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Airmail in the Heroic Era - 1918-1939

By Canadian Museum of History | Thursday, June 12, 1997

For Mankind, the act of flying through the air has never been an aimless exercise. The whole purpose has usually been to accomplish some other piece of related business, that is, war, the movement of goods and people, intelligence-gathering, exploration of unknown tracts of the globe and, why not... the carrying of mail. Flying is not the end, but rather the means to achieving other goals that may not always be romantic or awe-inspiring. This is not to deny that, in the execution of their task, the pilots were not an adventurous, almost heroic lot - far from it. The whole history of airmail in Canada and throughout the world during the first few decades of this century derives from the work of a remarkable generation of pilots, or winged messengers. They opened up the skies to the movement of mail. They laid the groundwork for today's international airmail system.

Airmail and the Postal Village

The First World War pushed aviation to the forefront of transport technology. With the exception of one flight in 1911, between Allãhãbãd and Naini, India, as well as a few other examples, the earliest recorded airmail flights formed an integral part of the war effort, on both sides of the trenches. It was during the immediate post-war period that airmail truly came into its own.

The cardinal geographic feature of airmail was its simultaneous respect and disregard for national boundaries. Airmail services were set up to accelerate postal communication within a country, indeed, the routes invariably encompassed the capital city of a particular nation state. The spring of 1919 saw airmail routes opened up between Berlin and Hamburg, and Berlin and Frankfurt in Germany. In 1918, Washington, D.C. became the southern terminal of the first American airmail, which also ran through Philadelphia and New York City. Ten years later, Mexico City was linked to Tampico and Tuxpan via a regular air service that also provided for mail transport.

Rate schedule for airmail transported via Aéropostale between South America and North Africa.

Just as it contributed to the integration of national airspace, the growth of airmail also encouraged the development of international routes and points of contact. London and Paris were joined by an airmail route in August 1919. In September, the route became a daily one, following the onset of a strike of the British railway system. Spain's first airmail system, established in 1921, operated between Seville and Larache, a town situated in the colony of Spanish Morocco. That same year, Britain's Royal Air Force (RAF) set up an airmail service between Cairo and Baghdad, thus ensuring communication between two territories that indirectly formed a part of the British Empire. The Desert Airmail featured a network of emergency-landing surfaces, with giant circles painted at their epicentre, a string of refuelling depots, and a curious but effective artificial landmark running for roughly half the distance of the 1,300-kilometre route. This landmark consisted of a pair of car tracks, sometimes complemented by a track made with a plough. Military and civilian vehicles were made to run over this surface to prevent the wind and rain from carrying away the track. The RAF operated the system until it was taken over by Imperial Airways in 1926.

Baggage label.

France was also active in developing an airmail system to its African colonies. In 1919, a small company, headed by Pierre-Georges Latécoère, obtained a contract from the French government to fly the mail from Toulouse in the south of France to Rabat, Morocco. The route was extended to Casablanca in 1920 and as far south as Dakar (Senegal) five years later. Thus was laid the groundwork for an ambitious scheme intended to link the mail stream of Western Europe with that of South America via the westernmost tip of North Africa, which happened to be a French colony.

Baggage labels.

The Latécoère air line (LAL), was bought out in 1927 by Marcel Bouilloux-Lafont a French businessman with large investments in South America. His successor airline, the Compagnie générale aéropostale, or Aéropostale, was managed by Didier Daurat, a man of rock-solid discipline and esprit de corps. The company, or "la Ligne" as it was sometimes called, set up branches throughout South America, investigating and opening up routes from Rio to Buenos Aires, through the Andes to Santiago, and up and down the lonely coast of Patagonia. Pilots had to pick their way carefully through the second-highest range of mountains in the world, and were faced with unannounced and invisible cyclones sending gusts of wind that could play with an aircraft much as a child bounces a ball. Pilots began to fly at night; in Night Flight, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry has left us a vivid portrait of how it felt to be up alone in the night sky flying the mail. Perhaps the most spectacular achievement of Aéropostale was Jean Mermoz's non-stop flight across the South Atlantic aboard a Latécoère 28 from Senegal to Brazil in 1930. He was carrying 120 kilos of mail.

K.L.M. baggage label
K.L.M. baggage label

Between 1919 and 1939, from one end of the planet to the other, the number of airmail routes multiplied. Forty years before the idea of the global village, the world was rapidly becoming an integrated postal village. Indeed, the volume of airborne mail pointed to the need to bring some order onto the international scene. During the 1920s and 1930s, the Universal Postal Union organized six conferences to address, among other topics, the expanding airmail system. While postal administrations from across the world met with a view to cooperating with one another, the competition between the various national airlines for the traffic in international airmail became intense.

The German airline Lufthansa was close behind the French Aéropostale in the drive to secure the South American airmail business. Float planes operating in tandem with supply ships, catapult planes and dirigibles were used to take the mail across the South Atlantic. The Germans also spread their wings towards China and the Orient as did, for their part, the French and the Soviets.

Pan American Airways baggage label
Pan American Airways baggage label

Here, in the Far East, the Netherlands' airline KLM was already in a race with Britain's Imperial Airways. Fortnightly passenger and mail service to the (Dutch) East Indies was introduced in 1929. That same year, Imperial Airways extended the British airmail route to India, via Basra on the Persian Gulf. By the year 1931, Imperial reached out to South Africa and by 1934 to Singapore, then to Hong Kong and Australia before the outbreak of the Second World War.

Coming at the Orient from the opposite direction was the American carrier Pan American Airways (Pan Am), which obtained the mail contract for the San Francisco to China route in 1935. Pan Am was already active in South America, the Caribbean and Mexico. In the north, the company was awarded a contract for the Alaskan airmail service in 1938, and the following year it began flying mail and passengers out of New York across the Atlantic. But in terms of aviation history, the Pacific route was a greater achievement. The China contract was awarded in the same year that Amelia Earhart had made her solo flight from Honolulu to Oakland, California. Flying the Pacific was, at this time, no easy task, as Earhart's disappearance made plain two years later in 1937. The transpacific route was an exercise in island hopping, including Honolulu, Midway, Wake, Guam and finally Manila in the Philippines. The fare was steep: according to one historian, it represented the equivalent of six months' wages for the average (American) working man.

US Air Mail Speeds Trade
US Air Mail Speeds Trade

The success of Pan Am was the fruit of a policy of corporate midwifery on the part of the U.S. government. The strategy was to award airmail contracts to a reduced number of air carriers as a means of fostering the emergence of stronger aviation concerns. Initiated in 1926 and 1929, the strategy almost backfired in 1934, when, because of political turbulence, contracts with all private companies were cancelled and the U.S. Army Air Corps was brought in to run the airmail service. The army's temporary service was reminiscent of the early days of U.S. airmail in 1918, when the entire service was operated using army pilots and aircraft.

By the late 1920s and the 1930s, North American airspace was increasingly dominated by a small number of U.S. air carriers. The Manifest Destiny of the American Republic was airborne. Canadian skies lay several hundred kilometres to the north, like so many pieces of fruit waiting to be plucked. In other words, by 1928 the Americans were knocking at our door. Here was one more poignant reminder that a modern nation could not remain aloof from the progress of airmail, as it wound itself around the globe.

Canadian Airmail: A Late Bloomer

MacKenzie Air Service

The airplane was the workhorse of Canadian transport history beginning at the end of the First World War. The airplane helped Dominion surveyors map the seemingly endless expanse of land and water in the north; it enabled pulp and paper producers to better patrol their forest reserves, since thousands of acres of timber could be surveyed in a single flight; and it allowed mining companies to fly prospectors in to the most isolated places. The airplane, however, was not, at the outset, used to fly mail, except informally or illegally. Canada entered the airmail age only in 1928. In contrast with some other industrialized countries, we were behind schedule.

As seen above, a number of airmail systems were up and running both in Europe and America by 1918-1919. Some attempts were made to prod the Canadian Post Office Department into adopting an airmail policy at this time. Flying clubs approached the Post Office with the intention of establishing a regular airmail service within the Ottawa-Montreal-Toronto triangle. They were turned down, although they were allowed to go through with a few special flights.

First female pilot to deliver airmail in Canada

Commemorative airmail flights were also conducted in 1918 by Katherine Stinson between Calgary and Edmonton. A more successful example was set for the government by air carriers who, in 1926, introduced a private airmail service. Laurentide Air Service was granted the right to take mail in and out of Rouyn, a mining centre in Quebec's Abitibi region. In the same year, Patricia Airways began carrying mail to and from the bush and mining camps of Sioux Lookout, Red Lake and Woman Lake in Northern Ontario. In both cases, one had to pay for the Special Air Delivery over and above the amount paid on regular postage.

The Post Office's commitment to airmail was almost accidental. At a conference held in London in 1926, Prime Minister Mackenzie King pledged Canada's support for a British imperial system of airship communications. Aviation officials looked for a suitable base, and became interested in a flat piece of land on the south shore of the St. Lawrence near Saint-Hubert, outside Montreal. At around the same time, postal and aviation officials began seriously considering the establishment of an airmail service. Originally intended as a base for airships, the Saint-Hubert landing field became the centre-piece of their nascent airmail strategy.

Experiments

In 1927, while the airport was being fitted up in Saint-Hubert, a number of experiments were being conducted from a seaplane base near Rimouski, on the lower St. Lawrence River. To save precious time over the slow-going ships, mail was transferred from incoming and outgoing ocean vessels onto a waiting seaplane, and was then flown to the Montreal harbour front. The first successful exchange of mail from steamship to airplane took place on September 16, 1927, when 37 bags were flown to Montreal. In general, however, the experiments were fraught with difficulties: flights were often delayed due to thick fog and inclement weather. On one occasion, conditions were so bad that the mail had to be put on board the Montreal train!

Experimental flights were also carried out between Montreal and the Maritime provinces. On one cold December day in 1927, the air force pilot en route from Saint John, New Brunswick to Montreal was stranded by blowing snow and ice at Lac Mégantic near the U.S. border. He wired officials in Ottawa, "LANDED MEGANTIC THURSDAY NIGHT STOP SNOW AND VERY STRONG WIND STOP MACHINE COVERED WITH ICE AND CARBURETOR FROZEN UP." He stayed there for several days before finishing his journey at a point north of Montreal, more than a hundred kilometres off course.

Building the System Region by Region

Map Depicting the first official airmail routes in Canada

With one season of experimentation under its belt, the Post Office proceeded to implement a national policy of airmail. The first contracts, signed in May 1928, provided service in Canada's core economic and political area: Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa. (Some mail was already being delivered along the lower north shore of the St. Lawrence in the fall-winter of 1927-1928.) The system was designed to accelerate communication between this core area, and incoming and outgoing transatlantic vessels; however, due to the early development of airmail routes to points south of the border - Montreal to Albany, Toronto to Buffalo, and later Toronto to Detroit - the system functioned more or less in unison with the larger American one. North-south ties eventually linked Western Canada with the U.S. in British Columbia (Vancouver-Seattle), Alberta (Lethbridge-Great Falls, Montana) and Manitoba (Winnipeg-Fargo, North Dakota).

Map Depicting the first official airmail routes in Canada

The Maritimes

Canada's airmail system emerged in a segmented fashion. Once the core area was developed in 1928, a hook-up was soon made with the Maritimes. Reaching Saint John, New Brunswick and Halifax, Nova Scotia early in 1929, the route ran directly down the Saint John valley. However, within two years the route was scrapped: the economy was in a depression, and the federal government decided to prune the airmail budget. All that remained was the modest service operating across the Strait of Northumberland between Moncton and Charlottetown, P.E.I. The Maritime provinces were not reintegrated into the Canadian airmail stream until 1940.

Souvenir magazine was published to commemorate the opening of Vancouver's civic airport and seaplane base in July 1931

The West Coast

Airmail service between Victoria and Vancouver began to operate intermittently in 1928, but there was no direct contact by air with the rest of Canada until 1939. Topography did not represent an insurmountable barrier; after all, the Americans had managed to find a way through the western cordillera in 1927. But, initially at least, it was easier to go south. Accordingly Vancouver was linked to Seattle, Washington in 1935. Seattle became B.C.'s window on the airmail world. The system was not perfect; mail was at times delayed by fog and technical problems. On one occasion, it was ingloriously driven to Seattle by automobile. Two years later (1937), considerable public discussion and debate in and around Vancouver followed the decision to open an airmail service between Edmonton and Whitehorse. Vancouver, not Edmonton, it was argued, was the natural metropolis of the Yukon. Eventually the southern mainland was linked via Prince George to the Edmonton-Whitehorse mail plane that touched down at Fort St. John, in the north-west corner of the province.

Prairie Airways baggage label

The Prairies

Airmail service was initiated in the three Prairie provinces in March 1930. Considerable agitation in press and political circles pushed the government into action. "WEST NEEDS AIRMAIL SYSTEM" read a typical headline in the Calgary Albertan shortly after the introduction of airmail in Central Canada. The implementation of airmail on the Prairies was an event of national importance. Night flying of airmail in Canada was first introduced here, and required the construction and design of landing fields and a host of visual navigation aids: beacon lights, floodlights, etc. A peculiarity of the airmail system on the Prairies was that it was linked on its eastern and western flanks to the railway mail service, as there was no through airmail service over the Rockies or across the shield terrain north of the Great Lakes until the late 1930s. Competition between Edmonton and Calgary for the right to dispense airmail was intense. Eventually both cities were linked directly to Winnipeg, the eastern terminal for the Prairie airmail service.

United Air Service timetable, 1941

The North

The North was the final frontier of Canadian airmail and where the introduction of airmail service had the most dramatic impact. Here, to paraphrase a well-known football saying, airmail wasn't the best thing, it was the only thing. If, during the 1930s, someone living between Yellowknife and Moosonee wanted to conduct postal correspondence - for whatever purpose, even ordering a set of false teeth from Edmonton - he or she could only do so if there was an air link to the area. By the late 1930s, three routes covered the North: one ran in the direction of Coppermine on the Arctic Ocean; a second (the oldest one), opened up by Wop May on December 10, 1929, followed the Mackenzie Valley to Aklavik; and a third ran from Edmonton to Whitehorse and Dawson in the Yukon.

The system was barely up and running during the early 1930s when it experienced a partial shut-down. The entire main line of the Prairie service was closed in 1932. But airmail made a comeback. Substantial government investment during the late 1930s, both in the Trans-Canada Airway and in Trans-Canada Air Lines, made coast-to-coast airmail service a reality before the outbreak of the Second World War. For the next two to three decades, airmail became the backbone of Canada's long-distance communication system.

Canadian Airmail Routes During the Late 1930s
Canada's airmail system was implemented in discrete regional chunks during the late 1920s and the 1930s. The resulting map of airmail routes looks like an inverted T. A main east-west trunk line, known as the Trans-Canada Airway, runs from coast to coast in the southern part of the country, and consists of an interlocking network of public airports, intermediate aerodromes and emergency landing fields. A series of secondary north-south feeders run at right angles to the main line. This geography of the inverted T contrasts sharply with the denser cross-hatched patterns of the U.S.A. and Europe. Airmail service in Australia, by comparison, seems far more focused on the perimeter, as if to avoid the no man's land of the outback lying in the centre of the country.

Bringing Home the Goods

Fairchild 71, Bear Lake, Alberta, 1935

Air transport and airmail breathed life into the isolated settlements that constituted the Canadian outback. With the mail might come a word of comfort, a message from the folks at home. "My missionaries are very isolated," wrote one Oblate Father in 1932 to the Postmaster General, "the mail brought great comfort to them especially at the approach of Christmas and New Year's." Father Saindon was concerned about the need for a continued postal link to his priests working the Moosonee-Great Whale and the Moosonee-Winisk coasts of James Bay. His request ended up in the airmail file of the Post Office Department, and Austin Airways was eventually awarded a contract for the region in 1944. The airplane was everything to the people of the Canadian North. It flew in dogs, dynamite, mining equipment and food; it brought in what was known as "giggle soup," laughing water, cough medicine, fire-water - in a word, booze; and it delivered the newspaper and that faithful fellow traveller of Canadian mail, the mail-order catalogue. In 1935, one Manitoba postal official was moved to complain:

The mail order houses have derived so much business in Winnipeg since the establishment of these airmail routes to the Northern Mining areas...that they have decided to circularize all customers and supply them with the latest catalogue, and one firm on Saturday last gave us over half a ton of catalogue mail alone for which they paid fifteen cents a pound and we are now facing the problem of transporting it all into the various sections without delay.

The bush pilot was always a welcome visitor, by virtue of the variety of items he brought with him. But news was obviously what the people expected and hoped for most. In the course of one long summer day's work in 1938, the pilot and mechanic on the Yellowknife-Gordon Lake run in the Northwest Territories had brought all manner of mail and groceries to 10 or more different camps, and were returning with requests for cigarettes, radio antennae, boots that fit and news. Despite their efforts, one man refused to pose for a photograph alongside members of the expedition because he had yet to receive a letter.

The Bush Pilot

First official Mackenzie River airmail flight, 1929

The pilot was not a loner, in any sense of the word. Occasionally he would be accompanied on his travels by a mechanic, but at all times he could rely on the support, moral and technical, of the engineers and mechanics that made up his ground crew, or "black gang" as they were called. Flying with another person made perfect sense, especially during the winter, when putting the aircraft to bed for the night or starting it in the morning was a two-person job. The process of draining the oil at night and pouring it back into the motor the next morning - to prevent it from congealing like glue with the cold - was particularly tricky, because it had to be done in a very short space of time, and the oil had to be taken back and forth from the hut. Even the simple act of refuelling required two people: one to activate the pump, and the other to hold the hose towards the funnel and strainer. Whatever the task, in freezing weather two pairs of hands were better than one.

Wherever space permitted on board, the pilot would store the emergency equipment that, in the event of a forced landing, might save his life and that of his passengers - items such as extra socks, mitts, a parka, mukluks, ski pants, a rifle and ammunition, and rabbit snares, plus an emergency supply of beans, bacon and flour. Stored inside his head was the pilot's most valuable resource: his knowledge of and experience with the terrain. Geographical knowledge gave him the ability to "fly by the seat of his pants" and see with his own eyes. Traversing the Canadian bush in an era when the geography of Canada's wide open spaces was not yet fully charted was a challenge. The pilot navigated by "dead reckoning": he would ascertain where he was by noting what was beneath him. Some pilots followed railroad tracks, power lines or even dog-trails. Others preferred to latch onto waterways. The pilot had to know the pertinent landmarks by heart. Punch Dickins never entered a new and unmapped territory unless the weather was clear. He kept his own sketch-maps, as well as published maps and a compass, as a means of keeping track of his information.

Number 9 Junkers aircraft on skis with two canoes strapped beneath its wing.

Once the pilot reached his destination, he had to put down. In summer, this meant landing the craft, which was outfitted with pontoon landing gear, in the water. The better class of landing bases were equipped with floating docks anchored to the shore. At Fort Smith (N.W.T.), there was unfortunately only one dock, and when more than one plane showed up, it was crowded: "there is no place for passengers to get ashore or for the respective Pilots to refuel their aircraft" was one lament in 1937. Perhaps there was not enough room to load or unload the bags of mail. Some pilots, anticipating less than elaborate landing conditions, travelled with a canoe strapped under their fuselage or wing.

Junkers aircraft with canoe

In winter, pilots were expected to land on the frozen surface of a lake or river. This was not always possible, since not all bodies of water would cooperate and freeze over before the start of the winter season. Planes were known to have crashed through an ice surface that was not thick enough to support the weight of a fully loaded aircraft. An entire village might have to be called out to fetch a plane out of the frozen waters. It was just as likely that the community would be asked to smooth out the landing surface by trampling on the ice and snow with their snowshoes. And then there was down time, that peculiarly Canadian version of purgatory that comes once in the fall and again in spring, when winter has not completely started nor is it completely over. Air traffic might come to a halt for weeks at a time, while everyone waited for the lake to freeze over or the ice to melt away. Down time meant no flights, no flights meant no mail, and no mail meant no news.

Stinson Voyager 108 built around 1945

The exigencies of flying mail under these conditions, primitive as they were, seem, from a late twentieth-century perspective, quite daunting. But they were part of the normal course of events in the heroic era of airmail. The spirit of the pilot and crew in this era was anything but fatalistic; it defied the formidable elements of nature and the predictable imperfections of early aviation technology. Saint-Exupéry captures this sense of dedication, courage and tenacity in Wind, Sand and Stars:

To be a man is, precisely, to be responsible. It is to feel shame at the sight of what seems unmerited misery. It is to take pride in a victory won by one's comrades. It is to feel, when setting one's stone, that one is contributing to the building of the world.

Such is a fitting epitaph for an era when airmail wrapped itself around the world and pushed itself into the furthest corners of the globe, here draped in desert sand, there nuzzled in the cold of the Arctic snows. Looking back to that time, this publication and this exhibition are dedicated to the pilots who risked their lives to get the mail through.