Published: 22 August 2007
Air & Space Power Journal - Fall 2007
Mavericks of the Sky: The First Daring Pilots of the U.S. Air Mail by Barry Rosenberg and Catherine Macaulay. William Morrow (http://www.harper collins.com/imprints/index.aspx?imprintid= 518003&HCHP=TI_William+Morrow), HarperCollins, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, New York 10022, 2006, 352 pages, $25.95 (hardcover).
Today we take aviation for granted and think almost nothing of boarding an airplane to fly anywhere on the planet. Yet, the airplane was invented barely a century ago, and many people still alive can recall the sight of a plane overhead as a source of wonderment.
A lively and entertaining book, Mavericks of the Sky begins in 1918 when the airplane was a teenager and flight remained almost a magical event. The country had just entered the world war, and aircraft were destined to play an important, highly publicized role. At the same time, farsighted politicians envisioned a dramatic role for aviation in civil affairs.
Postmaster General A. S. Burleson and his deputy, Otto Praeger, believed that aircraft could carry the mail back and forth across the country in a fraction of the time it took to move by train or truck—a tremendous boon for business and the American economy in general. In a move almost breathtaking in its audacity, Burleson and Praeger persuaded a skeptical Pres. Woodrow Wilson, a reluctant Congress, and an unwilling Army to inaugurate airmail service.
The undertaking was audacious because of the extremely primitive state of aviation at the time. Built of wood and fabric, airplanes proved notoriously unreliable, barely able to fly at 100 miles per hour and 10,000 feet. Cockpit instrumentation was virtually nonexistent, with usually only an airspeed indicator, altimeter, and whiskey compass available. As yet, no provisions existed for flying in clouds, rain, or even at night, other than using the unreliable senses of the pilots themselves. Reading this account, one wonders how any of the early aviators survived. Praeger, the flawed hero of this story, had never flown but was adamant that airmail would be a success, despite the obstacles of weather and technology. His stubbornness not only would cause resentment and more than a few deaths, but also would provide results.
Rosenberg and Macaulay fill their account with stories of pilots who possessed more courage than common sense, launching off into the clouds with no clue as to when, if ever, they would break into the open. They flew in rain and snow, at night, and in the fog with nary a navigation aid or even the rudiments of an airway structure to guide them. There were no beacons, runway lights, weather stations, radios, or even aeronautical charts to ease the process. No sane pilot today would even consider flying in the conditions the early airmail pilots encountered daily. Their stoicism in the face of adversity was legendary. After one crash landing that the pilot, Dean Smith, walked away from, he wired headquarters: “Flying low. Engine quit. Only place to land on cow. Killed cow. Wrecked plane. Scared me. Smith” (p. 228).
Because the country was at war in Europe, the Army hesitated to spend its scarce aviation resources on flying the mail, yet when airmail service began on 15 May 1918, a US Army pilot climbed into a military plane—a Curtiss “Jenny”—and took off from Washington, DC, with a sack of mail, heading to New York. The military flew the mail for three months before handing the task over to civilians who worked for the US Post Office.
The US Air Mail Service flew from 1918 to September 1927. At that point, the Coolidge administration turned the job over to the emerging airline industry. During the previous nine years, airmail pilots flew nearly 14 million miles, crashed 200 airplanes, and suffered 43 fatalities. Although costly, by 1927 airmail had become an established reality.
An enjoyable read, Mavericks of the Sky is largely accurate in a general sense. Unfortunately, the authors seem unfamiliar with many details regarding early flight, especially the military variety, and make a number of errors. The Wright brothers tested the first military airplane at Fort Myer, not College Park (p. 105); Billy Mitchell was not the “commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe” (p. 75); Maj Carl Spatz had not yet changed the spelling of his name in 1918 (p. 75); the Liberty engine was not “the biggest, most powerful piece of hardware ever strapped into a wood and canvas biplane” (p. 1); no one could ever term Eddie Rickenbacker “baby-faced” (p. 86); and neither the de Havilland DH-4 nor the Junkers JL-6 were multiengine aircraft (pp. 226, 233). These avoidable gaffes aside, the authors have written a good yarn about a little-known part of early aviation.
Col Phillip S. Meilinger, USAF, Retired
West Chicago, Illinois
and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author
cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of
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