Oregon Trails: Airplanes

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MEDFORD, Ore. — These days e-mail, texting and twitter are common ways to get someone a message, but not too long ago the ultimate message medium was air-mail. Airmail revolutionized communication and opened the door to the vast air transportation system we have today.

A United Air express jet taking off from the airport is a far cry from the time in the 1920’s when surplus World War I trainers carried bags of mail and occasional passengers up and down the Pacific Coast and across the country. Being mid-way between San Francisco and Seattle and Portland without its own airport, Medford became a key stop for the mail plane pilots and they flew by the seat of their pants in open cockpit planes just a little above the treetops.

At first, the pilots and planes were government issued. Then in 1926, Congress opened it up to private companies to contract for mail and passenger service. Bill Boeing got the routes from Chicago to San Francisco, and Seattle to San Diego. Pacific Air Transport, with offices in Medford was the result, and a new plane, the Boeing model 40, went into production in 1928 to carry the mail and a few passengers whenever possible.

On October 2nd, 1928, pilot Grant Donaldson lifted off from Medford headed to Portland with a few pounds of mail and a diamond salesman, D.P. Donovan. The plane and Donovan never made it. Donaldson survived the crash but never flew mail again. He became an airline executive instead the wreck was recovered by the Oregon Air History Museum in the 1980’s, then sold to Addison Pemberton of Spokane. In February of 2008, the plane took its maiden flight. Pemberton has flown it to New York to re-trace the original air mail route, and has made several appearances up and down the Pacific Coast.

Boeing, and Pacific Air Transport eventually joined with some other airmail carriers in the 1930’s to become United Airlines. The airmail business led to passenger business and the rest is history, but the restored plane is unique, and it brings back memories of the time when pilots flew by the seat of their pants and passengers had to hang on.

Little over 80 years ago, when the airmail business was just taking off in this country, this is where the airport was for Medford and Jackson County. It was the primary mail stop between San Francisco and Seattle, and that was one of the reasons that United Air Lines got its roots in the Rogue Valley.