May 15, 1918, Sustained Success

The First World War saw great advancements in aircraft development, with range, speed and payload capacity all greatly increased.  It became apparent that the delivery of mail by air could now be a very practical undertaking. In 1918 the Post Office teamed with the War Department to launch a regularly scheduled Airmail Service in the United States. It was believed that this service would both increase the speed of communication and train pilots for the War effort. The man picked to lead and implement the service was Major Reuben Fleet, who had extensive experience training pilots.  Fleet was only given 15 days to select and train the pilots for the first flight, which had already been announced to the press, which would take place on May 15th. 

Reuben Fleet

The aircraft selected to deliver the mail on the first route was the Curtiss JN-4H, powered by a 150-hp Hispano-Suiza engine.  Fleet ordered six of the type, and requested that the front seat be removed so that mail and additional fuel could be carried instead of a passenger.

A Curtiss JN-4H "Jenny"

The first route was to be between Washington D.C. (Washington Polo Grounds) and New York City (Belmont Park), with a stopover in Philadelphia.  Selected to make the first flight was 2nd Lt. George L. Boyle, who would take off from the Washington Polo Grounds shortly before noon on the 15th.  Numerous dignitaries were gathered for the occasion, including President Wilson, the Postmaster General and several members of Congress. 

Fleet and Boyle discuss the flight before taking off (right)

As the gathered crowd cheered, Boyle's Jenny accelerated and took off from the polo field. Unfortunately, he soon got lost and had to land after flying 25 miles. Boyles mail cargo would eventually reach New York on the next day's scheduled flight. The first southbound flight from New York would be on time when Lt. James Edgerton landed in Washington the afternoon of the 15th.  Although there were some snags, the era of regularly scheduled airmail had begun, and continues to this day.

Film taken on May 15th, 1918 at the Washington Polo Grounds of the historic flight:

San Diego Air & Space Museum

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