A short bike ride from downtown D.C., located just off the Rock Creek Park Trail that parallels the water along the north bank of the Potomac River in West Potomac Park, and near Ohio and West Basin Drives (MAP) in Southwest D.C., I discovered a stone with a brass plaque marker. After reading the plaque, I learned that the marker was placed there by The Aero Club of Washington, commemorating the first air mail flight to be operated as a continuously scheduled public service. The air mail service planes used the nearby field just south of The Washington Monument near the National Mall to take off and land.
Following 52 experimental flights by the Post Office Department in 1911 and 1912, the first extended test of airmail service began on May 15, 1918, when the U.S. Army and the Post Office Department together began operating a line using U.S Army training plains, known as “Jenny” biplanes. The planes were flown by Army pilots operating on a route between the old Washington Polo Grounds near the marker, and Belmont Park in New York City, with an intermediate stop at Bustleton Field in Philadelphia. Included in those who were on hand for the departure of the first flight were President Woodrow Wilson, U.S. Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson, and Assistant Secretary of the Navy and future president, Franklin D. Roosevelt.
An Army lieutenant named George L. Boyle was selected to pilot the aircraft on the first flight. Unfortunately, that flight turned out to be a somewhat less than successful initial venture, and perhaps an omen of the Postal Service’s future level of quality and service. Boyle became disoriented almost immediately after take off, and started flying in the wrong direction. Upon realizing that he was lost, Boyle attempted to find out where he was by making an unscheduled landing in nearby Waldorf, Maryland. However, he broke the prop on his airplane when he made a hard landing, and the mail he was carrying had to be trucked back to D.C. The mail was flown to Philadelphia and New York the next day but, of course, arrived late.
The plaque on the marker does not make mention of this ignominious beginning. It reads: “Air Mail. The world’s first airplane mail to be operated as a continuously scheduled public service started from this field May 15, 1918. The route connected Washington, Philadelphia and New York, CurtisJN 4-H airplanes with a capacity of 150 pounds of mail flew the 230 miles in above three hours. The service was inaugurated by the Post Office Department in cooperation with the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps of the U.S. Army. On August 12, 1918, the service was taken over in its entirety by the Post Office Department. This marker was erected by The Aero Club of Washington on the fortieth anniversary. May 15, 1958.”
Less than twenty years later, in October of 1975, Air Mail as a separate class of service was effectively ended within the U.S. when all domestic intercity First Class mail began to be transported by air at the normal First Class rate, and was formally eliminated by the successor to the Post Office Department, the United States Postal Service.