By Nancy Pope, Historian and Curator
On a beautiful spring morning in 1918 thousands of people were on hand to view a pilot take off from Potomac Park, Washington, D.C. The pilot, Lieutenant George Leroy Boyle, would be carrying sacks of mail to begin the nation’s first regularly scheduled airmail service. Boyle was one of a handful of Army Air Corps pilots who were tapped to fly the mail for the Post Office Department that day.
Mingling among the pilots and mechanics were postal and government officials, led by President Woodrow Wilson and his wife, Edith. Wilson’s hand was bandaged in a hard-earned lesson on not touching tank barrels after firing demonstrations. Alongside the Wilsons were fellow Texans Postmaster General Albert Burleson and Second Assistant Postmaster General Otto Praeger. Merritt O. Chance, the district’s postmaster could be found mingling in the crowd, along with Assistant Secretary of the Navy (and future President) Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The new airmail would service three cities, Washington – Philadelphia – New York. Mail would be passed from plane to plane before heading onto the next city. Smaller crowds cheered lieutenant pilots Howard Paul Culver (Philadelphia to New York), Torrey Webb (New York to Philadelphia) and James Edgerton (Philadelphia to Washington) as they readied their planes for flight.
If the crowd wondered why young Lieutenant Boyle won the privilege of flying the first mail out of D.C. in front of the President, the presence of Interstate Commerce Commissioner Charles McChord at the event might have given them a clue. Boyle was engaged to his daughter Margaret, their marriage to take place in just a month.
If anyone present believed in signs, perhaps the first one that something might be amiss that day came when Boyle climbed into his plane and tried to start the motor. Nothing. Mechanics jumped at the plane, desperate to fix the problem as the President looked on, a bit more exasperated as time wore on. Finally someone thought to check the gas tank. It was empty.
Boyle was scheduled to leave from Washington and fly north to Philadelphia. With a full tank, Boyle took off, sliding up into the air smoothly, then circling the field a couple of times for effect before heading . . . southeast. Few in the crowd may have realized this, as they continued to cheer until Boyle’s plane was out of sight.
But instead of flying north to Philadelphia, Boyle found himself over eastern Maryland. He made a rough landing in Waldorf, where he phoned for assistance. Engineers brought tools to fix up the plane, and the mail was taken off the plane and trucked back to Washington. Lieutenant Culver, waiting ever less patiently in Philadelphia for the mail, was finally told to leave for New York with just the mail he was carrying from Philadelphia. Culver, Webb & Edgerton all made successful flights on that first day.
On the second day of the service, Lieutenant Edgerton was tapped to fly the mail out of Washington. And he did so quite successfully. But on the third day, perhaps due to pressure from the Interstate Commerce Commissioner, Lieutenant Boyle was back in the cockpit.
This time, Lieutenant Edgerton was told to take off in a separate plane at the same time as Boyle and lead him the first few miles on the road to Philadelphia. Boyle was told to just keep the Chesapeake Bay on his right.
After leading Boyle a fair way out of Washington, Edgerton waved goodbye, assured that all Boyle had to do was fly straight ahead and he’d get to Philadelphia. Unfortunately, the advice that rung in Boyle’s ears that day was all about keeping the bay to his right. And so he did just that, flying around the bay to the eastern shore, where he landed at Cape Charles, Virginia, about as far south as he could go before the bay turned into the Atlantic Ocean.
This time Boyle was directed to fly north to Philadelphia and amazingly enough, after refueling his plane, he actually managed to almost reach the city, crashing his plane onto the Philadelphia Country Club’s golf course. Impressive in-laws or not, nothing could convince the Army nor the Post Office Department to let Boyle back into a mail plane. Following his marriage, Boyle found another career – he became a lawyer.