Air Mail Centennial Celebration Flight

Air Mail Centennial Celebration Flight San Diego – Seattle May 13-18, 2018

On the morning of May 15, 1918, as President Wilson and members of Congress watched, a young Army pilot eased a wood and fabric biplane from Potomac Park in Washington, D.C. bound for New York. The first government-operated air mail flight in America was underway.  To mark the 100th anniversary of that service, three vintage biplanes retraced the pioneering west coast airmail route, Contract Air Mail 8 (CAM 8), from San Diego to Seattle, on May 13-18, 2018. Thanks to Bill Allen for the images on this page!

A centennial celebration flight, supported by the non-profit Western Antique Airplane and Automobile Museum (WAAAM), of Hood River, Oregon, and endorsed by the U.S. Postal Service, carried official mail in the form of special envelopes, which was postmarked at the 12 stops along the 1200 mile flight. The pilots, Addison Pemberton and Jeff Hamilton, both from Spokane, Washington and Ben Scott of Reno, Nevada were sworn in as official Airmail pilots and assisted local post office authorities in cancelling the mail at special temporary stations at the airports, many used by the original CAM 8 pilots enroute.

Swearing in of the pilots.

After departing Gillespie Field in San Diego, stops included Los Angeles, Bakersfield, Fresno, San Francisco and Redding in California; Medford and Eugene in Oregon; Vancouver, Olympia and finally Paine Field in Everett, just north of Seattle, Washington. The flight took about 12 flying hours which were spread throughout the six-day event.

“The establishment of Air Mail service marks the first steps towards the founding of commercial aviation and airline service in America,” Pemberton said. “The fact that the Congress specifically asked that service begin while the nation was mobilized to fight the First World War, shows that the potential and importance of aviation was recognized even in those early days.”  The flight utilized three Stearman Speedmail biplanes, as used by several airlines as mailplanes in the early 1930s. Powered by 450 horsepower engines, the wood-winged and fabric covered open-cockpit aircraft were noted for their dependability and ability to carry heavy loads. Of the 41 built, seven still fly, so the CAM 8 flight was a rare chance to see these aeronautical pioneers at work.

Video of the Flight from Allen Airways:

Images from the event:

Additional images from the flight are here.

Thanks to Bill Allen (center) for sponsoring the San Diego end of the flight.

The Pilots and Planes:

Addison Pemberton, a 12,000-hour pilot, mostly in vintage aircraft, will be flying his Stearman 4DM Senior Speedmail. Originally built for American Airways, starting service in 1931, it flew mail routes from Dallas to Chicago and California before being modified for use as an instrument trainer. It was later converted for use as a crop sprayer. Pemberton acquired the aircraft as a wingless hulk in 1989 and restored it from the ground up. Since then, it has logged more than 1,600 hours as part of the Pemberton and Sons Aviation collection of vintage aircraft. Since restoring his first plane in the 1970s, Pemberton has restored 21 aircraft and calls the Speedmail “The best airplane I ever built.” Pemberton took part in the 90th anniversary of the airmail transcontinental flight from New York to San Francisco, piloting the sole airworthy Boeing 40 airliner in 2008.

Ben Scott will fly his Stearman 4E Junior Speedmail on the flight. The aircraft was originally purchased by his father, a prominent Reno businessman, to use for his frequent business trips throughout the 1930s. When private flying was curtailed during the Second World War, the aircraft was sold, and like the other surviving Speedmails, became a crop sprayer. It was rescued and restored in the 1970s and Scott, a long-time pilot, was happy to get the heirloom back into the family. In 2008, Scott flew this airplane from New York to San Francisco to mark the 90th anniversary of air mail service.

Jeff Hamilton has been an active and avid aviator for over 50 years and has owned several vintage and modern airplanes during that time. He first experienced flight as a youngster riding with his father, a WWII pilot, and is still captivated by aviation history and airplanes. He has passed on the love of flying to his youngest daughter Katie who also is an active pilot. A native of a small Montana town, Jeff spent his career in California and retired as a senior executive and partner in a technology firm. His Speedmail, is a sister ship to Pemberton’s example (just three serial numbers separate them) and was also used by American Airways between 1931 and 1934 flying mail on routes from St. Louis, Atlanta and Dallas. It was converted to dual cockpits and used as a “blind flying” instrument trainer for the airline. In 1939 it was converted to agricultural work, remaining in that field for the next 35 years. When partially restored in 1999 it acquired its current paint scheme of a similar aircraft operated by Standard Oil Company as a business transport. Hamilton acquired the aircraft in 2016, completed the restoration and made several improvements. Hamilton enjoys flying his Speedmail, a type long admired for its flying qualities. “N489W is a great flyer with excellent stability and ground handling”, Hamilton says. 

San Diego Air & Space Museum

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