Air Mail Maverick
Determined to become a first-rate pilot, Charles Lindbergh entered the
Army Air Service Cadet Program in San Antonio, Texas, in March of 1924.
Lindbergh was motivated to succeed in Army flight school as he never had been
before. In his mind, "...an Air Service pilot's wings were like a silver
passport to the realm of light." After a year of intense classroom study and
flight experience in some of the most advanced planes of the day, Lindbergh
graduated at the top of his class. His next task was to find out how to turn his
love of flying into a career.
Airmail service had been in effect in the United States since 1918. It was
considered the most dangerous job in the country. Statistics bore that out: 31
of the first 40 pilots hired to fly mail were killed in crashes. In the spring
of 1920 the first transcontinental airmail service was established between New
York and San Francisco, with "feeder routes" between Washington and New York,
St. Louis and Chicago, and Chicago and Minneapolis. In the early years, the
service was run by the U.S. Post Office, under control of the federal
government. In 1925 a bill was passed that turned airmail service over to the
private sector. In the spring of 1925, Charles Lindbergh was in St. Louis where
he came to the attention of William B. and Frank Robinson, two World War I
fliers who owned Robinson Aircraft Corporation. The Robinson brothers had
been awarded the contract to fly mail between St. Louis and Chicago. They were
greatly impressed with Lindbergh's skill as an aviator and his serious manner.
They offered him the job as Chief Pilot of their new airmail service. Lindbergh
loved a challenge, and flying airmail would present many.
The planes used by airmail pilots, mainly De Havillands, were referred to as
"flaming coffins," because their fuel tanks, which were set between the engine
and the cockpit, would often explode on crash landings. And crash landings were
not uncommon. The De Havillands were also known for reaching dangerously high
landing speeds, being too heavy, having poorly designed cockpits, and "the
gliding angle of a brick." Airmail pilots, lacking any communication with
ground crews, also had to contend with poorly-lit and poorly-designed landing
fields. Weather conditions could be confounding, sometimes changing drastically
every 50 or so miles.
Chief Pilot Lindbergh performed meticulous flight preparations, carefully
plotting routes and landing spots. He and his staff flew five round-trip mail
drops per week. Conditions demanded that he use all of his accumulated flying
skills. His experience served him well, as he was forced to crash land on
several occasions. When forced down, Lindbergh would fly low for as long as
possible, using up fuel to lessen the chances of an explosion upon hitting the
ground. On more than one occasion, he landed in a farmer's field with the aid
of a flashlight. Despite facing numerous dangers and obstacles, Lindbergh and
his pilots established an impressive record for the reliability of their
It was while Lindbergh was working as an airmail pilot that he first became
interested in the race to claim the Orteig Prize. Twenty-five thousand dollars
would be awarded to the first aviator to fly non-stop from Paris to New York,
or vice-versa. By 1926, Lindbergh knew his next goal.