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"Fiasco" revisited: the Air Corps & the 1934 air mail episode.

Late on February 19, 1934, a brand new Douglas DC-1 named, "City of Los Angeles," took off from that city and headed east for Newark, New Jersey. The flight was a well-planned and well-covered publicity stunt intending to set a transcontinental transport speed record. It would also show off "the latest word" in air travel, with a plane that incorporated almost all of the aviation technologies for propeller driven aircraft. (1) The proposed flight was daring, as a storm was forecast over its terminus, just twenty minutes after the estimated arrival, if the aircraft took off at its announced departure time and if it made record breaking time. To highlight the event, the sleek, twin engine transport carried an unusual crew and passengers--newsmen and two of the three pilots were airline executives, one of whom was Eddie Rickenbacker, the leading American ace of World War I. Rickenbacker later wrote that "It was taking a great chance, but, in the light of what was happening to the entire air transport industry, it was a chance that we should take." (2)

The flight went well, encountering mostly cross winds until it reached Ohio, where poor weather required the crew to use Columbus rather than Pittsburgh for its third and last refueling. The storms also forced the aircraft to climb above 18,000 feet to get over the weather and as the aircraft was unpressurized, mandated the use of oxygen by passengers and crew. The transport landed in Newark in the early afternoon after a flight (including ground time) of just over thirteen hours, cutting a remarkable six hours off the record set the previous year. Two hours later a fierce storm rolled into Newark. (3)

The flight was important for several reasons. First, the new speed record caught the public's attention and highlighted the dominant position of American commercial aviation. Second, the flight introduced this new aircraft that would evolve into the Douglas DC-3, the most produced and probably the most highly regarded transport of all time, certainly of the propeller era. Third, it provides an introduction to our story, as it was the last commercial transcontinental air mail flight for three months.

Largely forgotten today, the 1934 air mail episode involved U. S. air mail contracts and the subsequent carrying of the mail by the Air Corps, a story that dominated the nation's attention over the first half of 1934. It included the major personalities of the day, including President Franklin Roosevelt, congressmen, aviation heroes Charles Lindbergh and Eddie Rickenbacker, two Postmaster Generals, and the leaders of the Army and the Army's air arm. It is a story of controversy, drama, and death overlaid with allegations of corporate misconduct, heated congressional hearings, questionable government practices, and inadequate Air Corps performance. The affair handed opponents of the year-old New Deal and the new President a golden opportunity for criticism, produced the administration's first setback, shook the commercial aviation industry, and battered the reputation of the Air Corps.

There are two different, but overlapping, elements to this story. The first involves the commercial carriers and the U. S. mail subsidies, allegations of illegalities, and the political skirmishing over cancellation of the air mail contracts. This was a fiery, partisan tussle that pitted the Roosevelt administration and the Democrats against the outnumbered Republicans and the aviation industry, to which some would add the press. The second element of the story, the focus of this article, was the participation of the Army Air Corps in carrying the mail. The two overlapped because the Air Corps' difficulties contrasted poorly with the airlines' record and gave ammunition to the critics of the contract cancellation and of the Administration. Although it was probably the most important event in Air Corps history between the World Wars, this episode has been neglected in the seventy-five years since. (4)

Most accounts of the affair are descriptive, vary little in detail, but also fail to analyze the subject. And while no new material on this incident has emerged over the past few decades, it is long past time to revisit the episode with a critical eye.

The Context: American Air Mail

Air mail service in the U. S. was fostered by two major factors. The first was simple geography; the country's great expanse demanded rapid long distance communications. The fastest trains required four days for a transcontinental trip. Better mail service would not only bind the country closer together, but also benefit business. A second factor was psychological. The American public was fascinated by speed, modernity, the future, and cutting edge technology, all of which were wrapped up in aviation, the glamour industry of the day. The fliers, the records, and the promise of the future electrified the country as seen in the response to Lindbergh's epic trans-Atlantic flight in 1927. National pride was also involved for not only was Lindbergh an American, but so were the Wright brothers, who, in the eyes of Americans, invented aviation. The air mail was a part of the advance of aviation.

Army airmen were connected with air mail from the beginning. The Army began air mail service in May 1918, with a New York to Washington run, but deeply engaged in the European War, quickly handed off the duty to the Post Office Department. Nevertheless, Army influence continued in the years after the war as almost all of the air mail pilots had been trained by the military and flew converted Army bombers. In the mid-1920s, the Post Office contracted out the mail service to private operators. These commercial operators also carried passengers but depended on federal air mail subsidies for their survival. The government further encouraged the air mail service and aviation by providing lighted beacons, emergency airfields, and regular weather reports. By 1928, the air mail routes covered 14,000 miles. (5)


Contractors' abuses and the desire to stimulate passenger service led to a modification of the system. (6) In 1930, Congress changed the basis for fees and gave the Postmaster General broad powers; some said "dictatorial" powers. Armed with this increased authority, Postmaster General Walter Brown met with the major airline executives and redistributed the mail contracts in meetings that would ignite the episode. Brown's efforts were a major factor in the expansion of air mail routes, the consolidation of airlines, and the growth of commercial aviation in the U. S. By the end of the year, transcontinental air mail routes had grown from one to three, and despite the Great Depression, air mail miles increased from 15,000 in 1930 to 27,000 in 1932, while passengers carried rose from 385,000 to 476,000 in these same years. (7) These remarkable achievements made American air transport and the air mail system the envy of the world. In 1934, the editor of the main British aviation periodical wrote that "No other country can show as high a standard of speed, regularity and safety" as the American air mail system. (8)

Contracts Cancelled

There was, however, another side to this glowing picture. In February 1933, in the wake of the Great Depression and the transition of power from the Republicans to the Democrats, the Senate authorized a probe of both air and ocean mail contracts that led the chairman of the investigating committee, Senator Hugo Black (D-Ala) to warn FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover of "a conspiracy to defraud" the government. (9) Early in 1934, the committee began public sessions that revealed apparent corruption, and certainly questionable practices. These revelations were splashed in newspaper headlines across the country and led to charges that the previous administration's Postmaster General, Walter Brown, and the major airlines had colluded to divide up the heavily subsidized air mail routes to freeze out the smaller companies by awarding contracts without competitive bidding. Four companies had received 90 percent of the air mail subsidies. (10) There were allegations of favoritism, political payoffs, and influence peddling. Further, Brown's secretary ordered official documents burned, strongly suggesting a cover up of illegal activity. There were also charges that a favored few made fantastic profits in aviation stocks, with an outlay of a few hundred dollars rising in value to millions of dollars in a short period. (11) To add flavor to these revelations, a number of prominent names were linked to these questionable practices, including Postmaster General Brown, Charles Lindbergh, the sons of former President Herbert Hoover, and some congressmen. (12)

Thus, the aviation industry and specifically the air mail subsidies were vulnerable to the new President's activist's efforts. Franklin Roosevelt, riding a wave of popularity with his aggressively expansive program to combat the Depression, institute reform, and looking to the fall congressional elections, thought that the Black Committee had pinpointed an appropriate target. After discussions with the Attorney General and the President, Jim Farley, the Postmaster General and head of the Democratic Party, decided to cancel the air mail contracts. (13) The Air Corps would fly the air mail temporarily until new contacts were awarded. However, there was some press speculation that FDR intended to return the air mail service to the Post Office Department or to the Air Corps and even that the government was considering taking over passenger service. (14) What is clear and most important, is Roosevelt's direct influence on two key points. First, although Farley wanted the airlines to continue to carry the mail until new contracts could be concluded, he said, "the President favored giving the service [Air Corps] an opportunity to distinguish itself." (15) Secondly, FDR insisted on the immediate revocation of the contracts, whereas the Post Office Department had recommended a June 1st date.

On February 9, 1934, Harlee Branch, Second Assistant Postmaster General, called the Chief of the Air Corps, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Foulois, to a meeting at which Branch asked if the Army could carry the mail. Without contacting anyone outside the Air Corps or even consulting with his deputy, and with minimal preparation and consideration, Foulois answered yes in what his biographer writes was a "rather hasty reply." (16) Three decades later, Foulois insisted he would again give an affirmative answer, although with major changes: "better planes, engines, instruments and airways' aids, and a little more time to get ready." (17) Major changes indeed. On that last point, when Branch asked Foulois how much time the Air Corps required to begin operations, the airman answered in his words, "casually," a week to ten days. Thirty years later Foulois clarified that he "certainly didn't mean ... from that moment on." (18) [original emphasis] Noteworthy is the fact that neither the Post Office nor the Air Corps used the military chain of command. This is significant as the involvement of the Army General Staff, given its conservatism and insistence on maintaining control over the airmen, probably would have tempered the response to the Post Office query.


The Air Corps was caught flat footed by this turn of events. It had done no planning for such a contingency, although it should have seen this task as a real possibility. A year or two before, the Post Office had drafted tentative plans for the Air Corps to fly the mails in the event of an airline pilot strike, although it is unclear when Foulois learned of this. However, the extensive press coverage of the Black Committee hearings indicated the growing crisis over the air mail contracts. Foulois wrote in his autobiography that he had been following the air mail story in the papers, but "assumed, naively, that when the mail couldn't go by air it would go by rail...." (19)

Foulois' affirmative response may have been prompted by the military's "can-do" attitude, a belief in the obligation to follow orders, as a way to justify larger budgets, organizational pride, or to demonstrate the airmen's capabilities. Certainly, it would have been difficult for a military officer to tell the President that the Air Corps could not do the job. In his autobiography, Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold wrote, "I think it is doubtful if any other air leader in his place would have answered differently." (20) Although a different answer might have been difficult, it was not impossible. Foulois' deputy, Brig. Gen. Oscar Westover, testified that he probably would not have recommended that the Air Corps carry the mail. And three other officers involved in the affair, all of whom rose to flag rank, later commented that Foulois should have told Roosevelt that the Air Corps was not equipped for the task. (21)

Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Chief of Staff of the Army, publicly supported his subordinate and told the press, "We will start flying air mail ... and there will be no delay, no difficulty and no interruption." (22) However, it should be noted that the Army head was not involved in the decision, he first heard of it from a reporter, and despite his words to the press, seemed to be only tepid in support of the decision. (23)

Foulois was confident that the Air Corps could do the job. Less than a week after the decision, the Air Corps chief testified to a House committee that while the Army airmen had no familiarity with the air mail routes, they did have "a great deal of experience in flying at night, and in flying in fogs and bad weather, in blind flying, and in flying under all other conditions.... [and] shall experience no difficulty in maintaining the regular schedules." (24) At best this statement was overly enthusiastic and optimistic, misleading, if not grossly incorrect as it badly distorted the airmen's capabilities, which helps explain why the forecast was so tragically inaccurate. In contrast, twenty-five years later Foulois claimed that he had told Post Office officials about the Air Corps' limitations and that the airmen were not equipped for the task. (25)

On February 10, 1934, a front page story in the Washington Post began, "Charging fraud and collusion, President Roosevelt yesterday directed the cancellation of all air mail contracts with domestic companies--thus reshaping if not collapsing the Nation's network of private transport concerns." It went on to state that "Faced with disclosures of the Black investigating committee, the President cut a Gordian knot in characteristic fashion, at one bold stroke lopping off all subsidy to air mail transport and projecting the Government into its place." (26) The Army would begin flying the mail on February 19.

The airlines were stunned and reacted with a roar of protest that resounded across the country. With about half their earnings generated by the air mail subsidies they faced ruin. The companies cut back schedules, laid off employees, watched their stocks plummet, and cried foul. Although the few Republican congressmen echoed these protests, Charles Lindbergh emerged as the industry's most effective spokesman and foe of the cancellation. His epic flight had catapulted him to fame, fortune, and a position as America's leading aviator and aviation expert and his creditability on this matter was enhanced by his prior experience as an air mail pilot. In addition, he was second only to Roosevelt in popularity across the land, all of which gave him a unique position with the public and therefore with American politicians. It must be noted that Lindbergh was on the payroll of the aviation industry and had substantial aviation stock holdings as well. However, Lindbergh's balanced and measured public statements give no indication that his industry ties unduly influenced his expert opinion.


Two days after the cancellation order, "Lindy" sent a telegram to the President strongly decrying the great damage this action inflicted on the airline industry. He claimed that the order did not discriminate between the guilty and innocent and that its procedures denied the companies a chance to present their case. Lindbergh's protest received front page coverage in major American city newspapers across the country. An attempt by the Republicans to have the telegram included in the Congressional Record disrupted the House of Representatives with two members almost coming to blows. The House was abruptly adjourned. The story was prolonged when the President's secretary publicly criticized Lindbergh for being discourteous and a publicity seeker by releasing the telegram to the press before the President could read it. (27) With the major exception of Billy Mitchell, the flamboyant and outspoken Army aviation advocate, almost all of the civilian aviation community joined the chorus of criticism. (28)

Mitchell was a fervent supporter of Roosevelt. The dashing airman had taken on the aviation industry in 1933, charging them with profiteering and hindering aviation development, which resulted in a libel suit against him in 1934. Mitchell was a delegate to the 1932 Democratic convention, campaigned for Roosevelt's election, and met the President on a number of occasions. Some pushed his bid for a high aviation post in the government. However, Roosevelt did not agree with Mitchell on the controversial, volatile, and high profile issue of a separate air force and was warned that the airman was a "loose cannon." So despite his efforts, ambitions, and qualifications, Mitchell never got a position in the New Deal administration or on any of the committees investigating American aviation. (29)

Along with the criticism of the cancellations came dire warnings. Only days after the cancellation announcement, the New York Times reported in a front page story that Lindbergh, a former air mail pilot, agreed with current commercial mail pilots that "the lives of men inexperienced in mail operations, and flying planes not equipped with radio or the blind flying instruments necessary for the service, may be risked." (30) That same day a short, sharp, more direct, and prescient column written by Will Rogers, the aviation enthusiast, film star, humorist, and newspaper columnist also appeared on the front page, asserting that "You are going to lose some fine boys in these Army fliers who are marvelously trained in their line but not in night cross-country flying, in rain and snow." (31) Another aviation luminary, Eddie Rickenbacker, expressed similar concerns focusing on the Air Corps pilots' limited training and their aircraft's lack of bad weather instruments. He opined that "Either they are going to pile up ships all the way across the continent or they are not going to fly the mail on schedule." (32) Perhaps more striking than the foreboding of these aviation celebrities was the view of an Air Corps reserve major who wrote his congressman that "Today the army starts to fly the airmail. I, as an army flier expect to be embarrassed at the poor demonstration that they are sure to make" (33)

To understand the apprehension, the reader must appreciate that flying in the mid-1930s was considerably different that what we experience and expect today. This was much more than just the matter of aircraft performance. There was no ground control, radar, inertial navigation devices, or operational non-visual landing systems. Most flying was conducted in daylight and fair weather conditions. Instrument flying was in its infancy with only a few non-visual instruments in service. Low visibility takeoffs and landings had been demonstrated, but their standardized use was years away. At the same time radio navigation and communication equipment were just appearing, but were both limited in range and reliability. Thus, flying at night and in non-visual conditions was not the norm and was more difficult and more dangerous than daytime, visual flying. Only the major commercial airlines had the necessary equipment and personnel trained in its use. Also, aircraft and weather prediction in the 1930s were much less reliable than today.


The Air Corps in Action

Meanwhile, the Air Corps prepared to meet its greatest challenge of the interwar years. The Air Corps assigned Brigadier General Westover, Assistant to the Chief of the Air Corps, to command the air mail operation, with the country divided into three zones. (34) The planners cut air mail service by 40 percent from the existing route mileage, but included the more important routes, ensuring the connection of the twelve Federal Reserve banks. (35)

In the short time it had to prepare for this task, the Air Corps shifted resources to civilian airfields near the cities it would service, installed non-visual flying instruments in aircraft as needed and had its pilots fly over the routes in daylight. Most of the airmen saw the operation as a great opportunity, were excited and confident, although some were cautious. (36) Flying the mails offered the service increased flying time, a break from the peacetime routine, and an opportunity to show the country its value. As the Eastern Zone commander declared, "We'll carry the mail, don't worry about that--unless an elephant drops on us. If it does, we'll cut it up and ship it out as mail." (37) That very day, the elephant landed.

On the morning of February 16, three days before the operation would begin, the Air Corps suffered two fatal accidents connected with the upcoming air mail operation. (38) That morning two young lieutenants flying a training mission between Salt Lake City and Cheyenne encountered snow flurries and stiff winds and inadvertently flew into a canyon, crashed, and died. The Air Corps attributed the accident to an inexperienced pilot who exercised poor judgment. (39) Late that day, another young and inexperienced pilot took off from Salt Lake City on a night training mission to Seattle, encountered dense fog with zero ceilings, and was killed attempting to land at an emergency airfield in Jerome, Idaho. (40)

These accidents intensified criticism of the operation. Following these crashes Eddie Rickenbacker uttered the phrase that would resound throughout the affair when he told reporters that "'Legalized murder' has just begun and I fear the worst." (41) The critics picked up this phrase and used it to batter the administration in the halls of Congress and in the newspapers.

Despite these apprehensions, accidents, and fierce weather the Air Corps began mail service on February 19. More mishaps followed. Three air mail aircraft crashed on February 22, two resulting in fatalities. A solo pilot took off early in the morning from Chicago, ran into snow storms, and got lost when his navigational radio failed. He was fifty miles south of course when, after throwing a number of mall sacks overboard, he bailed out, but his chute did not clear the empennage and he was killed. To add to the growing clamor, the pilot's mother was quoted by major newspapers across the country deploring her son's death, lamenting that as:

Good as these Selfridge Field fliers [are, they] shouldn't have had to fly at night through winter storms over unfamiliar courses that it took months for commercial pilots to learn. I can't help thinking that if this government house-cleaning campaign hadn't occurred, this dreadful thing wouldn't have happened to my son. (42)

Unfortunately, this was not the last accident associated with the air mail operation. Later that day, a pilot en route to air mail duty attempted a forced landing when his engine cut out, and was killed when his fighter turned over in the soft ground. The next day, three air mail planes crashed. One of these was an amphibian that took off in the afternoon from Floyd Bennett Field, New York on an administrative flight. Ten minutes later, both engines quit, and the pilot ditched in the ocean a mile from Rockaway Beach, New York. During a prolonged rescue attempt, one of three airmen was washed to his death. Twenty minutes later a Navy destroyer rescued the other two men. (43)


In one week, the Air Corps had suffered six fatalities, all associated with the air mail detail. This was shocking after the previous year in which the fatal accident rate was less than one man a week. (44) The Army's Air Mail Service was not going well!

Despite these problems and setbacks, the airmen kept up their efforts. Foulois asserted in an address at the end of the month that air mail flying was not as dangerous as peacetime military flying, and characterized the critics as partisan and uninformed. He rejected allegations that poor training and equipment were involved, admitting only that there was a lack of numbers. In a radio address, General Foulois stated that his airmen were not weaklings, not looking for sympathy, and not "a bunch of rosy-checked young babies." He declared that "on the contrary, they constitute a corps of highly intelligent, rugged, determined, loyal and fearless young officers." He further stated that safety was the Army's primary concern, but acknowledged that "frequent accidents will still occur." (45)

Before the end of February, even members of the Air Corps were criticizing the operation, most surprisingly, in public. General Westover was blunt: "When you consider how the job was dumped in our laps, how little warning we had, how little time for preparation, the men have done exceptionally well, particularly with our present equipment. We have had to take what we have had and adapt it to our needs." He noted the lack of weather information and the inexperience with the routes as well. (46) Another key officer, Western Zone commander Lt. Col. "Hap" Arnold, spoke of the "immense handicaps" the Army airmen faced. One of the route commanders also pointed to the short preparation time and the inadequacies of aircraft and training, and called the duty an "impossible task" as the Air Corps had trained for a different kind of flying in better weather. (47)

The sharp cry against the cancellation of the air mail contracts, reinforced by the Air Corps' difficulties, grew louder. The dispute over the contracts paled in comparison with the Air Corps' performance as the legal arguments did not have the dramatic impact of the airmen's problems and casualties. Events confirmed the dire predictions of the critics about the inadequacies of the Army in this type of flying and were amplified by the events, broadcast by the newspapers, and trumpeted by the opponents of the New Deal. Judging from congressional mail, the public was about equally divided on the wisdom of the contract cancellation, but was shocked and upset by the Air Corps' performance. To add fuel to the criticism, two of the leading aviation figures of the day emerged as forceful and effective critics. Although both Charles Lindbergh and Eddie Rickenbacker were closely connected to the airline industry and on their payrolls, their stature and technical credibility generated headlines that were difficult to counter.

The Air Corps' safety record became the major issue. By the end of February, there were twenty major accidents and six fatalities connected with air mail activities. In the first ten days of March, eleven more major accidents and four more fatalities occurred. Four airmen died in three crashes on March 9. One was killed during an early morning flight into a heavy storm near Burton, Ohio. Although more experienced than most others killed in the operation, his crash was blamed on the poor cockpit location of two critical flight instruments. The second accident at Daytona Beach, Florida, involved a twin-engine bomber that lost power on both engines shortly after takeoff, and one of the three-man crew lost his life in the subsequent crash landing. That night, two more officers perished at Cheyenne in an accident attributed to engine failure.


The next day Roosevelt halted the operation citing the high accident rate and fatalities. The President called in the Army Chief of Staff, Douglas MacArthur, and the Chief of the Air Corps, Benjamin Foulois, and forcefully expressed his extreme displeasure. Roosevelt asked when the deaths would end, to which Foulois bluntly and honestly answered "only when the airplanes stop flying." (48) The overall result, Foulois later recalled, was the worst tongue lashing he had ever endured. The Air Corps thought the President was overreacting, and Foulois noted that only four of the ten deaths actually took place carrying the mail, while the others were in air mail support services (a distinction probably lost on both the President and the public). The next day Foulois grounded the air mail flights. When the Air Corps chief lifted the grounding, he warned that there might be further accidents and casualties. "With 25 years of flying experience behind me," Foulois asserted, "I can frankly state that just so long as man flies there will be fatal accidents." (49) When the Air Corps resumed operations on March 19, it cut its schedule from 41,000 miles to 26,000 miles a day and reduced the night flights from thirty-eight to fourteen. (50)

The affair played out in public with pyrotechnics blazing across the pages of the nation's papers. In mid-March, the Secretary of War formed a committee to investigate the Air Corps' performance (it became known as the Baker Committee, named for its chairman, Woodrow Wilson's Secretary of War, Newton Baker) and announced the appointment of Lindbergh as a member. Much to the embarrassment of the Administration, the aviator twice refused to serve on the board based on his vigorous objections to the annulment of the contracts, a position he repeated in forceful, direct terms to newsmen and congressmen alike. (51) A few days later Rickenbacker regained national attention when in Senate testimony he called upon Roosevelt to fire his "traitorous" advisors who had misadvised him on the air mail. The Democratic Chairman of the Committee would not allow the flier to continue his remarks, upon which the aviator stormed out of the hearing to the applause of hundreds in the audience and a few of the Senators. At seemingly every opportunity Republican congressmen charged the Administration with bungling, politics, and "legalized murder." (52) The rhetoric was tough, with one congressman declaring that "The summary, autocratic and dictatorial manner of canceling the air mail contracts without a hearing is worthy of Fascism, Hitlerism or Sovietism at their best." (53) Democratic congressmen defended the President, the Administration, and the air mail decision as best as they could. They parried some of the Republican efforts to embarrass the Administration but attempted in vain to shift the emphasis from the Air Corps' problems and the appropriateness of the contract cancellation to the corruption and collusion of the contracts.

The air mail episode dominated the news during the first half of 1934, with the major national newspapers running a story on the subject half of the days in February and March and on the front page 30 percent of those days. (54) The coverage centered on the scandals uncovered by the Black Committee hearings, accentuated by the Air Corps' difficulties and accidents. A New York Times editorial pointed out a day before the Air Corps began flying the mail that the storm of criticism was a new experience for the New Deal Administration that had been riding on a wave of public approval. A week later, the New York paper editorialized that for the first time the Administration was on the defensive. It wrote that the public seemed to side largely with the companies, to be critical of the President, and to increasingly believe that the Administration might "be a trifle precipitate in grave matters." (55) At the same time the Washington Post reported that despite the "Overwhelming evidence that the army is not prepared to carry the air mall without a needless sacrifice of life," the Administration clings to its "hastily adopted and ill-considered policy regardless of the consequences." (56)

The airmen, and certainly Roosevelt supporters, considered the newspaper's coverage hostile and negative. (57) Arnold was critical of the press, complaining to his wife in mid-March of the "sensation-hunting, super-critical newspapers." (58) His views were even sharper a month later when he told the Baker Committee that "the newspapers from the start were antagonistic, apparently, they seem to think it was their duty to vilify us as callous murderers and everything else...." (59) He wanted good publicity and told his public relations officer, "I don't care what you do. You cover a bathing beauty with air mail stamps, and send her to the Governor of California.... I don't care what you do, but we've got to overcome all of this unfavorable and unfair publicity." (60) An irony of the situation was that the President's son, Elliott, was an aviation editor who later admitted that "I wrote some very scathing prose.... and some pretty terrible articles [criticizing] ... what my father was doing." (61)


In fact, the considerable attention to the air mail affair was consistent with the press and public interest in aviation as well as in unusual and bloody stories such as airline and auto accidents, murder and suicide, as well as strikes, kidnapping, riots, and lynching. (The major competing story over this half year concerned the activities of John Dillinger, public enemy number one.) However, it should be noted that the newspapers also defended the airmen and sympathetically reported their problems. The papers revealed a hastily run operation that proved costly in dollars and blood that was certainly less competent than the commercial air mail operation it replaced. Honest reporting could not alter these details. (62)

Meanwhile, the Air Corps persevered, the weather improved, and the accidents declined, but did not stop. Through May 13, the date of the last accident in the air mail operation, the Air Corps had twenty-nine more major accidents and three more deaths. On March 17, a second lieutenant flying a training flight at Cheyenne was killed after he spun in from 1,500 feet. The accident report attributed the crash to the pilot inhaling carbon monoxide, a conclusion refuted by the Zone Commander who, instead, blamed the load distribution of this type aircraft at high altitude. This fatality contrasted with the others in that the pilot was a laid-off United Airlines copilot who had been recalled to active duty only four days earlier and presumably had more flying time than the average Air Corps air mail pilot. Two weeks later, a mail plane flying 140 miles west from Chicago encountered a low ceiling. The pilot reversed direction and then dove into the ground and was killed. Although the Air Corps had some concern about the pilot's mental state, it drew no definite conclusions as to the cause of the accident. The last air mail fatality occurred on April 5, when a pilot who had taken off from Middletown, Pennsylvania, encountered poor weather and attempted to land at Duncansville, Pennsylvania. He did not see a ridge in time and was attempting to bail out when the fatal impact occurred.

The Air Corps' safety record carrying the mail was abysmal. The air mail operation accounted for 12 percent of the Air Corps' flying hours in 1934, yet it registered 31 percent of the fatal accidents. The major accident rate for carrying the mail was two and a half times the Air Corps' total major accident rate for 1934, and almost four times the fatal accident rate. (63) A comparison of the Air Corps with the airlines is extremely difficult because of differences in measurement, although it indicates the Air Corps was more prone to fatal accidents. (64) The Army airmen also suffered more fatalities than the commercial mail carriers in the previous year, although the Air Corps flew fewer miles. (65) One conclusion is clear, however, 1934 was a bad year for aviation safety, as the accident rates for both the Air Corps and airlines in 1934 increased over that of 1933, and both fell in 1935. (66)


The weather improved, as did Air Corps performance. One major advance resulted from the Army's acquisition of the Martin B-10, the most advanced bomber flying. It incorporated almost all of the aviation innovations of the early 1930s, and was the first 200-mph bomber in the world. Early on May 8, 1934, a B-10 took off from Oakland, California, carrying mail bound for Newark. But the goal was more than just delivering the mail over transcontinental distances on this the last military mail run from the west coast--the airmen wanted to set a new speed record to mark the completion of their three months service, and thus end their duty on a high note by demonstrating their competence that had been called into question. The great distance (2,700 miles) required five stops during which the mail was transferred sequentially to other aircraft, flown by other pilots. Four of the six legs were flown in B-10s. Fourteen hours after take off, a Martin bomber touched down at Newark. While the overall time was an hour longer than that of Rickenbacker's February flight, the route was some 247 miles longer, and flown at a higher average speed. (67) This was the last memorable flight in this well publicized, highly criticized, and flawed operation. That same day, commercial air mail flights resumed and the Air Corps flew its last mail run on June 1.

The government rebid the air mail contracts in the spring. Although there had been talk of not allowing companies involved in the 1930 arrangements, or those companies suing the government over the matter from bidding on the new contracts, the restrictions were far narrower. To bid on the contracts, the former carriers were forced to reorganize, which entailed a separation of manufacturing operations from the airlines and some cosmetic company name changes. (68) In addition, thirty-one individuals involved in the infamous 1930 meetings were barred from participation. The air mail subsidy rates were reduced, the mail went through, and U.S. commercial aviation improved and prospered. The air mail episode was wrapped up in 1942, when the Court of Claims found that the Postmaster General was justified in revoking the contracts because there had been collusion, but denied the government any financial restitution. It also held that the companies could recover payments for their services prior to the February cancellation. (69) Tellingly, despite all of the public allegations, no criminal charges were filed.

Episode Concluded: What Went Wrong?

Clearly the Air Corps struggled to deliver the air mail during this operation. While it is probably true that New Deal critics, aviation partisans, and newspapers exploited the fliers' problems for their own purposes and may have exaggerated by using such terms as "disaster," "fiasco," and "blunder," it was largely from a public relations point-of-view. Certainly, Air Corps performance compared poorly with that of commercial carriers. The Air Corps carried less mail than the airlines, with an inferior safety and completion record. (However, unlike the commercial fliers, the Air Corps proudly claimed that it did not lose or destroy any of the air mail entrusted to its care. (70) Although the Air Corps' job was done, it was at a high cost to its reputation and personnel. The question that arose was: If the airmen had so much trouble in peacetime, carrying the mail, how would they perform under wartime conditions?

Another question: What had caused this result? Some attributed the airmen's difficulties to the weather, the worst seen in decades. (71) Although this was certainly a factor, more significant was fact that the Air Corps was ill-prepared for the job. One shortcoming was aircraft. Because it had few cargo aircraft, (72) and these were used to ferry men and equipment to its dispersed stations, the Air Corps was forced to use a variety of aircraft and convert them from their combat configuration for air mail duty. This conversion entailed removing guns and seats from aircraft to make room for mall bags and give the aircraft better flying performance, by equipping them with bad weather flying and navigation instruments, and radios. The quality of the Air Corps' aircraft is illustrated by the fact that while the airlines were mainly flying aircraft with closed cockpits, initially only a third of the Army aircraft had that configuration. (73) The Air Corps soon found that few of its aircraft were suitable for the job because of their low speeds, limited cargo space, and lack of stability for instrument flying. In brief, the Army aircraft were not designed to carry mail and, with the exception of the Martin B-10, proved at best marginal, if not unsatisfactory, for the job. The Air Corps considered its attack and pursuit aircraft difficult for the task, and recognized that its bomber and transport aircraft were not equipped for night operations. Specifically the A-12, one of the airmen's newer aircraft, lacked landing lights and was unsuited for the high altitude operations as required at some of the western airfields. The P-12 also lacked landing lights and was considered a bad aircraft for instrument flying. The P-26 was labeled unsuited for air mail operations. The observation aircraft were better; especially the O-38 with its enclosed cockpit, but it lacked the necessary speed and payload. (74)

Aircraft equipment also proved inadequate. In 1934, the Air Corps was a clear weather, daylight air force. It did not anticipate fighting in bad weather, and although it had developed equipment and techniques for bad weather and night flying and played a part in pioneering these technologies. The Army Air Corps had been slow, certainly slower than the airlines, putting this new equipment into the field. The onset of the air mail operation found commercial mail aircraft equipped with modern flying and navigational instruments, while some Army pursuit aircraft lacked even basic instruments. Only a few Air Corps aircraft had instruments considered essential for night and bad weather flying. The neglect of instrument flying capability resulted from a number of factors. Tight funding was a problem, but the airmen bore responsibility as well. Some of the older, more experienced, and senior airmen distrusted instruments and regarded those who advocated them as weak pilots. Believing a future air war would not require bad weather flying, military airmen disregarded instrument flying and proved (as the stereotype would have it) much more conservative than the commercial fliers who saw an economic advantage. (75)

The Air Corps did have a number of these bad-weather instruments, but they were in storage, reserved for new aircraft. (76) This policy denied the airmen their use for training and familiarization, and of course operational use. In the wake of the air mall duty the Air Corps installed these advanced instruments as quickly as possible into aircraft carrying the mail, but in their haste, and due to the restricted space on aircraft instrument panels, located them with little regard for the pilot, making their use difficult if not dangerous. (77) Among the lessons learned from the air mail experience was the need to standardize the instrument location in all its aircraft, install the instruments on shock proof panels, and provide adequate instrument lighting. (78) The lack of this equipment led the Air Corps to neglect training in its use. Although Air Corps pilots were trained with the basic instruments, few were trained with the more advanced instruments that made bad weather flying practical. Beginning in 1930 the Air Corps allocated 10 flying hours of pilot training to instrument training, a figure doubled in May 1934. The airmen also established a six-week bad weather flying, instrument school on each coast in the fall of 1933 intended to produce instructors who were to return to their bases and pass along this knowledge. The schools were in the middle of their second class when the air mall crisis erupted. Therefore it is not surprising that initially only one quarter of the 80 pilots assigned to air mail duty in the Eastern Zone were qualified instrument pilots. (79) Although only a small portion of the actual flying was done in adverse weather, the airmen agreed that their instrument training was inadequate as it only enabled them to climb through the weather to get above it, not fly in it. (80)

Communications followed a similar pattern of neglect. In early February 1934, three quarters of the Air Corps' aircraft lacked radios. The radios finally obtained were inadequate, as some did not work very well, many were receivers only, and the two-way radios had less than one-third the range of those used by the airlines. This situation limited air-to-ground communications and forced the airmen to swap radios from aircraft to aircraft, a practice that continued into late April. The location of radio antennas on the aircraft and radio maintenance presented further woes. (81)

There were infrastructure problems as well. For the most part, the airmen were working away from their bases, on civilian airfields with inadequate facilities. Some of these airfields were just that, open fields hazardous in rain or snow, because hard-surfaced runways were just coming into use. Lighting was not a standard feature. The airmen were forced to use sparse facilities with much of the maintenance done in the open, despite the severe winter weather. In addition, communications were makeshift and parts and tools were in short supply. Despite these problems, along with other difficulties in pay, billeting, and messing, morale was good.

Another problem was that most of the Air Corps pilots flying the air mail had limited flying experience. A significant number of them had only recently earned their wings and were doing brief service before returning to civilian status, while many of the Air Corps' older, more experienced, regular officers were posted to administrative duties. Initially, more than half of the Air Corps air mail pilots had less than two years service. And while the average commercial pilot was logging about 900 flying hours a year, at this point an Air Corps pilot had about 200 flying hours a year because of fiscal constraints. (82)

The Air Corps did not take decisive action to remedy the problem of inexperienced pilots. Unlike the Army policy a year earlier that helped staff the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps), the Air Corps did not pull regular officers out of the various schools and assignments that took them away from their tactical units. As was expected, the Air Corps used the older, more experienced officers in administrative and managerial positions.

Further, the Air Corps did not fully utilize the pool of considerably more experienced reservists who flew with the airlines. The airmen did borrow fifty-three National Guard aircraft as well as use some of the Guard's airfields, mechanics, and facilities. On February 13, the Air Corps issued a call for experienced commercial air mail pilots who held reserve commissions to volunteer for active duty, as did the Central Zone commander two weeks later. This effort netted only a few experienced and qualified pilots. The men most likely to apply for active service were the newest and least experienced commercial pilots, who had been laid off by the airlines. It was reported, however, that the airlines threatened to blacklist reserve pilots if they took the Air Corps' offer. A mandatory call up would have required an act of Congress or a Presidential proclamation, an action that the Air Corps had considered recommending, but rejected. (83) By the end of April, the Air Corps had recalled fifty-two pilots, but only half had airline experience and those recalled represented a mere 10 percent of the air mail pilots. In general, these men proved a disappointment. Only thirteen of thirty-five recalled reservists in the Eastern Zone proved to be competent instrument fliers. (84) As a result only one-third of the Army pilots flying the air mail had logged more than 1,000 flying hours, and fewer than one-fifth had more than minimal night and instrument flying hours. (85)


Belatedly, the Air Corps took action that recognized the vulnerability of its inexperienced new pilots. On February 24, Foulois issued an order that pilots with less than two-years' experience would fly night runs only if the weather was excellent. The Air Corps took another step on March 10, requiring a minimum ceiling of 3,000 feet at all points along the route. (This proved impractical and was modified on March 25, to a day ceiling of 500 feet and night ceiling of 1,000 feet.) In early April, the Air Corps removed its least experienced pilots from air mail duty, specifically those who had earned their wings in 1933 and 1934. There was good reason for this action as the new men sustained the most accidents in the operation. Pilots who graduated in the years 1932-34 (those with two or less years of experience) were involved in 56 percent of the major accidents, 78 percent of the fatal accidents were connected with air mail operations, while those who graduated in 1933 (no graduates from 1934 were involved in accidents) accounted for 50 and 56 percent, respectively. (86)

A few anecdotes reveal the inexperience of the pilots that showed the slapdash nature of the initial operation. The pilot on the first air mail flight needed three tries and three aircraft to get aloft. Ten minutes later, he returned with a failed gyro compass and cockpit lights, and obtained a flashlight to read the instruments. (87) One pilot took the wrong radio leg and ended up in Buffalo, New York with the Cleveland, Ohio, mail. Another pilot took off and then radioed to ask where the mail was going, as the manifest was locked up with the mail. A third launched without his shipment of air mail. (88) On February 27, a mail plane nosed over, after landing at the Glendale, California, airport. The pilot blamed the lack of 250 pounds of ballast in the rear of the aircraft for the accident, but the Air Corps concluded he had landed fast and tail high and applied the brakes, while the tail was still in the air. To add "insult to (non-) injury," the pilot had landed at the wrong airport. (89) Hap Arnold related, with some caution, that six months after the operation ended, mechanics found a sack of mail tucked away in a former air mail aircraft they were overhauling. (90)

The weather, together with inadequate aircraft, lack of instruments and instrument training, unfamiliar conditions, and limited pilot experience, produced a potentially deadly combination. Billy Mitchell used attention-grabbing hyperbole, when he told a congressional committee, "The Army has forgotten how to fly." (91) More precisely, the Air Corps could not consistently and safely fly cross-country operations at night in bad weather.


The Baker Committee, established to study and report on "the adequacy and efficiency" of the Air Corps "for the performance of its missions in peace and war," put the best face on the situation and arrived at a more positive conclusion. (92) It focused considerable attention during its deliberations on the air mail emergency, however, its final report barely mentioned it. The report did note that Army aircraft were not easily adaptable to air mail duties, the ground facilities were inadequate, the airmen had had insufficient training, and faced "wholly unprecedented weather." When the weather cleared after the initial period, the Air Corps did well. The report also asserted that the experience was "invaluable" in enabling the Air Corps to test men and equipment. The committee recommended that the Air Corps get more aircraft, more flying time, and increased training to permit "cross-country flights in all kinds of weather, by day and by night, by the use of instruments, and the radio beam, and to efficiently utilize all the types of communications equipment available." (93) Diplomatically, the report did not criticize any groups or individuals. In his annual report, Secretary of War George H. Dern followed this line and went somewhat further claiming that despite the "regrettable accidents," the Air Corps proved it could carry the mail. (94)

The air mail episode had little immediate, if any, impact on the airmen. To counter the poor image presented to the public in the air mail emergency, only a few weeks later the Air Corps showcased its new equipment and competence with great fanfare and little problems in a round trip flight of 8,300 miles to Alaska by ten of its new Martin B-10s. But throughout the remainder of the decade, the Air Corps struggled with limited budgets and, in its view, the backwardness of the General Staff. It was not until rearmament began in 1938, that improvement became apparent. And while the airmen acquired new aircraft, it made only scant progress in instrument flying. It entered World War II as a daylight, fair weather air force, and emerged from that war only slightly better off in that regard.


Although the Army airman's safety record improved, it was not until the late 1940s that the newly created USAF demonstrated a true all-weather capability. Just as the Air Corps was tested in 1934, the new Air Force was tested shortly after its inception. What a difference fifteen years made. During the Berlin Airlift, from June 1948 to September 1949, the airmen achieved a tremendous success by supplying food and coal to the blockaded city of over two million people, allowing it to survive and prosper, resulting in a clear and non-violent, western victory in the Cold War. Despite poor weather, the airlift flyers posted a remarkably low accident record, lower than the entire USAF record in 1948 and 1949, and far below that of the air mail episode. (95) This is attributable to more and better aircraft, more experienced and better trained pilots, and the use of radar.

Over the short term, President Roosevelt and his Administration took a hammering over the air mail episode. It was the first challenge to the New Deal, the Administration's first miscue, an incident that dominated newspapers and the Congress for months. Nevertheless, there was little long term impact. Roosevelt was able to shift the onus of the situation onto the shoulders of others. He also skillfully overcame the popularity, credibility, and outspokenness of aviation giants Lindbergh and Rickenbacker, the ragged Air Corps performance, and the intense and critical press coverage, to emerge unscathed. Farley and Foulois, the scapegoats (or lightning rods, if you prefer) of the affair, were bruised, but kept their jobs, no one was fired or retired, and Hugo Black was rewarded with Roosevelt's first Supreme Court appointment. There was no lasting public reaction, for in the fall 1934 elections, the Democrats increased their already dominant majority. (96) And, just as the air mail operation had no political impact, it should be added that it has received at best scant attention in later accounts of the New Deal and the Air Corps.

Overall, the air mail crisis did not reflect well on any one aside from the airmen who gallantly performed their duties under very difficult conditions. Certainly, the disputed contracts revealed favoritism, high-handed decisions, if not illegalities, on the part of the government and some airlines. Further, the operation demonstrated that the Air Corps was unready for the task as it lacked suitable aircraft, modern night and bad weather equipment, and adequate training. It paid for these deficiencies with a loss of credibility, aircraft, and aircrew. On the individual level, the air mail incident helped advance the careers of two officers. Oscar Westover succeeded Benny Foulois as Chief of the Air Corps, when the latter unceremoniously retired in December 1935. (97) "Hap" Arnold, commander of the Western Air Mail Zone, who had led the Alaskan flight, replaced Westover as Chief of the Air Corps after his death in an aircraft accident in 1938, and commanded the Army Air Forces in World War II.

Any even-handed account of the episode must conclude that the two principals in the operation deserve criticism; criticism they have thus far been spared. President Roosevelt certainly suffered from some bad luck due to the severe weather and the Air Corps' fumbling that turned the air mail operation into a major problem and a public relations disaster. Nevertheless, the President made some decisions, contrary to the recommendations of his subordinates, that led to the mess. First, the very use of the Air Corps is open to question. Roosevelt could have annulled the contracts, made a public stand, and rebid the contracts with other operators, or, as it turned out in the end, he could have employed reorganized companies. Second, FDR erred in insisting on turning the flying of the mails over to the Air Corps so quickly. This also proved disastrous, for had the operation been delayed a few months, into the spring of 1934, the horrible weather would have been avoided, the Air Corps would have had more time to prepare for the operation, and the airmen would have had more B-10s. Surely this would have improved performance. The affair showed Roosevelt in his typically bold fashion taking quick, unprecedented action, and when these decisions generated problems and resulted in severe criticism, he showed his ability to deflect that criticism away from himself. Clearly his actions and errors were major factors contributing to the failure that followed.


Air Corps chief Foulois also deserves criticism. His too quick acceptance of the task and his assurance to Post Office officials indicate a serious misjudgment of the requirements of the job and the capabilities of his command. Whether his decisions came from over-enthusiasm or ignorance, optimism or ambition, his actions set the episode in motion. At the very least, the Air Corps required more than ten days to prepare for the task. In addition, Foulois should have clearly, if not forcefully, pointed out the risks of the proposed operation to the civilian decision makers. For unlike the public and politicians, the airmen were well aware that in 1934 flying was a risky business under ordinary circumstances, and that flying the mails with the pilots and equipment available, aider minimal preparation, at night, in the winter was much more than ordinary circumstances. It should be noted that unlike later writers, a number of airmen have criticized Foulois' actions. (98)

The Air Corps also merits criticism. While it is true that the Air Corps had limited funding, two of its policies contributed to its poor performance in carrying the mail. First, the airmen neglected instrument flying even though the related technologies and techniques were commercially available. Instead of making the advanced equipment available to its airmen, the Air Corps stockpiled the instruments in warehouses for later use. There was no high-placed individual advocating instrument flying and the case for it was not heard at the top level of the Air Corps. Second, the Air Corps failed to fully utilize those experienced regular officers who were on detached service or in administrative duties or the available reserve pilots, with airline experience. This left the bulk of the flying duty to inexperienced pilots.

With little glory to celebrate, few accomplishments to laud, and yet a cost in lives and reputations, the air mail episode is not a bright spot in the history of the New Deal or the Air Corps. This probably explains why this affair, the most important in Army aviation history during the interwar years, has been relegated to the "trash can of history." It deserves closer examination, for it is a cautionary tale in "overreach" by both civilians and soldiers that demonstrates the consequences of haste, lack of preparation, and overconfidence. It also reveals more. The air mail experience highlights the state of aviation at this point, especially given the hazards of flight, the limitations imposed by bad weather and darkness, and the status of instrument flying. Aviation was in the midst of transitioning from World War I technology and visual flying to more advanced aircraft and instruments that would markedly improve aircraft. performance and make flying safer and practical in essentially all weather conditions, day or night. The airlines were in the forefront of this transformation, while the Air Corps lagged behind. The air mail affair also provides a striking and critical assessment, a snapshot if you will, of Air Corps capabilities, and of its aircrews, aircraft, instruments, ground crews, and training at this time.

But history has been kind to the Air Corps and Foulois, the New Deal and Roosevelt regarding this incident. In short order, the Air Corps and the New Deal improved their performance and thus were able to push this affair into the haze of the past. Within a decade, the Air Corps grew to be the most powerful air force in the world and exerted a powerful influence on the conduct and outcome of World War II. Similarly, FDR faced and overcame greater challenges. In this way, the importance of the air mail operation was mitigated, if not negated, relegating it to a minor status. Therefore, the Air Corps and the 1934 air mail episode, if remembered, is seen, not as a blunder or mistake, but as a minor incident. Nevertheless, some called it a fiasco.


(1.) C.V. Glines, "The DC-3," Aviation History, Nov. 1995, p. 43. Only one DC-1 was built that led to the DC-2 and later DC-3.

(2.) Edward Rickenbacker, Rickenbacker (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1967), p. 15.

(3.) Rickenbacker, Rickenbacker, 216-17; "Air-Mail Mark Set in the Final Flight," New York Times, Feb. 20, 1934, 17.

(4.) The 1934 Air Corps air mail story is covered in detail in one short popular book, a monograph, chapters in two scholarly works and one autobiography, and a number of articles of diverse quality. Norman Borden's Air Mail Emergency: 1934 (Freeport, Me.: Bond Wheelwright, 1968) is brief (less than 143 pages of text), well illustrated, but lacks citations and a useful bibliography. A detailed and useful monograph is Paul Tillett's The Army Flies the Mails, The Inter University Case Program, 1955 USAF Historical Research Agency [HRA call number] 168.68-11A. Both Maurer Maurer's Aviation in the U .S. Army 1919-1939 (Washington: Office of Air Force History, 1987) and John Shiner's Foulois and the U S. Army Air Corps, 1931-1935 (Washington: Office of Air Force History, 1983) include a solid, well researched, and valuable chapter on the subject. The Air Corps' chief's autobiography, Benjamin Foulois, From the Wright Brothers to the Astronauts: The Memoirs of Major General Benjamin D. Foulois (N.Y.: McGraw-Hill, 1968) defends his position in an uncited chapter. The bulk of remaining books and most of the articles are cited in the following notes.

(5.) Donald Jackson, Flying the Mail (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life, 1982), 24-30, 90-91, 94, 159; Lauren Lyman, "Air Mail Returns to the Old Basis," New York Times, Feb. 11, 1934, 38.

(6.) One account claims that the carriers sent post cards to themselves that cost 9 cents and were paid twice that, and less likely, sent a cast iron stove as well! John Correll, "The Air Mail Fiasco," Air Force Magazine, Mar. 2008.

(7.) Final Report of War Department Special Committee on Army Air Corps, Jul. 18, 1934, 77 HRA 167.66-4. Hereafter cited as Baker Board Final Report.

(8.) "Briton Lauds U. S. Air Mail Service," Washington Post, Apr. 22, 1934, AS10.

(9.) Tillett, The Army Flies the Mails, 3, 4, 17.

(10.) Raymond Clapper, "Air-Mail Action Viewed as End of Subsidies for Favored Few," Washington Post, Feb. 11, 1934, 2.

(11.) Virginia Van Der Veer Hamilton, "Barnstorming the U. S. Mail," American Heritage, Aug. 1974, 34-35.

(12.) "Gave to Lindbergh $250,000 in Stock," New York Times, Jan. 11, 1934, 1; "Brown is Pictured as Fusing Air Lines," New York Times, Jan. 12, 1934, 3; "Check Income Tax of Col. Lindbergh," New York Times, Jan. 13, 1934, 3; "Airway Officer Tells of Hiring Young Smoot," St. Louis Dispatch, Mar. 1, 1934, 2A.

(13.) Farley had discussed this with both the Attorney General and the President. It is difficult to believe that FDR did not make, or at least approve, of this move.

(14.) Thomas Spencer, "The Air Mail Controversy of 1934," Mid-America, vol. 62, 167, 172 n34; Tillett, Army Flies the Mail, 58; Edward Roddan, "U. S. May Takeover Air Mail Lines on Permanent Basis," Seattle Post Intelligencer, Feb. 11, 1934, 1.

(15.) James Farley, Jim Farley's Story: The Roosevelt Years (N.Y.: Whittlesey House, 1948), p. 46.

(16.) Shiner, Folouis, 127; U.S. House of Representatives, 73d Congress, 2d Session, Investigation of Profiteering In Military Aircraft, Under H. Res. 275, Report No. 2060, 15 Jun (calendar day Jun. 16), 1934, 11. Hereafter cited as Rogers' Committee Report.

(17.) Borden, Air Mail Emergency 1934, viii.

(18.) Foulois, From the Wright Brothers, 238.

(19.) Foulois, From the Wright Brothers, 236; U.S. Senate, Subcommittee on the Committee on Appropriations, War Department Appropriation Bill for 1935, Mar. 12, 1934, 46.

(20.) Henry Arnold, Global Mission (N.Y.: Harper and Brothers, 1949), 143; John Shiner, "General Benjamin Foulois and the 1934 Air Mail Disaster," Aerospace Historian, Dec. 1978, 223.

(21.) Rogers' Committee Report, 11; Russell Hoyt, Apr. 7, 1971, HRA Green Collection microfilm 43796; Frank Hunter, Jan. 3, 1970, HRA Green Collection microfilm 43796; Carl Spaatz, Aug. 8, 1969, HRA Green Collection microfilm 43796.

(22.) "Canceling Foreign Air Mall Pacts Considered," St. Louis Dispatch, Feb. 10, 1934, 2.

(23.) Foulois writes that after learning of the decision MacArthur told him, "You're on your own now, Foulois. Yell when you need help from me--and keep me informed. It's your ball game." Foulois, From the Wright Brothers, 239. MacArthur's unhappiness is related in both Correll, "Air Mail Fiasco" and Murray Green, "Benny Foulois' Air Corps Flies the Mail," Retired Officer, May 1987 but refuted in Shiner, "General Benjamin Foulois and the 1934 Air Mail Disaster," 227.

(24.) Shiner, Foulois and the US Army Air Corps, 132.

(25.) Spencer, "Air Mail Controversy of 1934," 165.

(26.) Leon Dure, "Roosevelt Cancels Air Mail Contracts, Army Planes to Fill Breach," Washington Post, Feb. 10, 1934, 1.

(27.) "Action on Air Mail Unfair, Lindbergh Tells President," New York Times, Feb. 12, 1934, 1; "14 Air-Mail Routes Laid Out for Army Against 26 Today," New York Times, Feb. 13, 1934, 1; "House in Uproar Over Lindbergh," New York Times, Feb. 14, 1934, 15; Carlisle Bargeron, "Along the Potomac," Washington Post, Feb. 15, 1934, 8; "Roosevelt Row with Lindbergh Stirs Congress," Chicago Tribune, Feb. 14, 1934, 3.

(28.) Mitchell denounced Lindbergh's position and predicted that the Air Corps operation would be a success. "Mitchell Sides with President on Lindbergh," Washington Post, 15 Feb 1934, 5. One other prominent aviator of the day, the now forgotten Clarence Chamberlin, also supported the administration. "Lindbergh to Give Mail Bill Opinion, But Bars Inquiry," New York Times, 16 Mar 1934, 1.

(29.) James Cooke, Billy Mitchell (Boulder, Colo.: Lynee Rienner, 2002), 262, 267-68; Alfred Hurley, Billy Mitchell: Crusader for Air Power (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University, 1975), 22-23, 125; Isaac Levine, Mitchell: Pioneer of Air Power (N.Y.: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1958), 392-95.

(30.) "Action on Air Mail Unfair, Lindbergh Tells President," 1. Later Lindy commented that the Air Corps had ten days to prepare for an operation that had taken the commercial airlines ten years to build. "Lindbergh Hits Air Mail Rules," Wall Street Journal, Mar. 17, 1934, 2.

(31.) "Mr Rogers is Unhappy Over the Air Mail Affair," New York Times, Feb. 12, 1934, 17.

(32.) "Army Fits Planes for Mail Service," New York Times, Feb. 13, 1934, 16. Others echoed these concerns. See "Army Fliers Ride Storm in a Test, "New York Times, Feb. 14, 1934, 14 and "Official Fears Doom to Army Flying Mail," Washington Post, Feb. 14, 1934, 5.

(33.) The major went on to note the problems that the airmen faced mentioning the young, inexperienced pilots trained only in fair weather flying, inadequate aircraft, and unsatisfactory radios. "Army Ill-equipped For Mail Service, Officer Predicted," San Diego Union, Mar. 13, 1934, 5.

(34.) Lt Col Henry "Hap" Arnold would command the Western Zone, Lt Col Horace Hickam the Central Zone, and Major Byron Q. Jones the Eastern Zone.

(35.) Borden, Air Mail Emergency, 29.

(36.) Two of the zone commanders were troubled by their pilot's lack of experience. Hickam noted that one-third of the Air Crops pilots had less than 500 flying hours compared with 4,000 flying hours average for the commercial pilots while Arnold expressed concern over lack of experience as well as limited night flying. "Army Prepares to Carry Mail," Seattle Post Intelligencer, Feb. 15, 1934, 9; "Army Aviators Take Night Mail Schooling Here," San Diego Union, Feb. 15, 1934, 5; "Army Fliers Work Feverishly To Take Over U. S. Mail Routes," San Diego Union, Feb. 18, 1934, 2.

(37.) "Army Mail Chief Lands at Newark," New York Times, Feb. 16, 1934, 11.

(38.) All accidents mentioned are connected with the air mail operation, flying the mail as well as administrative, ferry, and training missions supporting the operation. Accident data is from an incomplete Wright Field series located in HRA 200.3912-1.

(39.) The pilot had but 436 flying hours and had earned his wings seven months earlier. The sole recommendation of the accident board was that the A-12 aircraft not be used in high altitude air mail service. The accident occurred at 8,000 feet.

(40.) This pilot had graduated from flying school the previous June and had logged a mere 367 flying hours.

(41.) "Army Air Mail Plans Flayed By Rickenbacker," Seattle Post Intelligencer, Feb. 18, 1934, 5.

(42.) "4 Army Mail Planes Crash; 2 Pilots Killed; 'Legalized Murder,' Congress Told," Los Angeles Times, Feb. 23, 1934. Also see "Army Aviator Killed Flying Mail in Storm," Chicago Tribune, Feb. 23, 1934, 4; "Army Mail Pilot is Killed in Ohio, "New York Times, Feb. 23, 1934, 11; "Two Planes on Way to Washington; Mists Blind Airmen," Washington Post, Feb. 23, 1934, 1; "Not Fair to Army Pilots, Bereaved Mother Moans," Philadelphia Inquirer, Feb. 23, 1934, 1; "Flyer's Mother Learns of His Death From Newspaper," St. Louis Dispatch, Feb. 22, 1934, 2; "Widow and Mother of Flier Condemn Air Mail Orders," Detroit News, Feb. 23, 1934, 2; "4 Air Mail Crashes in Day, 2 Dead," Cleveland Plain Dealer, Feb. 23, 1934, 3; "Hazards Too Great Says Victim's Mother," Seattle Post Intelligencer, Feb. 23, 1934, 2. To add to the tragedy, at the Arlington Cemetery burial the dead pilot's coffin was switched with another aviator who died on the 22nd. "Coffins Switched at Arlington in Rites for Army Aviators," Washington Post, Mar. 4, 1934, 1.

(43.) Borden, Air Mail Emergency, 73-75.

(44.) USAF Flying Accident Safety Bulletin, 1959, 2 HRA K259.3-3 1959.

(45.) "Radio Address by Major General Benjamin D. Foulois, Chief of Army Air Corps, on the Subject of 'The Army and the Air Mail,' delivered over the Columbia Broadcasting System, Station WJSV, Alexandria, Virginia, at 10:30 P.M. February 27, 1934" HRA 168.3952-165.

(46.) "Army Crashes Blamed on Lack of Equipment," Philadelphia Inquirer, Feb. 24, 1934, 26.

(47.) "U. S. Fliers Preparing to Start Flying Mail Sunday," Los Angeles Evening Herald Express, Feb. 15, 1934, 5. "Says Army Faces 'Impossible Task," New York Times, Feb. 24, 1934, 6; "Plane Drops in Sea, Army Pilot Killed," Chicago Tribune, Feb. 24, 1934, 1.

(48.) Carroll Glines, "When the Air Corps Carried the Mail," Air Force Magazine, Jul. 1968, 87; Borden, Air Mail Emergency, 110; "President Orders the Army to Fly Mail Only On Routes That Don't Imperil Fliers," New York Times, Mar. 11, 1934, 1.

(49.) Felix Bruner, "Lindy Spurns Second Pleas to Aid Probe," Washington Post, Mar. 16, 1934, 2. Foulois had a hard-nosed attitude about the losses. He was quoted as saying "The fact that 10 fliers died in the course of their duty is all in the day's work." "Lindy Calls Airmail Canceling 'Violation of American Rights," San Diego Union, 1. Also see Foulois, From the Wright Brothers, 253-54; Glines, "When the Air Corps Carried the Mail," 87.

(50.) Borden, Air Mail Emergency, 128; Shiner, Foulois, 145.

(51.) Bruner, "Lindy Spurns Second Plea to Aid Probe," 1.

(52.) "Rickenbacker Hits Mail Policy, Flays 'Traitors," Washington Post, Mar. 18, 1934, 1.

(53.) "Demands Hearing on Lindbergh's Fitness as Reserve Officer," Cleveland Plain Dealer, Feb. 14, 1934, 1.

(54.) The papers surveyed in the largest cities were: Chicago Tribune, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Detroit News, Los Angeles Evening Herald Express, New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, St. Louis Dispatch, and papers in a number of smaller cities such as the San Diego Union, Seattle Post Intelligencer, and the Washington Post.

(55.) Arthur Krock, "Air Mail Brings Break in Luck of Roosevelt," New York Times, Feb. 25, 1934, sect. 4, 1; Arthur Krock, "Air-Mail Upheaval Fits Philosophy of New Deal," New York Times, Feb. 18, 1934, sect. 4, 1; "Air-Mail Change Stirs California," New York Times, Feb. 18, 1934, 6.

(56.) "Errors and Trials," Washington Post, Feb. 26, 1934, 6.

(57.) The only ranking airman that did not see a problem was Eastern Zone commander, B. Q. Jones. Report of the Eastern Zone, Army Air Corps Mail Operations, Feb. 10, 1934 to May 25, 1934, 28 HRA 248.211-69 (Feb.-May 1934, pt. 1). Hereafter cited as Jones Report. A summary of nationwide newspapers conducted in the Air Corps Headquarters concluded that "Sentiment [is] generally critical of [the] President's original cancellation and favorable to [the] Army." "Synopsis of Newspaper Reports Concerning Airmail Contracts and Army Carrying Mail, February 1 to March 15 Inclusive," 5 HRA 168.3952-165.

(58.) Hap Arnold to Mrs. Arnold, Mar. 12, 1934, HRA Green Collection, microfilm 43796.

(59.) Transcript of the Shorthand Report of Proceedings, Transactions and Testimony, Before the Special Committee on Army Air Corps and Air Mail, Apr. 24, 1934, 790 HRA 167.66-1. Hereafter cited as Baker Committee Transcript.

(60.) H.W. Bowman, Aug. 23, 1969 HRA Green Collection microfilm 43796.

(61.) Elliott Roosevelt, Jan. 15, 1972 HRA Green Collection microfilm 43796.

(62.) Criticism of the press can be found in: Baker Committee Transcripts, 600-01; Foulois, From the Wright Brothers, 246, 255; Van Der Veer Hamilton, "Barnstorming the U. S. Mail," 32, 36; Jackson, Flying the Mail, 163-64; David Mets, Master of Air Power: General Carl A. Spaatz (Novato, CA: Presidio, 1997), p. 93; Curtis LeMay, Mission with LeMay (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1965), 104; DeWitt Copp, A Few Great Captains: The Men and Events That Shaped the Development of US. Air Power (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1980), 192, 203; Borden, Air Mail Emergency, 78, 126; Maurer, Aviation in the US. Army, 306; Carroll Glines, The Saga of the Air Mail (Princeton, N.J.: Van Norstrand, 1968), 133-34. A contrary view is in Renald Rice, The Politics of Air Power: From Confrontation to Cooperation in Army Aviation Civil-Military Relations (Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska, 2004), 122. My survey of the major newspapers of the seven largest U. S. dries supports the latter view. See note 54.

(63.) The major accident rate carrying the mail was 241 per 100,000 flying hours and 35 fatal accidents per 100,000 flying hours while the rate for the entire air mail operation, including the support, ferry, and training flights, was respectively 154 and 23. For all of 1934, the Air Corps' accident rates were respectively 110 and 9. USAF Flying Accident Safety Bulletin, 1959, 2; Baker Committee Final Report, 80. The incomplete Wright Field Accident reports lists 59 accidents while newspapers list as many as 8 more, while 66 is the number used in most secondary accounts.

(64.) During the period of the air mail operation, the airlines suffered five fatal accidents that killed 21 passengers and crew although presumably the airlines flew many more flying hours than did the Air Corps flying the mails.

(65.) According to the Washington Herald (Feb. 24, 1934) eight commercial fliers were killed flying the mail in 1933. "Synopsis of Newspaper Reports," 5. Over the past five and a half years the death rate for commercial mail pilots was 12.4 per year. "Air Corps to Call Reserves For Mail," New York Times, Feb. 24, 1934, 6.

(66.) USAF Flying Accident Safety Bulletin, 1959, 2; Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1957 (Washington: GPO, 1961), 470.

(67.) The Rickenbacker DC-1 flight averaged 190 mph compared with the Air Corps flight that averaged 195 mph. "Army Claims Record," Chicago Tribune, May. 8, 1934, 1; "Army's Task of Carrying Air Mail Ended with a Record Coast-to-Coast Flight," New York Times, May. 8, 1934, 1. The records were falling fast. On May 14, Jack Frye, who had flown with Rickenbacker on the February record breaking flight, piloted a Northrop Gamma with 355 pounds of mail from Los Angeles to New York in 11 hours and 31 minutes at an average speed of 227 mph. However, the fastest cross country flight up to this time was flown by Jimmy Hazlop in a racer in an elapsed time of 10 hours and 19 minutes. "Coast-to-Coast Air Mail Dash of 11 1/2 hours Sets New Mark," Washington Post, May 14, 1934, 1.

(68.) As a result Transcontinental and Western Air became simply Trans World Airlines; American Airways, American Airlines; and United Aircraft, United Airlines. Tillett, The Army Flies the Mail, 60, 62.

(69.) Tillett, The Army Flies the Mail, 69. Two other authors write that a mid-1941 ruling by the U. S. Court of Claims found there had been no fraud or collusion and that the charges against Brown were false. Borden, Air Mail Emergency, 143; Benjamin Lipsner, The Airmail: Jennies to Jets (Chicago: Wilcox and Follett, 1951), 253.

(70.) "The Operation of the Air Mail," Air Corps Newsletter, Jan. 15, 1935, 15.

(71.) Annual Report Secretary of the War, 1934, 4; Foulois, From the Wright Brothers, 244.

(72.) Border, Air Corps Emergency, 155-57, says 18.

(73.) Baker Committee Transcript, 2115.

(74.) Baker Committee Transcript, 504, 572, 637, 768, 793, 835; Borden, Air Mail Emergency, 32-37,82; Jones Report, exhibit 11; 1934 Secretary of War Report, 4.

(75.) David McIntosh, "The Evolution of Instrument Flying in the U .S. Army," Air Command and Staff College, 1988, 1, 18.

(76.) Air Corps aircraft also lacked thermometers, deicing and anti-icing equipment, glare shields for night flying, and adequate maps. Foulois, From the Wright Brothers, 246; Maurer, Aviation in the US Army, 304, 309, 312; Shiner, Foulois, 131.

(77.) In one case the new instruments, a directional gyro compass and artificial horizon, were hurriedly mounted ahead of the windshield of a Keystone bomber. In low temperatures they froze. Leonard Harman, Aug. 2, 1974, Green Collection microfilm 43796.

(78.) Baker Committee Transcript, 249-51, 255, 505, 803, 1720; Jones Report, 42.

(79.) Baker Committee Transcript, 320-21; McIntosh, "Evolution of Instrument Flying in the U.S. Army," 16, 20; Jones Report, 6. The Eastern Zone flew one third of the air mail flying hours. Unlike the other two zones, it produced an excellent, detailed account of its service. Therefore it is mentioned more than the other two zones.

(80.) Jones Report, 9-11.

(81.) Baker Committee Transcript, 580-81, 655, 699, 804, 836, 1752, 1905; "Ill-equipped Army Flying Mail Under Terrific Handicaps, Says Gen. Fechet," Los Angeles Examiner, Mar. 11, 1934.

(82.) Baker Committee Transcript, 325-27, 335, 347, 3657-58; Jones Report, 6.

(83.) Foulois did not believe that the Air Corps needed this help. Shiner, Foulois, 140-41; Charles Gross, National Guard Historian to author, Nov. 16, 2009.

(84.) "Chief of Air Corps Reassures All Air Mail Pilots," Feb. 13, 1934, HRA 168.3952-165; Comments by Major General B. D. Foulois, U.S. Air Force, Retired on Case Study Entitled The Army Flies the Mails, Mar. 1954, 6 HRA 168.68-11B; Baker Committee Transcript, 343, 482; Eldon Downs, "Army and the Airmail--1934," Airpower Historian, Jan. 1962, 45, 48; Foulois, From the Wright Brothers, 252; Jones Report, 11, 26; "Army Mail Jobs Offered Pilots," San Diego Union, Feb. 28, 1934, 1; "Army Airmail Sabotage Rumored; Denied By Deru," San Diego Union, Mar. 3, 1934, 1.

(85.) Only ten percent of the Army air mail pilots had more than 50 hours of night flying hours and only two had more than 50 hours instrument time. Baker Committee Final Report, 80; Baker Committee Transcript, 3804-05. Of the men piloting air mail aircraft that had fatal crashes, seven had 670 or fewer flying hours, one had 1,023 hours, another had 1,217 hours, and one is unknown.

(86.) Borden, AirMail Emergency, 84 says Feb. 26. Foulois, From the Wright Brothers, 245; Borden, Air Mail Emergency, 111, 128; "New Army Pilots Spared Mail Duty," San Diego Union, Apr. 7, 1934, 3. Borden writes that in March the Air Corps relieved all pilots with less that two years service from air mail duty. But accident records show that after Mar. 10, ten of the major and two of the fatal accidents were piloted by men with less than two years experience. Borden, Air Mail Emergency, 128; Wright Field Accident Reports.

(87.) Lt. Robert Scott, Jun. 3, 1934, Scott Materials HRA 168.7444-1.

(88.) Scott Materials, Jun. 3, 1934; Borden, Air Mail Emergency, 89.

(89.) Wright Field Accident Report, Birrell Walsh, Feb. 27, 1934; "Mail Flyer Safe In Forced Landing," Cleveland Plain Dealer, Feb. 28, 1934, 1.

(90.) Murray Green, Arnold mss, draft chap XXII, 12 HRA Green Collection, microfilm 43830.

(91.) Don Ewing, "Support Given Bill to Allot Mail Flying," Los Angeles Examiner, Mar. 22, 1934.

(92.) Baker Committee Final Report, 1.

(93.) Baker Committee Final Report, 71, 40, 46, 48, 60, 67; The Baker Committee is best remembered for devoting considerable attention to the issue of separating the Air Corps from the Army and rejecting that proposal. General Foulois joined the majority in this recommendation, while civilian and Air Corps reservist Jimmy Doolittle filed the lone dissent that called for a separate air service, budget, and promotion list. Baker Committee Final Report, 63, 75.

(94.) 1934 Secretary of War Report, 6.

(95.) The two operations registered essentially the same number of major accidents and fatal accidents (air mail about 66 and 10 respectively and Berlin Airlift 70 and 11) however the Berlin airlifters logged more than 13 times the flying hours. R.E.G. Davies and John Provan, Berlin Airlift: The Effort and Aircraft (London: Airlife, 1998), 66; Roger Launius, "The Berlin Airlift: Constructive Air Power," Air Power History, Spring 1989, 17, 19; Bernard Nalty (ed.), Winged Shield, Winged Sword: A History of the United States Air Force, vol. I (Washington: USAF History and Museums Program, 1997), 430; USAF Flying Accident Bulletin, 1959, 2.

(96.) The Democrats increased their margin in congress from 61 percent of the Senate and 71 percent of the House in 1933, to 71 and 74 percent respectively. "Politics: The 1934 Election"

(97.) There were calls during the affair to fire Foulois, fueled mainly by his connection with non-competitive purchases of aircraft. In a rare unanimous action, on Jun. 15, 1934 the members of the Rogers' Committee called for the immediate relief of Foulois. Rogers' Committee Report, 14.

(98.) Hoyt interview, Green Collection; Hunter interview, Green Collection; Spaatz interview, Green Collection; Westover's testimony at the Rogers' Committee hearings, Rogers' Committee Report, 11.

Kenneth P. Werrell graduated from the USAF Academy in the class of 1960, and served in the USAF for five years, mostly as a WB-50 pilot. He went on to earn his PhD in history from Duke University and then taught history at Radford University, Virginia. He has authored numerous articles and several books on aviation history, the most recent of which is Death from the Heavens: A History of Strategic Bombing (Annapolis, Md.: US. Naval Institute Press, 2009). [See a review of this book on page 55 in this issue.]
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Author:Werrell, Kenneth P.
Publication:Air Power History
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2010
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