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Biplanes take a journey back in time

The pioneers of air mail were an adventurous lot, intent on soaring into the future.

A century later, a cohort of pilots are reliving the past, retracing the first West Coast air mail route, which hopscotches from San Diego to Seattle, discovering the obstacles and ecstasy of their forbears.

They arrived in a trio of Stearman biplanes that buzzed into Medford Thursday morning to pick up commemorative mail and chat with 100 or so locals turning out for the spectacle. But like pilots of yesteryear, there were obstacles and challenges. En route from Redding to Medford Wednesday, the aerial entourage encountered a wall of low clouds shrouding the Siskiyous, forcing the biplanes and their accompanying scouts to stay overnight in Montague.

“We’re not recreating air mail, we’re doing it,” said Addison Pemberton, a Spokane, Washington, pilot and aviation history buff. “We came up from Redding, up through Lake Shasta, wound our way around, tried to get through Pilot Rock and the Siskiyou Pass, there was just no way — we tried twice. We need ground contact.

Rising for a dawn takeoff was of little avail for the squadron bound by visual flight rules, because clouds continued to veil the route well into midmorning.

Finally, one of the scouts radioed shortly before 10 a.m. there was a hole in the clouds. The engines turned over, and after warming up, the planes trundled down the runway for the 20-minute trip into the Rogue Valley.

From San Diego, the original Contract Air Mail Route 8 stopped in Los Angeles, Bakersfield, San Francisco, Redding, Medford, Eugene, Portland, Olympia and Seattle.

“A given pilot had an intimate knowledge of a segment of that flight,” Pemberton said. “One pilot might fly from Medford to Portland, and he knows every rock and river. His lifeline is his intimate topographical knowledge — that’s his only means of navigation — and he knows where all the weather patterns are. He would do the same section, back and forth.”

Pemberton navigates the route a couple of times a year.

“But I don’t fly it at a 100 feet at night, either,” he said, hearkening back to the earliest air-mail pilots.

Pemberton recited how air mail came about, including its Medford connection.

While it took two years to plan the re-enactment journey, early aviators had little time to launch their efforts. Pemberton retold the vision and pitfalls accompanying air-mail efforts to the assembled gathering Thursday.

In May 1918, Otto Praeger was a ranking U.S. Mail executive who oversaw movement of the mail, by stage coach and rail. He envisioned airplanes could move mail significantly faster. He discussed the idea with Reuben Fleet, who went on to develop Consolidated Aircraft Corp., which built an array of World War II planes.

“Reuben Fleet gets six days to arrange this first air-mail flight from Washington, D.C, through Philadelphia, to New York, 210 miles,” Pemberton recited.

A call was made to the Curtiss Aircraft Co., asking for four airplanes — dubbed “Jennys” — to be modified to carry mail in less than a week, removing the front seat to make room for a mail pit. The first airplane arrived the morning of May 15, 1918, where Woodrow Wilson and a host of Washington dignitaries were in attendance. Politics entered into the selection of the first pilot, Lt. George Boyle, who was engaged to marry one of the dignitaries’ daughters.

“There was a problem with George Boyle, he’s never flown an airplane more than 10 miles in his life, and he’s just a student pilot, barely having ever flown,” Pemberton said. “He gets into the airplane, takes off from Washington, makes a 180-degree turn. He’s supposed to be (following) the iron compass — the railroad — to Philadelphia and New York. He grabs the wrong railroad and goes 22 miles the wrong way and ends up in a field on his back. It didn’t go so well, so Day 1, the mail finished by rail.”

By fall 1918, air mail was flying as far as Cleveland, but Praeger desired transcontinental service — New York to San Francisco. By 1920, mail traveled through the clouds by day and traveled by rail at night. In 70 hours, Praeger’s next move was introducing what became known as the light line — a series of 260 beacons every 10 miles — complete with Morse Code identification. Congress balked, asking Praeger to prove the project was feasible by going coast to coast in 37 hours. On Feb. 21, 1921, two de Havilland DH-4s left New York and two more departed San Francisco. One of the westbound planes stalled in Cleveland, the second in Chicago. The two eastbound aircraft made it to Elko, Nevada, before one stalled, spun and crashed, killing the pilot. The remaining pilot wound up in North Platte, Nebraska, at midnight.

Jack Knight’s turn was supposed to end at Omaha, Nebraska, but the relief pilot wanted nothing to do with the brewing snowstorm ahead. The aerial effort had caught the public imagination, and Knight, who had never flown to Chicago, accepted the challenge.

“There’s a frenzy about this effort,” Pemberton said. “People are building bonfires and turning on car headlights all the way to Chicago, so Jack Knight could fly at 200-foot ceilings and one-mile visibility.”

Knight arrived in Chicago at sunrise, and the plane went on to reach New York in 36? 1/2 hours. Congress appropriated funding for the beacons, and by 1924, airplanes were flying mail day and night, crossing the continent in 35 hours — half the time it took four years earlier.

In that period of time, Pemberton said, it took six weeks to drive a Model T coast to coast. The impact for business was great, a contract could be signed on the West Coast and returned in less than a week.

The Kelly Act of 1925 allowed for the expansion of air-mail feeder routes, including Medford. Many of the nation’s legacy airlines were spawned as mail transporters.

“Much like what the Internet did for us in the 2000s,” Pemberton said, “this is what air mail did in the 1920s.”

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or gstiles@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness or www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31.

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