CHEYENNE – Orchestrating 16 flights across the country with volunteer pilots is no easy task, but Nebraska-based pilot Bill Moore was up to the challenge to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first transcontinental airmail route in the United States.
After extensive planning, a mail relay is currently following along the original airmail route first completed in 1920, having started in Long Island, New Jersey, on Tuesday. The relay was in Cheyenne early Thursday morning.
On each new leg of the journey, a mail bag filled with historic postcards and cards from each stop is passed along to the next volunteer pilot. If all goes according to plan, the bag will be delivered to San Francisco, the final destination on the original route, sometime today.
On the eighth leg of the AirMail100 Centennial Flights, however, weather conditions west of North Platte, Nebraska, posed a threat to the operation. At one point, Colorado-based aviation specialist Blanche Cohen offered to drive to North Platte to pick up the mail and bring it to Cheyenne, the next scheduled stop on the route.
That’s when Sheridan-based pilot JT Grainger came to the rescue. With Grainger offering to fly the mail bag from North Platte to Cheyenne, Moore said his willingness to step up “reflects on the generosity of our flying community.”
Upon arriving at Legend AeroServe at Cheyenne Regional Airport as the sun was rising Thursday, Grainger attributed the success of the operation to pilots across the country who were willing to lend a hand.
A number of the flights faced weather delays or mechanical issues, and Grainger said, “Other pilots stepped up in the pilot community to make it happen.”
While pilots now have technology that analyzes weather conditions and helps with navigation, that wasn’t always the case.
When the United States Postal Service launched the first transcontinental airmail route a century ago, planes had wooden wings that were covered in fabric, and lacked high-quality navigational and weather technology. The pilots were veterans with “steel nerves” and flew regardless of blizzards, fog or hail, according to local historian Mike Kassel.
At Cheyenne’s airport, Kassel said crews had to hold down planes on the runway in the worst Wyoming winds while mail was being loaded. Nevertheless, the pilots braved the weather to help shape the mail system in place today. In September 1920, a network of pilots successfully completed the first transcontinental crossing of U.S. mail in an airplane.
Grainger said the reality of what they were honoring really hit home when they loaded up the physical bag of mail.
“In the old days, that’s how you communicated – it was a postcard, a letter, the Pony Express and riding horseback across the country. ... Instead of emails and the technology we have now, text messages and phone calls, to actually take that written communication makes you feel responsible, and it’s pretty honorable to do,” Grainger said after unloading the mail bag from the Cessna 182 he was flying.
In 1920, the newly formed airmail route changed the way mail was distributed, shaving off two days of delivery time for mail traveling coast to coast. But it also changed the city of Cheyenne, allowing the city to grow into one of the biggest aviation hubs in the Mountain West.
Wyoming’s capital would become home to Boeing Air Transport, the largest airline in the United States, and the first school in the world where stewardesses were trained. According to Kassel, the hub attracted aviation legends like Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart and saw flight activity 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
While aviation activity at Cheyenne Regional Airport has slowed since that time, the first airmail flight out of Cheyenne on Sept. 8, 1920, surely changed the path forward for the Magic City of the Plains.
Moore said, “That flight would be the first many to challenge the Rockies and begin an aviation legend that is part and parcel of the lore of Wyoming. Unlike so many of those original airmail fields that are now just memories, the Cheyenne airfield is still operational, which is why today, exactly 100 years later, it again gets to play a role in U.S. Airmail Service history as AirMail100 volunteer private pilots continue the relay that started on Long Island, New York.”