Washington is full of memorials to people or events. Most are big and impossible to miss. But some are rather small and almost impossible to find, like the memorial to the first scheduled air mail flight. You can find it along the river in West Potomac Park on what used to be the polo grounds.
It commemorates the hazy August morning in 1918 when President and Mrs. Woodrow Wilson gathered with thousands of others to see the first regularly air mail service depart Washington to New York city with a stop in Philadelphia.
This is a time when there are no aeronautical maps, two-way radio, signal beacons, radar, gyroscopes, instruments, nor lighted runways. All the pilot had was a compass and a road map. Pilots flew close to the ground and looking for landmarks. It was a very dangerous job. Thirty-five pilots die in the first 8 years of air mail service.
The army, which initially ran the service, selected its most experience pilot for the job. Regrettably, he was replaced by Lt. George Boyle, a pilot just out of flight school who was the fiancée of the daughter of a judge who helped the post office out of a jam.
Boyle was told to follow the railroad tracks to Philly. And he did. Except he followed them south. Realizing his mistake, he lands in a field in Waldorf, MD. The field was just plowed so the plane crashes on touch down. The mail was trucked back to DC and flew north the next day. Boyle was unhurt. But when he crashed two days later on a Philadelphia country club’s golf course, he is dismissed from the air mail service.
It’s hard to imagine now, but air travel that we know today owes its existence to the postal service. It’s because of airmail that a network of airports is built across the country.
And the private contractors that eventually take over airmail delivery from the government become the airlines of that today provide the service to which we’ve become painfully accustom.