Sunday, May 07, 2017

Rickenbacker at the retiring of the last open-cockpit mailwing, 1935

U.S. AIRMAIL, 1935. The final flight of a Pitcairn Mailwing-7, the last open cockpit airplane to carry U.S. airmail on contract schedule, 16 October 1935.

The Pitcairn Mailwing was specifically designed in 1927 to be sold to contract mail carriers for night air mail runs. An immediate success, this craft which could carry 600 lbs. of mail at speeds up to 136 mph was being produced at the rate of one per week by the end of 1928. Many an airline that is world-famous today was equipped with Mailwings during this era.

Many Mailwings finished out their days as crop dusters and a handful of Mailwings are still flying today. Well preserved examples can be seen at the Tallmantz and Smithsonian Air Museums.

The prime mover in the birth of the air mail was NOT the pilot community, nor even the young aircraft industry. It was one Otto Praeger, Second Assistant Postmaster General, himself a non-flyer who simply sought to improve the speed of intercity mail shipments then carried exclusively by train.

Oblivious to the limitations of 1918 aircraft technology and performance, he convinced his boss, Postmaster General Burleson, to suggest to the President that the Secretary of War could order the Army Air Service to assume this new role, starting in just a matter of several days!

And so the executive orders were quickly passed to War Secretary Newton D. Baker, thence to Chief of the Army Air Service Col. “Hap” Arnold, who promptly summoned his Executive Officer to his desk, one Major Reuben H. Fleet. The orders were dated May 3, 1918. The orders read to initiate daily air mail service between Washington and New York on May 15, 1918. Hap Arnold and Reuben Fleet were professional soldier-pilots who knew all too well that you didn’t say “no” to the President, and they had to salute and carry out the orders as best they could, given no suitable airplanes, and no pilots with adequate cross-country navigational training in good weather or bad.

And it is in major crises that clever men rise to become great men. In this situation, Fleet needed to overcome his Air Service inadequacies in men and equipment in just twelve days to avoid embarrassing the President of the United States and the Air Service in the eyes of the news media and the American public.

 His first action was to request Col. Edwin A. Deeds, Chief of Air Service Production, to place an immediate order to the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Corporation, Garden City, Long Island, NY, for (6) new specially configured JN-4H “Jenny” training biplanes with doubled fuel tank capacity and without controls in the front cockpit, which was to be covered over as a mail pit.

This would give the mail plane Jenny twice its standard range of only 88 miles so it could in fact make the trip from DC to Philly nonstop. The “H” model Jennies were powered by the 150 hp Hispano-Suiza (“Hisso”) liquid cooled V-8 with enclosed overhead cams and automatic valve lubrication, making them far more reliable than the earlier 90 hp Curtiss OX-5 V-8s with open, hand lubricated valve actions.

Curtiss simply added a second standard terneplate fuel tank in tandem with the regular tank between the firewall and the mail pit. The airplane problem was solved in short order through this instant cooperation between the engineering-educated Fleet, his parent command staff, and the already humming production line at Curtiss.

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