We continue our tour of the Heroes Of The Sky Exhibit at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan with some practical aviation – airmail.
     Regularly scheduled U.S. airmail flights started in 1918 and routes were regularly added (and shut down) throughout the next decade. 

This 1927 Boeing B-40 beauty is also known as Number 285.  It was donated to the Museum in 1938 after an amazing career as a mail plane.  It flew 6,039 service hours and crashed four times (with no human injuries). 

     Early in the airmail era, pilots literally flew by the seat of their pants and only during the day, using geography, rail lines and roads to help them get to their destinations since instrumentation was rudimentary at best. 

     In February 1921, a San Francisco to New York relay was put together to test the feasibility of flying cross-country airmail routes at night.  Four teams started out to fly the 2,629 miles, but only one made it through, mostly thanks to one pilot named James “Jack” Knight who took a double shift and flew 830 miles when his relief pilot got snowed in in Chicago.  Along the route, postal workers, airfield employees and farmers lit bonfires to help him cross the Great Plains from North Platte, Nebraska to Chicago.

     Many pilots were needed to fly the airmail routes; Charles Lindbergh was one who signed up.    Here’s a recap of one of his experiences.

    U.S. airmail was started the same year World War I ended.  Airplanes were used in that conflict, and when it ended, surplus airplanes and pilots who still wanted to fly in peacetime came home. Many of those pilots flew the airmail routes, but many more became barnstormers, participating in air shows or “flying circuses” across the country. 
     This is how the Henry Ford staged two biplanes from that era – a 1917 Curtiss Canuck with a wingwalker upside down over a 1915 Laird, which is being piloted by a woman, Katherine Stinson.  It made for an eye-popping exhibit.

     To help make ends meet as they toured the country, barnstormer pilots were often sponsored. The Canuck is sponsored by “Heddon’s, Dowagiac, MI” as indicated on its tail.   
Lest there be any question about what Heddon’s makes, the rest of the airplane is painted like a fishing lure! (Heddon lures are still sold today.)

      Katherine Stinson was part of an aviation family and the 4th woman to earn her pilot’s license in the U.S.  The exhibit refers to her flying in China!  I wish I had taken a closeup of “her” face as she’s flying the Laird – it reflects pure joy and excitement.

         The exhibit contains bleachers for museum visitors to rest and really take in what’s going on around them and overhead.  These two visitors from the barnstorming era never leave and are popular with photographers. 

      Part of the barnstormers’ schtick was air racing and that entertainment has continued to evolve to this day.  This is the Dayton-Wright racer, built for a race in 1920.  It was very unique because it had a single wing in the biplane era,  it has no windshield – the pilot can only see out the side of the plane – and it had lever-operated retractable wheels.   It was very odd to see an airplane with no windshield!

      The airplane began the race as planned , but had to pull out when a cable broke.  It never flew again.
       Our last aircraft for today’s blog is the Detroit News autogiro (sometimes spelled “autogyro,”) the first autogiro (a.k.a. a “rotorcraft”) built for commercial use.  It’s a 1931 Pitcairn PCA-2 built by the Dayton-Wright Company and powered by the overhead rotary wing with two small wings for stability. 

     Because of it’s ability to semi-hover, the newspaper used it for aerial photography and promotion, including one involving dropping golf balls onto a golf course!  Amelia Earhart attempted to be the first to fly one across the U.S. but was beaten to that milestone.  She did set an autogiro altitude record in 1930 that stood for 16 months. Many thought the autogiro would be the next big thing in personal aviation, but fixed wing continued to dominate.  
     Next week, we’ll talk about record setters including one more bit on Lindbergh (he’s everywhere, he’s everywhere…) and what else can be found in the Henry Ford.

The CAF Red Tail Squadron is a volunteer-driven 501c3 non-profit organization that operates under the auspices of the Commemorative Air Force. For more information, please visit redtail.org.



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