The Post Office Department initiated regular U.S. Air Mail Service from College Park Airfield to New York City on August 12, 1918. This 218-mile route was the first step in establishing a transcontinental route by air. Transcontinental air service was the best opportunity for airmail to provide faster service at lower costs than the existing railroads. Routes like College Park to New York were only slightly faster than the railroad, but were a good laboratory for developing safe and reliable airmail operations.
Military & Airmail
The Post Office Department began service with World War I surplus Curtiss Jennys and DeHavilland DH-4s provided by the U.S. Army. Officials also ordered 6 airplanes from the Standard Aircraft Company designed specifically to carry mail. The links between the military and the new airmail service continued when Captain Benjamin Lipsner resigned from the Army to serve as superintendent of the service. He oversaw all aspects including recruiting and training airmail pilots, creating rules and regulations for airmail operations, and working to maintain reliable aircraft.
Pilot Max Miller and courier at a stop during the inaugural flight of the U.S. Airmail, 1918.
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 permanently display true north. At the time,
airplane compasses needed to be calibrated before every flight. Pilots
lined up their plane on the rose's north-south directional axis to
calibrate their compass.
New Frontier Hazards
The need for reliably delivering the
mail regularly clashed with the relatively primitive aircraft and
equipment. Pilots faced many dangers including bad weather, unfamiliar
territory, inadequate planes, and unreliable navigational equipment. Max
Miller and many others died delivering the mail and opening new routes.
In 1921, the College Park airmail station closed when the New
York-California route was instituted. By 1926, the Post Office
Department was contracting airmail service to private enterprises that
would evolve into the commercial airline industry we utilize today.