Obscure DC Landmarks: First Air Mail Marker
First in an occasional series
A small and unobtrusive marker sits on the banks of a wide and placid stretch of the Potomac River in Washington, DC. Across the water, the George Washington Memorial Parkway winds its way through Lady Bird Johnson Park and past the rolling aluminum waves of the Navy and Merchant Marine Memorial. The monuments of the Tidal Basin are well within walking distance, with the terminus of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial just a short jaunt through the occasionally used playing fields of what’s now known as West Potomac Park.
Few if any of the Tidal Basin’s multitude of visitors will stumble on this marker, even by accident. Picnickers and bicyclists routinely pass it by without so much as a first glance, much less a second thought. But it commemorates what can legitimately be considered the birth of American commercial aviation: the first official scheduled flight of the U.S. Air Mail service.
On May 15, 1918, President Woodrow Wilson and a collection of other luminaries (including a young Franklin Roosevelt, then the assistant secretary of the Navy) came down to what were then Washington’s polo grounds to watch a young Army Air Service pilot take off on the first leg of the nation’s first scheduled air mail route from Washington to New York. Unfortunately, the pilot picked to fly this mission – one Lieutenant George Boyle – was chosen more for his political connections than his skill as an aviator. Boyle was fresh out of flight school and possessed little experience, but his fiancé’s father did serve as a member of the Interstate Commerce Commission.
From the very beginning, almost nothing went right with the flight. The engine of the Curtiss Jenny biplane refused to start, and only sputtered to life after the ground crew discovered the plane needed to be refueled. Barely clearing the trees on take-off, Boyle promptly lost his way and landed outside in a Maryland field some twenty-five miles southeast of the nation’s capital. All in all, the flight was not exactly the most encouraging launch for America’s new and experimental air mail service.
In time, however, this first abortive attempt to fly the mail would give rise to the American commercial aviation industry. More trial flights with Army Air Service pilots followed before the U.S. Post Office Department – the predecessor of today’s U.S. Postal Service – assumed full responsibility for air mail service in August 1918. After a number of harrowing flights in poor weather and at night, the Airmail Service installed a series of navigation beacons and lighting at airfields to help its pilots make their way safely across the country.
But it was the Airmail Service’s contracts that played a pivotal role in nurturing America’s embryonic commercial aviation industry. Starting in 1925, the Post Office began to award contracts for airmail routes to private airlines under the terms of that year’s Air Mail Act. The first contracted routes would be flown the next year, and by 1927 commercial carriers would deliver all airmail for the postal service – providing the nation’s fledgling airlines with a steady source of revenue at a time when there few if any paying passengers. Indeed, some airlines relied on air mail contracts for 95 percent of their income.
For all intents and purposes, the advent of commercial air mail service marks the beginning of American commercial aviation. Modern airlines like American, Delta, and United can all trace their origins to the contracts they received from the Post Office Department to carry air mail in the late 1920s. It’s a successful example of industrial policy from an otherwise laissez-faire era, one that laid a major cornerstone of what would become America’s colossal aerospace industry.
Still, it would take World War II for that industry to become truly dominant; American industry would manufacture six times as many aircraft in the six years from 1939 to 1945 as it did in the twenty-seven years from 1911 to 1938.1 The war also served as a proving ground for a new generation of commercial aircraft like the Douglas DC-4 and the Lockheed Constellation as they were pressed into military service. In the 1950s, the introduction of jet airliners – in particular the famous Boeing 707 – inaugurated an epoch of mass commercial air travel that tied the world together far closer than ever before.
It’s hard to imagine that so much of the world we know today was set in motion at these sleepy Washington playing fields over a century ago. Four decades after the fact, a small group of local aviation enthusiasts would mark the uncertain and uninspiring genesis of American commercial aviation with a small plaque with one ‘E’ turned sideways bolted to an inconspicuous round lump of rock. There it sits on the riverbank today, in silent testimony to this largely forgotten but profoundly consequential flight.
Tom D. Crouch, Wings: A History of Aviation from Kites to the Space Age, p. 488.