By Nancy Pope, Historian and Curator
In October 1918, Second Assistant Postmaster General Otto Praeger, in charge of the nation’s airmail service, produced and distributed this small booklet (see below images) promoting the success of the Post Office Department’s airmail (or aerial mail, as it was then known) service. The booklet touted the dependability of the nation’s airmail service at a time when aviation was still young and accidents, often fatal, were common.
Praeger was charged with not only convincing people that airmail was not only safe, but also worth the cost. The original price on May 15, 1918 was 24-cents per ounce, but that was too expensive for most people and in July the price was dropped to 16-cents per ounce. Praeger touted the service as speedy (“has cut in half the time between Washington and New York”) and sure (“operating at 100 per cent perfect daily”). What Praeger either didn’t know to admit, or merely decided to ignore, was that the service had only been in operation since May of that year, and the Post office had only been in full control of the service since August 12. The pilots had faced some weather problems, but nothing compared to the problems they would face during the winter months. A 100 percent performance from early August through September was not surprising. Although the September 1918 flights were completed without incident, weather problems caused delays and flight cancellations in several flights through the winter of 1918-1919.
Praeger’s boasts on the service were accurate at the time. But there would be number of years of airmail tragedies, crashes and deaths. The first came that very year on December 16, 1918 with the death of airmail pilot Carl Smith. He was killed while flying a de Havilland airplane. The former naval flyer was killed when the wing of his plane collapsed after Smith made a sharp turn in a strong wind. The plane plummeted 500 feet to the ground, killing Smith instantly.
By that same September, Praeger’s attention was already drawn away from the Washington-New York flyway (he correctly assumed that not enough time was saved by airmail to make it regularly worth business’s time and money), and towards connecting the nation’s two major commercial centers, New York and Chicago, by air. A pair of hot-shot pilots, Max Miller and Eddie Gardner, had raced each other from New York to Chicago and back in the first week of the month, trying to find the best flight paths between the two cities. Praeger’s bravado got the best of him as his first attempt failed, but he finally got it right and the two cities were joined by regular airmail service by the spring of 1919.
By the time Praeger left the Department in 1921 airmail service was well on its way to cementing a solid aviation flyway from New York City to San Francisco. A flyway that included beacon towers to light the way for mail planes to fly at night as well as during the day.