Airmail’s beginnings

MONDAY, AUG. 25, 2008

Three biplanes will follow route that transformed postal delivery, aviation

Spokane postmaster Karen Fairlee was tentative about going for a ride in Larry Tobin’s 1927 biplane out at Felts Field. But she relented after a co-worker returned from the flight smiling.

“I said, ‘Get on that plane; you have to go,’ so she hopped on,” said Lisa Nystuen, USPS customer relations specialist.

Tobin’s restored Stearman C3B, one model used for early airmail routes, represents the time when mail delivery transformed flight’s novelty era into the modern airline industry. Back when reaching the West meant a three-month trip by Model T, daring pilots and their biplanes linked the coasts overnight with documents, newspapers and love letters.

“This transcontinental airmail route was the most significant thing aviation did in the 1920s, and most people don’t know it even happened,” said Addison Pemberton, a pilot and aviation history enthusiast.

Pemberton and Tobin, along with friend Ben Scott, of Reno, Nev., will trace the transcontinental route from New York to San Francisco in their antique biplanes.

Tobin wanted to make sure the postmaster got a ride before the pilots take off from Spokane today. They’re stopping for two aviation events in the Midwest before the transcontinental departure Sept. 10 from Long Island’s Republic Airport.

Then, the plan is 15 cities in six days.

They’re commemorating the 90th anniversary of U.S. airmail, which started with a route from Washington, D.C., to New York in May 1918.

The transcontinental route was first flown in 1920. Soon, rotating lights had been installed every 10 miles to guide nighttime flying, meaning a letter mailed from New York could get to San Francisco within two days.

“You could fly beacon-to-beacon, coast-to-coast by 1925,” said Pemberton, 54. “They were running mail day and night.”

Early pilots were government employees, until 1926 when the government started CAM– Contract Air Mail – routes. Before airmail, aviation was still the realm of barnstormers. With CAM routes, planes started carrying passengers along with the mail and modern airlines were born.

Being an airmail pilot still required a healthy dose of barnstormer courage. Navigation meant using a compass and searching for landmarks. “They had two eyeballs and they had the ground, that’s it,” Pemberton said. “This was all seat-of-the-pants flying.”

It was common for pilots to die in crashes, usually because of poor weather. Staying on course when it was snowing sometimes meant flying below 100 feet.

“These original airmail pilots were real pioneers,” said Mary Weber, business development analyst with the U.S. Postal Service. “They were real daring, and it makes you proud the Postal Service had such a huge part in the beginning of aviation.”

Weber worked with Pemberton and Scott in 1993 to plan a similar but shorter airmail re-enactment when she was customer relations coordinator in Reno. Now based out of Washington, D.C., she’s been coordinating with postmasters at each transcontinental stop and will fly in one of the biplanes from Cheyenne, Wyo., to the West Coast.

She said the planes will carry mail, most of it philatelic sent by people hoping for a memento. The historic authenticity of the flight begins with the biplanes. Pemberton, who owns aviation company Scanivalve, will fly his 1928 Boeing 40C, the only model remaining and oldest Boeing plane still flying. It took more than 60 volunteers to ready the aircraft for its first flight in decades. Earlier this month it won the Antique Grand Champion award at AirVenture OshKosh in Wisconsin, where it will be joined by Scott’s 1930 Stearman Speedmail. Tobin has been flying his restored 1927 Stearman C3B, the oldest Stearman in existence, two or three times a week since May. After 31 years as a TWA pilot he’s spending his retirement at Felts Field hangars, with his wife’s blessing.

“We have a thing in our wedding vows – for better or worse, but never for lunch,” said Tobin, 66.

Tobin grew up blocks from Felts Field and swept out hangars as a kid in exchange for rides. His grandfather was an aviator.

“We think he ran whiskey in his airplane during Prohibition,” Tobin said.

The deed for his great-grandparents’ homestead on what is now the west side of Felts Field, hangs framed on the wall of his hangar.

His plane is painted red, just the way Spokane aviation pioneer Nick Mamer’s planes were painted years ago. It’s labeled C.A.M 32, a route from Spokane to Portland flown by the Mamer Air Transport.

Tobin’s plane was originally restored in the 1960s. He took it back down to the frame and rebuilt it for this trip – every “nut, bolt, cotter pin and screw that goes into these is brand new,” he said. Local aviation legend Skeeter Carlson salvaged the plane nearly six decades ago. He saw it flying in Spokane when he was young, then later as a wingless fuselage parked by a motorcycle shop on Northwest Boulevard.

“We’d come by there every night on the way home from school and admire it,” Carlson said.

One day it was gone, adopted by what was then called North Idaho Junior College to fulfill a government requirement that all schools with wartime aviation programs have a plane for demonstrations. It didn’t have to be operational.

Carlson acquired the plane after the war and restored it to flying condition by 1962.

Nearly all Stearman C3B’s flew mail, but there’s no documentation this one ever did.

After flying it for years, Carlson, 85, decided it was time to pass the plane along to a new pilot.

“I got old and told the wife we couldn’t hardly push it out of the hanger anymore,” he said.

He didn’t give it up to Tobin without a stipulation, though. He gets to ride along on today’s first leg of the journey east, though not for the actual transcontinental trip.

“That’s going to be a historical effort, the whole thing,” Carlson said.

Unlike airmail pilots of the time, Tobin and Pemberton won’t carry long-barreled six-shooters, and they won’t smoke the whole way, though they will wear the required black ties. Instead of compasses they’ll have GPS, modern radio gear and real-time satellite weather updates.

They won’t be landing at Crissy Field, the original oceanside destination for the transcontinental route that’s now a scenic park. There’s only about 1,000 feet of grass there for landing before it turns to gravel, and the pilots don’t want to risk damaging their planes. Instead they’re planning a low flyover, framed by the Golden Gate Bridge.

There are reminders that the past can’t be revived. Fewer love letters are mailed these days, and interstates line the country. But get up in the sky, maybe halfway to Missoula in a vintage plane, and it might as well be 1928, Pemberton said.

“Once you get away from the cities, that rock, that hill, that river – it looks just like it did.”


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