It’s hard to imagine a world without the convenience of fast shipping. These days, we can send and receive letters and parcels around the world in just a few days. Yet airmail service was developed even before the invention of the airplane, with mail delivered through the air by homing pigeons and later, balloon-based efforts.
When the airplane was introduced in the early 1900s, it garnered immediate attention from the Postal Department. Aviators around the world were commissioned to complete experimental deliveries. After the end of World War I, the U.S. government hired skilled military pilots as aerial postmen to make deliveries between Washington, D.C. and New York City with a refueling stop in Philadelphia. These early mail aircraft had no instruments or navigational aids. Pilots attempted to reach their destinations using dead reckoning, often getting lost or damaging planes along the way.
While a few airmail routes were successfully established at this time, there were still no cross-country routes and many states didn’t have the resources required to receive and refuel planes between flights. Airmail struggled to compete with less expensive ground mail and telegrams and the service was considered an exclusive luxury rather than a practical way to deliver mail to the public.
Finally, in 1920, the first transcontinental airmail route was established between New York City and San Francisco. This milestone flight demonstrated the attainability of night flying, paving the way for future aviators. Thanks to the experimental flights by airmail pioneers, the aviation industry saw great improvements in both safety and efficiency.
By 1926, the Post Office Department began contracting airmail routes to private companies. Privatized airmail services offered more routes and more efficient mail delivery than the post office could provide alone. To expand their routes, cities across the United States began building infrastructure to accommodate airmail planes. By 1927, all airmail was carried under contract, a system that benefitted the U.S. mail infrastructure.
It’s fascinating to reflect on the history of airmail, a service nearly as old as aviation itself. Looking back, the dangerous, experimental flights of the early 1900s advanced into the global airfreight industry that is now an essential aspect of our everyday lives.