The Great Air Mail Fiasco of 1934 in the American West

With the recent blizzard in the mid-Atlantic, I thought it appropriate to discuss an earlier event in aviation history in which bad weather played a key role. One of the most significant events affecting aviation in the American West occurred in 1934 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt directed the U.S. Army Air Corps to fly the mail. FDR decided that government mail contracts with the commercial airlines, initiated by his Republican predecessor’s Postmaster General, had been arranged through collusion and fraud and therefore warranted immediate cancellation. After reviewing options, on February 9th the President directed Major General Benjamin D. Foulois’ tiny and antiquated Army Air Corps to begin domestic air mail operations effective February 19th until the contract issue could be resolved.

Brig. Gen. Benjamin D. Foulois, Maj. Gen. James. E. Fechet, and Brig. Gen. H.C. Pratt.

Brig. Gen. Benjamin D. Foulois, Maj. Gen. James. E. Fechet, and Brig. Gen. H.C. Pratt.

Foulois, anxious to demonstrate the effectiveness of his Air Corps, immediately accepted this mission and began organizing for its completion. Foulois and his chief advisors developed a plan that called for Brigadier General Oscar Westover, Assistant Chief of the Air Corps, to oversee the operation from Washington, D.C., with three commanders to manage operations in eastern, central, and western zones. Since Army Air Corps resources were insufficient to continue the extensive air mail service provided by the commercial carriers, the Air Corps planned to operate only 14 of the 26 air routes previously flown by contract carriers and to accept a corresponding degradation in the efficiency of the mail service.

Lieutenant Colonel Henry H. (Hap) Arnold was playing golf with Major Carl A. Spaatz on February 10, 1934, near March Field, California, when he was summoned to his office and learned that he was to command the western sector of the air mail route from a hub of operations in Salt Lake City. Lt. Col. Arnold moved quickly to carry out his orders. On February 12 he dispatched 13 aircraft, some of them transports but most P-26 single seat fighters, to Salt Lake City along with mechanics and a small headquarters contingent. Captain Ira C. Eaker’s Pursuit Group took the Salt Lake City-Los Angeles routes and Major Clarence Tinker, with his 2nd Bombardment Group, handled the Salt Lake City San Francisco runs. In all, fifty seven pilots operated within the western zone, most of them out of Salt Lake City.

Hap Arnold.

Hap Arnold.

Arnold appointed Maj. Charles B. (Barney) Oldfield as Regional Commander and gave him authority to schedule and control the movement of all aircraft on the routes from Salt Lake City to their first control stop. When the pilots landed at their first destination out of Salt Lake City, control then passed to one of four route commanders depending upon the final destination. Oldfield, a fine manager, had matters well in hand by the time Arnold arrived in Salt Lake City from March Field three days later. Arnold formally established his headquarters at the Newhouse Hotel in the city’s central business district. Although Arnold thought his flyers could handle the air mail operation indefinitely, the Air Corps operated out of Salt Lake City only for about four months.

Because of several disastrous accidents, poor efficiency, and bad publicity it was relieved of air mail responsibilities. Lieutenant Colonel Arnold stressed, upon undertaking the air mail operation, that safety was the principal factor governing the mission. When challenged by reporters that the Air Corps’ pilots were inferior to the commercial fliers, he replied that about 90 percent of the civilian airmail pilots had received their training in the Air Corps. In a letter to Lt. Gen. Malin Craig, the Army Assistant Chief of Staff, Arnold identified the safety issue as critical to the operation and predicted that the press expected the Army to fail at the air mail job:

I have stressed upon all the Route Commanders the necessity for doing their utmost to make this thing a success. I have told them that the Army the Air Corps, and they themselves are “on the spot, and that any slip ups would react unfavorably towards the Army at this time. This unfavorable reaction was brought to my attention this date in an interview which I had with the newspapers. I have put them off all week and would not say anything until today when I accorded them an interview. So we cannot afford a slip up as the undertone of their conversation was that the commercial lines were much better than the Army that we would show up unfavorably. I personally am of the opinion that they are waiting like a bunch of hungry dogs to grab up any mistake or misfortune which may overtake us and make the most of it.

The press was right. Reporters did not have to wait long for disaster to strike. Very few Air Corps airplanes were equipped with either lights or navigational instruments. Only a small number of pilots had night flying experience and even fewer knew anything about instrument flying. These deficiencies, coupled with harsh winter weather conditions created incredible problems in the West. On the very first day of the operation two fatal crashes occurred in the western zone. During the remainder of the operation, through June 1, 1934, the Army Air Corps nation wide suffered 66 crashes and 12 deaths.

The Boeing P-26. Boeing initially designed the P-26 in 1931, designating it first as Model 248.

The Boeing P-26. Boeing initially designed the P-26 in 1931, designating it first as Model 248.

Except for the tragic loss of life, this air mail episode proved advantageous to the Army Air Corps. First, it cost Foulois his job as head of the Army Air Corps. This made way for reorganization and the opportunity for Hap Arnold to lead the organization through World War II.  Second, it brought to the attention of Congress the inadequacies of the American air forces. Its concern prompted a review of the organization by a special committee appointed by Secretary of War George H. Dern during the summer of 1934. Dern instructed the committee, chaired by Newton D. Baker and therefore known as the Baker Board, to carry out “a constructive study and report upon the operations of the Army Air Corps and the adequacy and efficiency of its technical flying equipment and training for the performance of its mission in peace and war.”

An Air Corps Keystone B-6 bomber during the air mail disaster of 1934..

An Air Corps Keystone B-6 bomber during the air mail disaster of 1934..

In a little more than two months the review board compiled 4,283 pages of testimony. Among its many significant recommendations, the Baker Board called for the establishment of an airdrome board to determine requirements, select sites, and establish Army Air Corps bases throughout the United States. These efforts prompted the War Department and the Army Air Corps to think in terms of both airfield expansion and the development of new aircraft with greater capabilities. While it took until the end of the decade of the 1930s to realize much in the way of transition to a modern air force, the impetus for this effort may found in the tragic experience of the great air mail fiasco of 1934.

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2 Responses to The Great Air Mail Fiasco of 1934 in the American West

  1. dphuntsman says:

    Thanks for this perspective, Roger; I knew nothing about this.

    Dave Huntsman


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