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P_7878

U.S. Airmail: Flight of Jenny & the Highway of Lights

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[Note: The history of U.S. Airmail (or that of any country, for that matter) is rather fascinating...and I've been meaning to post an account of it...So, here we go...hope, you enjoy it ...]


Early U.S. Airmail systems not only contributed significantly the the formation of many well-known (and major) U.S. based Airlines (United and Eastern being prime examples), but they were also the catalysts of civil air transportation system. The earliest airmail initiatives and development of air-routes are closely intertwined. How Airmail made Commercial aviation is a fascinating part of the aviation heritage. Also, just as an example for outside of U.S., the life and times of the legendary pilot, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who served as a Mail-Pilot in France, Spain and the in-hospitable and un-explored regions of Northern Africa and the Sahara Deserts is a great account of how primitive air routes developed across those regions of the world.

Now, here is an actual quote from history:
"Airmail is an impractical sort of fad and has no place in the serious job of postal transportation." - Quoted, Second Assistant U.S. Postmaster General Paul Henderson (1922). When the U.S. Postal Service opened up airmail routes during the early 1920s, many people saw it as a frivolous novelty. What good was sending mail by air? Sure, planes could travel faster than trains. But airplanes could only operate safely during the daytime, whereas trains could run all night!

The first plane the Airmail Service used was a modification of the (wooden biplane) Curtiss JN-4D (subject aircraft of this post), better known as just the “Jenny”. While successful for military use, it had to be modified for the mail. The front seat was replaced with a mail compartment and a larger Motor was added for more range. This (more advanced) ship was designated the JN-4H. Jennies were loved and hated and could be a nightmare to fly. One pilot noted that “It is best not to inspect this ship. If you do, will never get in it”. The evolution of airplanes in Airmail usage progressed quickly from (Curtiss JN-4D) -> (Curtiss JN-4H) -> (Standard JR-1B) -> (Curtiss R-4LM) -> (deHavilland DH-4) -> (Martin MB-1) -> (Twin DH-4B) -> (Junkers JL-6) -> (Boeing 221 Monomail) -> (Sikorsky S-42) -> (Douglas DC-3), and so on...Therefore, when we see the FedEx/UPS MD-11s/777s/747s of today, that do carry also mail, it's humbling to think back to the days of Jenny that had started it all!

The first scheduled U.S. Air Mail service began on May 15, 1918, using six converted United States Army Air Service Curtiss JN-4H "Jenny" biplanes flown by Army pilots. The first scheduled US airmail service connected Washington, D.C., and New York (via Philadelphia) - subject flight of this post. This 218-mile route was the first step in establishing a transcontinental route by air. Young Lieutenant Boyle won the privilege of flying the first mail out of D.C. in front of the President...with the 1st aircraft on the first northbound flight which, unfortunately, turned out to be a somewhat less than successful initial venture. Almost immediately after taking off, Boyle became disoriented and started flying south (instead of north!) when he followed the wrong set of railroad tracks out of the city. Realizing that he was lost, Boyle attempted to find out where he was by making an unscheduled landing just 18 minutes later at Waldorf, Maryland, about 25 miles south of the city. Unfortunately, however, he broke the prop on his airplane when he made a hard landing, so the 140 pounds of mail he was carrying had to be trucked back to Washington. However, his fellow-pilots completed the scheduled relay with the 144 pounds of Boyle's mail, the following day.

In 1919, the Post Office built a new hangar and a "compass rose" at College Park (both still exist today). The compass rose was a concrete compass in the ground to continuously display true north. At the time, airplane compasses needed to be calibrated before every flight. Pilots physically lined up their planes on the roses’ north-south directional axis to check their compass’ accuracy. This was a temporary solution until better instruments and navigation systems were developed for aircraft. (I cannot help think of the one-click synchronizations that we perform today on our modern airliners - speaking from my knowledge of SIMs, of course).

In 1922, letters sent by airmail, traveling by air during the day and by train at night, and moving at its absolute fastest might take about "83" hours to get from New York to San Francisco! The few pilots who did try to travel at night during this time were taking their lives in their hands. Nearly 1 in 10 early airmail pilots died during the early days of the postal service's airmail initiative, and emergency landings were common.

Now, enter "The Highway of Lights" — a system of airmail beacons that spanned the country. A bit more about this "Highway of Lights": The dusty landscape of the American West is even now dotted with enormous concrete arrows. They look like cryptic messages from a primitive civilization — a civilization that was obsessed with westward expansion. These enormous arrows pointing west tell only part of the story. Because at the dawn of aviation, they were part of America's highway of light — a high-tech system of lighthouses showing pilots how to get from New York City all the way to San Francisco. If you wish, you may search the internet for images of these curious structures.

Previously, the most reliable method of navigation for pilots was to use their old fashioned rivals as a guide; following the railroad routes ensured that they were staying on track (did not work for Boyle!). But this new system of towers — inland lighthouses with gigantic concrete arrows pointing the way — allowed air pilots to navigate without depending solely on yesterday's infrastructure. Once the new lighted airway was in place, that same letter that used to take 83 hours took "just 33 hours" to get from New York to San Francisco....As planes got bigger and technology allowed for safer travel, the highway of light would become a relic. New air travel records were getting knocked down left and right. And the postwar explosion in aviation made city-jumping (for airmail purpose) old hat! Today, the system's towers and generators are largely gone, but still leaving gigantic concrete arrows for bewildered backpackers to find. These concrete ghosts — of early airmail age residue, that now lightly stains the American landscape — are a mere hint of the marvelous highway of light that guided daredevil postmen just about a century earlier from today.

So, here, please find below a Direct GPS flight of Jenny 4D (in the color of the original U.S. Airmail) from KIAD to KJFK...and, of course, we can only imagine, what young Lieutenant Boyle would have done to get hold of my simple flight-plan! Also, please excuse all (out-of-place!) modern (far-off) appearances of (PAPI lights, Delta planes, Control Tower, Skyscrapers) etc...on arrival of my Jenny at the ILS 4L runway of (modern) KJFK. Thanks for reading and viewing, and have a good rest of the Sunday. [FW(JN-4D)/REX]

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Fascinating stuff. I wonder if anyone who has photoreal areas of the USA can still overfly the concrete arrows? 

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Mark Robinson

"What's it doing now?"

Greenbrier Aero Club former member

I made the baby cry - A2A Simulations L-049 Constellation

Sky Simulations MD-11 V2.2 Pilot. The best "lite" MD-11 money can buy (well, it's not freeware!)

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Mark: Thank you.

That's an interesting thought, and I had done a bit of investigation during my report...

The original system seems to have involved more than 1000 beacons at about 3-5 miles apart. The light at the top of the 50' tower would flash every 10 seconds, and could be seen for 10 miles in good weather (later more powerful versions could be visible up to 40 miles). But, most of the structures (and the beacons), except some on top of mountains, have now disappeared, as a result of urban development, natural causes etc.  These beacons were rather expensive to operate anyway, and with the advent of basic radio-guidance, they were rendered obsolete in the 1930s.

The state of Montana reportedly maintained around 19 updated beacons in the mountains of Western Montana until recently, but they have also been now cut (except three) as of 1917. So, there goes the last of these mysterious "light-house" type airway markers of the bygone era!

Here below is a Google Map URL for e.g. one of the still visible concrete arrows (I believe, in the state of Utah):
https://www.google.com/maps/@37.180561,-113.400407,111m/data=!3m1!1e3?hl=en

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I may just have found the Mother Lode! I've not looked at all the site however.

http://www.dreamsmithphotos.com/arrow/

That should be a useful reference for anyone with photoreal scenery or indeed to maybe overfly the arrows for real!

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Mark Robinson

"What's it doing now?"

Greenbrier Aero Club former member

I made the baby cry - A2A Simulations L-049 Constellation

Sky Simulations MD-11 V2.2 Pilot. The best "lite" MD-11 money can buy (well, it's not freeware!)

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I wish there were a P3D Jenny, still a classic looking aircraft...

John

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Mark: Great find with pretty detailed information about these historic markers...! Thanks for the detective work!

John: Completely agree...the Jenny surely has a classic and nostalgic appeal...of early aviation spirit...! Hope you will find a way to fly one in P3D...you've been lately trying hard (and getting results too) with a few of your favorites...I can see...🙂...

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There is/was freeware scenery for this flight, with the lighting beacons ect. Couldn’t tell you where though, seen it somewhere while surfing.

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Luke Pype

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***Wonderful History Lesson***Thank You***

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Patrick

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Nice post !

Three years ago, I did the following post on a little forum that I had then (now closed) for interested people.

"Exploring  flights for the upcoming OpenLC USA, I found in Wikipedia this map of US airmail routes contracted out to private airlines in the 20's-early 30's which offers plenty of ideas for short-haul flights. 

Looking deeper, I found  Arrows across America which goes into details about these flights, with scans of the old airways bulletins like this one which come from what looks like the ultimate resource : The general airway information of 1931 digitized by Google.

Also this one is about the signaling system !"

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Dominique

Simming since 1981 - Prepar3D v3 on a 4770 @ 4.4 GHz and a 1080 @ 2560*1440 - Warthog HOTAS - MFG pedals - My YouTube Channel

 

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2 hours ago, Phantom88 said:

***Wonderful History Lesson***Thank You***

+1     ...and excellent photos to go with it, P_7878

19 hours ago, John_Cillis said:

I wish there were a P3D Jenny, still a classic looking aircraft...

John

John, the default FSX Jenny works without issues also in P3D v4 . I have given her a more masculine sounding engine (from a payware bi-plane) and enjoy her low and slow. And the good thing is, we have a ton of liveries for her here on avsim

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Folks: Many thanks for the comments!

Dominique:

Interesting sources of additional information...! Power of the internet at its best...!

The massive 1682 page (Google digitized) Airways bulletin (today's Electronic Flight Bag equivalent) is rather remarkable for its time...with an introductory note saying, "...the compact and convenient size of these publications permits them to be carried in side pockets of aircraft cockpits and cabins, thereby enabling airmen to have available at all times for reference...."

I jumped to page 700, and find e.g. for Reno (Blanchfield Airport):

"Altitude 4500 feet. Irregular, approximately 2,200 by 2,200 feet...sand and gravel, slight slope to E/W....natural drainage...two runways: 2,200 by 300 feet N/S, and 2,000 by 300 feet N/W. Facilities for servicing aircraft, day only. Pilots are warned to use extreme care when landing on E/W runway..."

And, the cover image of that letter dated May 15, (2018), and sealed (proudly) with "AIR MAIL SERVICE"... along with the 24-cent Jenny plane stamp on it.....Of course, that letter had to be trucked back to Washington, after Boyle made an un-scheduled stop...(still, the image is worth a 2nd look for nostalgia)...

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6 hours ago, P_7878 said:

Folks: Many thanks for the comments!

 

When a new scenery is announced I do a little home work  😉. That is the case for OpenLC Africa which should be out this year.  This is what I found about the first flight across the Dark Continent.

 

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Dominique

Simming since 1981 - Prepar3D v3 on a 4770 @ 4.4 GHz and a 1080 @ 2560*1440 - Warthog HOTAS - MFG pedals - My YouTube Channel

 

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(All: Please excuse the typo error in my comment above about that 1st letter’s date...should be 1918, I did not wish you to time-travel...🙂...)

And, Dominique, this first flight stuff across the Dark Continent seems really fascinating too...Antoine de Saint-Exupery would have approved...!

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On 6/26/2019 at 2:37 PM, P_7878 said:

.Antoine de Saint-Exupery would have approved...!

Oh yeah and many of his fellow French mail pilots too. A few years back there was a documentary on French/German TV, which showed a young pilot flying in a Piper Cup almost all of the former routes of the French Post Service. It went along the Spanish and North-West African coast into the former French and Belgian colonies. The pilot was also the producer. He is Vietnamese, I loved his documentary 😉 

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What I found amusing is that they sent three advance parties to build the landing strips (among anthills !) . Such an organization. Those were the days.


Dominique

Simming since 1981 - Prepar3D v3 on a 4770 @ 4.4 GHz and a 1080 @ 2560*1440 - Warthog HOTAS - MFG pedals - My YouTube Channel

 

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