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When the Air Mail was a Pup

By Charles A. LaJotte
Pilot, Gilmore Oil Company

Published in Western Flying October 1936 

            Recently two of our major air lines have celebrated the first ten years of their service to the American public.  They are proud of their progress, and justly so.  More passengers are carried every year, and more safely, more comfortably, and much faster, than each previous year.  But we must realize that it is the money made for flying the air mail that is mostly responsible for this progress, rather than that earned from passenger and express traffic.  Now, with this idea in mind, I want to take this opportunity of relating some of the interesting incidents that occurred in the early days of the air mail, so that we may better understand some of the obstacles that had to be overcome and some of the hazards that had to be faced to make this great record possible. 

            In 1920 I was stationed at College park, Maryland, the air mail field for the city of Washington. There was only one other such airport in operation, that at Hellar Field, Newark, N.J., the airport for the city of New York, and this short route was the only one in actual operation in the United States.  Here was collected together a small but select group of ex-Army pilots that were to make the air mail service what it has since become, the best in the world.  E. Hamilton Lee, the present ranking air line pilot of the United States, was one of them, and so was Harry Huking, who now ranks second to Lee.  There was Dean Smith, of Antarctic Fame; Randolph Page, Claire Vance, Jack Knight, James Murray, and Slim Lewis, all of whom had around 400 to 600 hours to their credit.  These men were all excellent pilots, and were later to prove to the world that they could carry on in the air the same high grade of service and loyalty that has made their postal brethren on the ground so unique among government servants.  The airplanes being used were Curtiss H s, or in simpler words, Jennies powered with Hispano-Suiza engines of 150 H.P., in place of the conventional OX5 s.  They were just about being replaced with De Havillands, the DH4 or 9 s, powered by the recently developed Liberty motor of 400 H.P.

            One day in May, Harry Huking and I decided to fly over the city of Baltimore in one of these flying coffins to take some aerial photographs of Ham Lee coming in with the New York mail.  Back in those days this now common feature was still a novelty; the first man to sight the incoming mail plane always shouted, Mail, mail , and then all within sound of his voice would run out on the field to watch the landing.   

All in a day s work 

            One never knew what might happen, and quite often something did.  I was immensely impressed when running through Harry Huking s log book recently to note so many entries like, Forced landing, no oil pressure ; Forced landing, broken fuel line ; and Forced landing, dead stick .  In my own log I found on one page notations of four flights, three of which ended up in bang-ups of one kind or another, and two of which occurred on the take-off.  Those were the days when it was fine to be young, and on looking back at them now, I sometimes wonder.

             Well, to get back to my story, there we were, Harry and I, up in the air over Baltimore, waiting for Lee to show up.  I was doing the flying from the front seat, for Check Pilot Huking had a reputation as an aerial photographer.  Suddenly, when about 2,000 feet over the harbor, our engine stopped dead. 

            I shouted in the ominous stillness, You take it, Harry! and immediately let go of the stick and bent down with my head in under the cowling, frantically trying to turn on the emergency fuel tank, the petcock of which was stuck fast. 

            Our plane banked steeply to the left, so steeply in fact that our entire 2,000 feet of altitude was completely lost in making one turn.  We barged over a schooner in the bay at about one hundred and something miles per hour, just missing its masts by inches.  Then we struck on an ash dump on the water s edge, and kissed the ground at least half a dozen times, before coming to rest up on our nose, in the middle of the dump.

             We climbed out and ruefully surveyed the damage, while a small crowd assembled from the near-by docks.  The propeller was broken and the radiator bent, and that was all the damage that was done.   

            After we recovered our breath, I said, You certainly came in fast enough, Harry.  

            He looked startled, and answered, Why, I didn t have the stick.  

            And to our mutual astonishment, on comparing notes, we found that the airplane had actually landed itself.  Neither of us had as much as touched the stick from the time the motor had stopped until it had finally come to rest on its nose.  Harry, who was my senior, and who had never heard or even suspected that I had turned the controls over to him, had been just about to cuss me out for diving in so fast and for coming so close to the schooner, when I had taken the wind out of his sails by mentioning these facts first.  There may be other similar cases, but this one is the only one that I ever heard of that an uncontrolled airplane not only landed itself, but picked the only possible terrain to do it on, and at the expense of only a bent prop and radiator.   

            Harry went off to phone for mechanics while I stayed to watch our property.  Growing weary for something to do, I borrowed some paint and wrote the word, JINX on the left side of the fuselage.  This grim bit of humor apparently didn t go so well, for I was called up on the carpet , and had to talk pretty fast, but not fast enough. 

            By the way, this was one of the first times that a commercial pilot was ever grilled by his superior, a feature that has since been widely adopted by the air lines.  At that time a pilot was supposed to have and always to use, excellent judgment, especially in an emergency.  If he made a bad mistake, it was taken for granted that he had tried his best, and that the error was just one of those things that even the best of us sometimes cannot seem to avoid an occasion calling for sympathetic handling, rather than verbose censure.

             Nowadays things are different.  If a transport pilot transgresses in the slightest degree he is called upon to make a trip over this, by now, well-worn carpet, and asked to give his excuse or reasons for his varying from the conventional.  If he can t find a logical explanation, it s just too bad for him.  In fact, he is treated no differently from any ground employee, which is just as it should be.   

Other changes 

            The companies that have even eliminated that old excuse of Not feeling well today that was used so often, by insisting that their pilots take the Snyder test every 40 days.  If they are not really well, this test will show it, and the pilot will not fly that day.  The company pays the doctor, so there is no chance of false certifications.  Every loss of a run makes a decided hole in the pilot s pay check. 

            There is another change in the pilot s code that might be mentioned here.  In the old days the mean at the controls kept them in an emergency or else voluntarily turned them over to the other pilot in a dual control plane, as I did in the incident just told.  Nowadays the pilot can assume control whenever he wants to.  He alone is responsible, for the co-pilot is there only to assist the pilot.  This also is a change for the better, I think, as it precludes the type of misunderstanding as to who is in control, that has at times arisen under the old system.

             Now here is another little item that will stand some discussion.  Do you realize what a series of transitions the older pilots had to go through in flying all the different types of planes from the World War period to the present day?  They have gained in speed and in stability, but this was gradual.  From the pilot s point of view (my own at least) the greatest change was flying from an open cockpit bar in the rear of the fuselage, practically on the tail, to a seat in an enclosed cabin, away out in the front, on the nose of the plane.  All his familiar routine sights and sounds were disrupted.  It is very different, guiding a plane from the rear, where it is easy to judge your lateral and fore-and-aft levels, and from where one learned to sight over the engine on to the horizon to gauge your climb or glide, than from flying way out in front, where you have to watch the instruments to ascertain the plane s position.   

            Old pilots learned to fly by the seat of their pants , but this method has proven unreliable when Old Man Weather takes a hand.  A man s senses may let him down, but the mechanical instruments seldom, if ever, fail.  Of course all pilots can now fly from either the fore or aft position, and one wonders where they will put the poor pilot next.  For soon there will be another change to master, and probably the greatest change of all.  I mean that of learning to make vertical take-offs and landings, for the advent of the autogiro is just around the proverbial corner, and its value to the mail and passenger service is sure to be utilized. 

            And more power to it, for it is a phase of progress; if we can do better with a rotating wing than with a fixed wing, we all want to do it.  And surprising as it seems, some engineers claim that it can, at least theoretically, fly faster, wit the same motor, and carry a greater pay load, than the more conventional fixed wing airplane of equal span. 

            So I, for one, will not be surprised if soon the air mail is taken-off from the roof of the post office, and landed on the same.  The mail pilots will take this change in stride, and never miss a run.  And soon the days when we flew the DH s and the Jennies will be farther off than ever, only to get recalled when two old pilots get together over a glass of warm milk, or, with slippers on, before the glowing hearth, granddaddy thrills the children with tales of the good old days. 

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