Sunday, March 27, 2016

National Postal Museum

Recently a passenger asked if I had a favorite airport.  I had to pause for a moment.  It was the first time anyone had ever asked that question---and somewhat surprising considering I've been employed as an airline pilot for over thirty years.  I smiled, and said, "Well, there's a nice little grass strip that I visit on occasion.  It's next to a peach orchard in York, South Carolina, but you're asking about the airlines, right?"  He nodded, and said, "The peach orchard sounds nice, but yes, with the airline."  I said,  "I don't have a favorite, per se, but there are a few that I would just as soon avoid.  Newark, New Jersey comes to mind.  Smaller airports are certainly less of a hassle, but they all have unique challenges. I don't think about airports as much as I do the cities they serve.  So with that in mind, I guess Washington, D. C. is probably my favorite.  There is just so much to see and do after you arrive."

The Smithsonian:  It's not all on the Mall.

Back in June I had an opportunity to visit the Smithsonian National Postal Museum while on a layover in downtown D. C.  Slightly off the beaten path, the museum is located northeast of the National Mall, across the street from Union Station on the Metro's Red Line.

The purpose of my visit was twofold:  To view the Holy Grail of Stamps, the 1918, 24-cent Inverted Jenny; and to see three airplanes that are on display in the museum's atrium---a Postal Service de Havilland DH-4, a Wiseman-Cooke Pusher, and a Stinson Reliant fitted with a take-up boom and hook that was used for airmail pick-up and delivery in the mountains of Pennsylvania and West Virginia in the 1940's.


In 1918 the Postal Service introduced a 24-cent stamp to commemorate the first regularly scheduled airmail service in the United States.  The stamp---a two color affair, with a blue Curtiss Jenny biplane surrounded by a red border---went on sale two days before airmail service between New York, Philadelphia, and Washington D. C. began on May 15, 1918. Due to a printing error, some of the stamps were printed with the center image upside down---thus, the Inverted Jenny.  One sheet of 100 inverted stamps slipped past inspectors---to be purchased by a Washington D. C. stamp collector, William T. Robey. That twenty-four dollar purchase would yield Robey fifteen thousand dollars from a collector in Philadelphia.  That was a lot of cash in 1918!   Just in case you were wondering; my handy-dandy Annual Inflation Calculator---a must have device for airline pilots that bemoan the way their paychecks have not kept pace with inflation---tells me $15,000 in 1918 is approximately $258,968.97 in 2016. 

de Havilland DH-4

When the Curtiss Jenny proved to be too frail to handle the daily grind of scheduled airmail service the Post Office procured 100 de Havilland DH-4's from the army.  The equipment upgrade was only partially successful as the DH-4 had a nasty habit of killing it's pilot---usually on landing.  Placement of the cockpit was such that with a sudden stop the pilot could easily find himself crushed between the engine and the fuel tank.  The Postal Service solved this problem by relocating the cockpit to the gunner's position behind the fuel tank.  Other modifications included replacing fuselage fabric with plywood, and beefing up the landing gear.  These modified DH-4B's had a normal range of about 400 statute miles, sometimes less, depending on winds aloft and the health of it's 400 hp Liberty engine. 

Sonoma County Boy Does Good!

1910 Wiseman-Cooke Pusher

In 1909, Fred Wiseman, a racing car driver from Santa Rosa, California assembled a team of air minded individuals in San Francisco to design, and build, flying machines based on technical information acquired from the Curtiss, Farman, and Wright aircraft companies.  Test flights began in the spring of 1910.  The prototype Wiseman has the distinction of being the first airplane built in California to actually fly.  That summer a second airplane was constructed.  With this new and improved design Wiseman took second place, novice class, at an air meet in San Francisco in January 1911.

The following month Wiseman secured his place in aviation history by conducting the first airmail flight officially sanctioned by a U. S. Post Office.  The twenty mile flight from Petaluma, California to Wiseman's hometown of Santa Rosa was accomplished in just two days, thanks to a magneto problem that developed four and a half miles north of Petaluma.  By the time repairs were made it was too windy to continue.  The following morning Wiseman was airborne shortly after 9am.  Twelve minutes later---and one mile south of Santa Rosa---Serial Number Two's 60 hp Hall-Scott V-8 engine seized after a loose support wire became tangled in the propeller.  One mile short was close enough, apparently.  Wiseman was given a hero's welcome.

In addition to fifty copies of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, "delivered" along the way, Wiseman carried three letters, one of which was written by Petaluma Postmaster, J. E. Olmsted:

Kenilworth Park
Petaluma, Cal.

February 17, 1911

H. L. Tripp
Santa Rosa, Cal.

Dear Sir and Friend:

Petaluma sends, via air route, congratulations and felicitations upon the successful mastery of the air by a Sonoma county boy in an airplane conceived by Sonoma county brains and erected by Sonoma county workmen.

Speed the day when the United States mail between our sister cities, of which this letter is the pioneer, may all leave by the air route with speed and safety.

J. E. Olmsted

In early 1912 Wiseman sold his record setting machine to another bay area pilot, Weldon B. Cooke, thus the Wiseman-Cooke designation.

Stinson Reliant:  Stories From Back In The Day. 

My fascination with airplanes stems from listening to my father tell stories about aviation and flying in the 1940's.  How his sixteen year old neighbor built a Pietenpol Sky Scout in his basement, and then had to knock a hole in the wall to get it out.  How his brother forgot about the carb heat knob in the 65 hp Taylorcraft he was flying, and had to set down in a cornfield. (When Uncle John told the story there was no mention of carburetor ice.)  How as a little boy, he would sit on the front steps of his grandparents farmhouse near Scottdale, Pennsylvania and watch the airmail planes from All American Airways make pick-ups on-the-fly from the hilltop across the way---a story brought to life when I saw the Stinson Reliant equiped with a take-up boom and hook hanging in the atrium.

The airmail pick-up service was developed to serve communities in remote areas, like Scottdale, that lacked adequate landing facilities.  The concept was fairly simple.  The ground crew would attach a rubber mail container to a rope suspended between poles that were fifteen feet tall.  As the airplane approached the pick-up zone a crewman assisting the pilot would drop the "incoming" mail container through a hole in the floor, and at the same time, extend the boom and hook to snag the rope suspended between the poles.  After the exchange was made, the crewman would wench in the "outgoing" mail pouch and retract the boom while the pilot set his course for the next pick-up along the route. A simple operation---but one that required a fair amount of skill to execute!

The airmail pick-up service survived for ten years, 1939 to 1949.  All American Airways became Allegheny Airlines, which became USAir, which then became USAirways, and is now American Airlines.  Executing that plan has been anything but simple.

The old Cottom farm near Scottdale, PA.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Another Sign Off For EAA Chapter 961

John Roberts


Jellystone Air Park neighbor, John Roberts, reports that Skyote NX88NX is officially an airplane!  Representatives from the Columbia, South Carolina office of the Administracion de Aviacion Federal pronounced it airworthy Friday, March 11, 2016.  Rumor has it the inspection was a non-event---which is understandable because John's craftsmanship is exquisite.  Congratulations John!  We look forward to seeing your black and yellow biplane in the skies above Jellystone Air Park.  

Liza Jane & Skyote  #88.

Smiles all around!  John Roberts & Gary Barbeau.

The Skyote has great lines!

To see more of John's handiwork click here.