By Nancy Pope, Historian and Curator
A rural letter carrier made news when he landed his gyrocopter on the US Capitol grounds in a protest call for campaign finance reform. The carrier was immediately arrested and did not have a chance to deliver his protest mail. This was not the first time such a device was used to carry the mail. Although it was the first wildly unsanctioned one.
An autogiro has been on the Capitol grounds before, although on the other side of the building. In July 1931, James Ray, of the Autogiro Corporation of America took off from the east side of the Capitol building carrying Senator Hiram Bingham (R-CT) as his passenger, although they carried no mail.
The autogiro has a long history with mail and the post office. In 1937 Congress approved money for experimental aircraft, called “windmill” planes in the bill, to carry mail. On May 20, 1938, pilot Johnny Miller made a demonstration flight from the Bethesda, MD postal station to the main DC post office (now home to the National Postal Museum), as well as a trip from the DC post office to the Washington airport. DC postmaster Vincent Burke told reporters that there had not been time to mark the mail Miller carried in any special way, no doubt crushing the hopes of airmail philatelists everywhere.
Autogiro test flights were common through the 1930s in the United States. At least two such flights involved the US Capitol and the mall, although only one of those involved carrying the mail.
By the 1930s, commercial aviation companies were eying this aircraft to help carry the mail. On January 17, 1939, the Post Office Department announced it would take bids for operating an autogiro service launching from the Philadelphia, PA post office. The first craft to take off from that roof was the Kellett KD-1B autogyro, built by the Kellett Autogiro Company. It had an enclosed cockpit and was operated by Eastern Airlines. This craft first carried mail on July 6, 1939. Philatelists purchased more than $3,000 worth of stamps for the first flights, generating 52,128 first flight envelopes for their collections.
A video of this event has even made its way onto YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qoyWsg6Dxno).The company’s president, famed WWI flying ace Eddie Richenbacker, told reporters that he predicted autogiros would be flying onto the roofs of post offices in many other US cities.
Autogiro planes also carried the mail from airfields to post offices in Chicago, IL, New Orleans, LA, and even Washington, DC. Mail-carrying autogiros were a short-term answer. Helicopters and their larger cargo holds were more attractive to postal authorities, and by the early 1940s few postmasters were looking to autogiros to carry their mail. Not until April 2015 would the words autogiro and mail hit the national news again.