MEDFORD, Ore. -- May 15th marked the 100th anniversary of the air mail service that was implemented with President Wilson.
Today people from all across the Rogue Valley came to see three vintage biplanes that are retracing the pioneering west coast airmail route that was established in the 1930’s.
Six pilots are heading up the venture to retrace the route, each flying a Stearman Speedmail biplanes. Today there are only seven left in the world and three of them are participating in the historical trip. These airplanes were used by several airlines as mail planes in the early 1930s. Powered by 450 horsepower engines, the wood-winged and fabric covered open-cockpit aircraft were noted for their dependability and ability to carry heavy loads. The pilots are hoping to bring to the general public’s attention the contributions that air mail pioneers made to our modern air space and airline system today.
The route ran from San Diego to Seattle with stops in Los Angeles, Bakersfield, Fresno, San Francisco and Redding in California; Medford and Eugene in Oregon; Vancouver, Olympia and finally Paine Field in Everett, just north of Seattle, Washington.
“The establishment of air mail service marks the first steps towards the founding of commercial aviation and airline service in America”, said Addison Pemberton, one of the pilots participating in the trek. “The fact that the Congress specifically asked that service begin while the nation was mobilized to fight the first world war, shows that the potential and importance of aviation was recognized even in those early days.”
When airmail was implemented in America many airmen died due to the dangerous terrain surrounding the pacific northwest. Pilots had to rely solely on ground contact. Meaning that they didn’t have any instruments to aid in their navigation. Pilots had to be able to see the ground at all times, using landmarks and other man-made arrows on the ground the guide them to their destination.
“They were flying in the middle of January from New York to San Francisco over the Rocky Mountains with no navigation at 100 feet following farm houses and headlights and things like that, that you just can’t imagine today,” said pilot Katie LeFriec.
Each of the three biplanes being flown during the centennial anniversary are privately owned and have been completely restored.
Addison Pemberton is one of the six pilots and has restored his vintage Stearman 4DM Senior Speedmail. The aircraft was originally built for American Airways, starting service in 1931, it flew mail routes from Dallas to Chicago and California before being modified for use as an instrument trainer. It was later converted for use as a crop sprayer. Pemberton acquired the aircraft was a wingless hulk in 1989 and restored it from the ground up. Pemberton has restored 21 aircraft and calls the Speedmail “The best airplane I ever built”.
Ben Scott is another pilot flying the route. He restored his Stearman 4E Junior Speedmail after it was originally bought by his father, a prominent Reno businessman, to use for his frequent business trips throughout the 1930s. When private flying was curtailed during World War Two, the aircraft was sold and like the other surviving Speedmail’s, became a crop sprayer. It was rescued and restored in the 1970s and Scott, a long-time pilot, was happy to get the heirloom back into the family.
Jeff Hamilton and father of Katie LeFriec finished the reconstruction of his Speedmail that was used by American Airways between 1931 and 1934 to fly mail on routes from St. Louis, Atlanta and Dallas. It was the converted to dual cockpits and used as a “blind flying” instrument trainer for the airline. In 1939 it was converted to agricultural work, remaining in that field for the next 35 years. The plane was partially restored in 1999. Hamilton bought the aircraft in 2016 and completed the restoration.