Volunteer Pilots Successfully Complete 2,560 Mile Relay Commemorating Centennial of US Post Office Transcontinental Airmail Service
Scouts from Mid America Council in Omaha, NE greet Beechcraft Bonanza after IFR flight across Iowa on September 9, 2020
Along the way, stopping at the same “airfields” used by the 1920 fliers - or as near as possible where those fields no longer exist — they picked up hundreds of commemorative postcards destined to be postmarked in San Francisco, most of them addressed by local Scout troops.
AirMail100 Centennial Flights (http://airmail100.com) has been some seven months in the planning, during which it recruited more than three dozen pilots eager to have a part in honoring an important milestone in American aviation history.
“It is because of the government’s initial involvement in starting airmail service in 1918 and gradually extending it further and further west that America would soon became a leading force in commercial aviation and aeronautics,” explains Bill Moore, the lead event organizer, based in Omaha. “The September 1920 flight is important because it was the first to link the coasts with regular airmail service.”
Starting on Long Island on September 8, 1920 and flying in relays, the final mail plane piloted by E.E. Mouton, reached San Francisco on September 11th.
“That was our goal as well.”
Moore notes that while some of the AirMail100 pilots had excellent weather for flying, especially the first day, the next two legs from Chicago to Omaha on the 9th were flown on instruments with lines of threatening thunderstorms blocking the route across Illinois and Iowa. Additionally, mechanical “kremlins” forced the next plane out of service and low clouds and ice threatened the leg from North Plate to Cheyenne. On top of that, an unusually early snow storm in Wyoming also threaten the flight.
“We found another airplane to replace the stranded one in Omaha and, thankfully, a pilot out of Wyoming came to the rescue for the endangered North Platte to Cheyenne segment. By early on Day Three, we were pretty much back on schedule .”
Day Four, the final one, would be more challenging.
Clouds, coastal fog, and smoke and ash from California wildfires reaching 10,000 feet, forced the project to abandon its planned stop in Sacramento. This would be the third and final diversion the project had to deal with over the four day event.
“The pilot flying out of Reno elected to fly non-stop into Concord’s Buchanan Airport. ‘Monte’ Mouton, the pilot in 1920, did exactly the same thing. So, we’re kind of staying true to history, I guess,” Moore wryly observed.
After landing in minimal landing conditions, the pilot, John Sawatzky and his co-pilot Stephen Tucker, drove to San Francisco and at 2:30 in the afternoon, at the exact time and place Mouton landed a century ago, they handed their mail over to San Francisco Postmaster Abraham Cooper. In 1920, it was Postmaster Charles Fay.
“Our volunteer pilots did a fantastic job keeping to the schedule and persevering, though they will be the first to admit they had it much easier than their predecessors who didn’t even have maps to guide them. They were just instructed to follow certain railroads and rivers when they could, and keep flying west, when they couldn’t.”
AirMail100 expresses its appreciation to the pilots who volunteered, the airports that assisted in the smooth mail exchanges, the Scouts and others who addressed postcards, and, of course, the United States Postal Service, especially on Long Island and the San Francisco Bay, for their support and encouragement.
1915 Southview Drive
Papillion, NE 68046
Volunteer group based in Omaha, NE and San Francisco.
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