Transcontinental Flight History
The beginnings of transcontinental flight had their roots in a funding shortage
faced by the U.S. airmail service after 1918, when it started to suffer losses
every year while struggling to cope with increasing demands and operational
costs. To avoid transferring such costs to customers, the Post Office asked for
tax money funding from the Federal Government instead.
The early transcontinental mail route from September 1920 consisted of
inter-relays of mail cargo from planes to railcars when night descended. The
total time taken for such routes was 78 hours, compared to train transported
mail of 108 hours. However, then president Warren Harding opined that trains
still provided a more affordable service, and wanted to pull out Congress money
from the airmail service.
In order to demonstrate the viability of a transcontinental mail route in time
and cost savings to Harding and secure tax money funding, Postmaster General
Burleson and Assistant Postmaster General Otto Praeger offered to stage a public
flight across the country without the involvement of the railroad. This was
planned on Washington’s Birthday on February 22, 1921, to raise its public
From the outset, it would not represent an attractive flight. The pilots flew
World War I surplus planes not designed for long distance routes and the open
*****pits meant they were subjected to the harsh altitude weather and hot engine
oil sprays. Night flights would also present a formidable challenge, as they
could not rely on visual landmarks to establish their routes. With the onset of
snow or fog, pilots were often forced to maintain low altitudes, which posed
unknown risks of colliding with landmarks with the reduced visibility. Praeger
came up with a plan to hedge these risks, with post office staff to mark the
transcontinental route by fires lit at night.
Additionally, Praeger published the Transcontinental Air Mail Pilot’s log prior
to the flight. A collection of Post Office pilots’ flight notes and providing
detailed information such as landmarks and distances regarding the
transcontinental route, it would serve to assist the pilots in navigating their
attempt. It would also be a precursor to the creation of printed navigation aids
in the future.
The demonstration took off at 6:00 a.m. on February 22, 1921, as two mail planes
took flight on a westward journey from Hazelhurst Field, Long Island, New York.
Correspondingly, another two aircrafts headed east from Marina Field, San
Francisco, California. They would meet with scheduled relay planes at various
It was not long before the first tragedy occurred. W.F. Lewis on one of the
eastward flights, crashed soon after takeoff. J.L. Eaton took over and managed
to arrive in Salt Lake City before noon, where a series of relay pilots took
them through Cheyenne, Wyoming, to North Platte, Nebraska. James H. “Jack”
Knight was the pilot that started the route from North Platte, but little did he
know that he would be the last one, and the man responsible for accomplishing
the objective of this demonstration, securing the future of airmail.
Aided by torches and fire lights across Lexington Kearney and Central City,
Nebraska; Knight made his way to Omaha through the freezing night cold. Upon
discovering that he was the last remaining pilot on the journey at Omaha, due to
unforeseen circumstances aborting his substitute’s flight, Knight soldiered on
gamely and left for Iowa City at 2:00 a.m.
Knight continued to rely on ground-lit fires to establish his route across Iowa
and Illinois, avoiding a crash on his landing in Iowa City airfield. After a
short rest, he embarked on the last 200 miles to Chicago. Despite a cold mist
that reduced flight visibility, Knight successfully touched down on Chicago
Checkerboard Field at 8:40 a.m., largely dependant on a compass and torn road
map. Knight was hailed a national hero, after braving the 830-mile flight with a
When the Chicago snowstorm ended, J.D. Webster then made the flight eastward
from Chicago to Cleveland at 9:00 a.m. Pilot Ernest Allison took over in
Cleveland and reached Hazelhurst Field, New York, at 4:50 p.m.
Knight celebrated his personal achievement, but it was made all the more
possible by a team effort from seven pilots. The transcontinental flight
stretched over 2,629 miles with a time of 26 hours in the air. Harding was
finally convinced. Touched by the pilots’ efforts and public interest, he
wholeheartedly gave his blessings to the bill that awarded federal funding to
With money available to develop more route lighting, navigation aids, pilots and
better aircrafts, the era of 24-hour transcontinental airmail routes began on
July 1, 1924. The zones of New York-Chicago, Chicago-Rock Springs, and Rock
Springs-San Francisco were established, found on the principles of better route
management and reasonable pricing mechanisms for airmail (which cost only 8
cents per ounce within zones).
Despite the developments of transcontinental flight from the Post Office’s
public experiment, there continued to be public disagreements on airmail system
funding between customers, the aviation industry and government. Each party had
their own agendas ranging from self-preservation to self-interest, and it was
not until the 1925 Kelly Act before they were eventually address, leading to
where transcontinental flight is now in today.