a night flight to demonstrate its potential. 

The plan was to send four planes, two from New York City, New York and two from San Francisco, California. The two New York planes would get to Chicago, Illinois before dark and the two from California would get to Cheyenne before dark. The pilots would then fly the central part of the country after dark using bonfires, lit by volunteers, for navigation.

“The two airplanes from New York were grounded by weather and were stopped short,” McClain said. “The two planes out of San Francisco made it to Cheyenne, where one broke down. So, there was only one left flown by a guy named Jack Knight.”

Knight made it to North Platte, Nebraska where his relief pilot was supposed to meet him. He then flew on to Omaha, Nebraska in the snow and then to Chicago, Illinois on his own. 

With the flight a success, Congress approved funding.

“He was the one that saved airmail and he did it with a broken nose from a crash the week before,” McClain continued. 

According to McClain, Knight’s iconic flight with a broken nose, in a biplane with only bonfires lighting the way, most likely inspired the phrase “Fly by Knight.”

Knight later went on to be the vice president of United Airlines. 

The beacons are lit

While the bonfires worked for the first night flight, it was necessary to find a long-term plan for the 2,665 miles from New York to San Francisco. The plan consisted of a string of concrete arrows with a beacon on it pointing the way every 10 miles to the east and every 20 miles out west. 

In addition to the arrow, each beacon also had lights that flashed in each direction in Morris Code at night to translate information to pilots. 

McClain said the beacons ran after dark. In remote areas, the beacon keepers lived on-site in a little home next to the beacon. The keeper’s job was to keep the gasoline-powered generators running to keep the beacon lit all night long. They also ran the telegraph station to keep in touch with the other beacon keepers along the route. 

In Wyoming, there were 26 beacons scattered across the state. 

“Every three miles along the route they had an acetylene beacon, unmanned,” he continued. “the acetylene beacon flashed all night long. They had a sunlight valve on there that would shut [it off during the daytime].”

Beacon keepers were paid $1,200 a year and were provided a house. They would man the beacon 24 hours a day and log when airplanes flew overhead. 

In at least four places in Wyoming, there were emergency airports along the route that provided a safe place for the pilots to land. One such airport was in Medicine Bow.

According to McClain, several of the beacon towers and concrete arrows, while long abandoned, still exist today throughout Wyoming, Utah and Nevada.

Pilots

“The pilots were a pretty colorful group of people,” McClain said. 

Most of the pilots back then weren’t too crazy about flying at night, but eventually, they warmed up to it.

Wyoming was a major hub for airmail resulting in several important pilots traveling through the state. A few of the pilots were Bill “Wild Bill” Hopson, James Murray and L. Rae Jepsen.

The pilots were paid between $2,000 and $3,000 a year plus $0.05 per mile for every mile flown and double that at night. 

“Jamie Murray flew the first airmail into Cheyenne [in 1920],” he continued. “When he landed in Cheyenne there was nothing there, just a field.”

Murray went on to be vice president of Boeing Aircraft and was the chief lobbyist in Washington, D.C. for many years.

Jepsen also flew out of Cheyenne and was known for recording important information from the runways. This information was then shared with other pilots.