AUGUST 2017

AUGUST  2017
FACING DOWN THE RULERS OF WALL STREET A HUNDRED YEARS AGO. THEY ARE BACK.

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Saturday, August 23, 2008

AIR MAIL

I believe the decision by the Post Office to leap into the 20th century of mail delivery was taken with all the alacrity and planning you would expect from the oldest and most entrenched bureaucracy in the U.S. government. On May 6, 1918 (eight years after the start of the century), U.S. Army pilot Major Reuben Fleet was summoned into the office of Secretary of War, Newton D. Baker, and informed that together the Postmaster General and Secretary Baker had decided that he, Fleet, was to be responsible for setting up the first Air Mail Service between Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and New York City, and that the first plane of that service would take off from Washington at 11AM on May 15th, just nine days hence.
Major Fleet was flabbergasted. This is the first he had heard of such an idea. He pointed out to the Secretary that the best plane in the Army’s inventory was the JN-4D, known as the Jenny, which was so underpowered that if you tried to turn the plane without first dipping her nose she would stall. Worse, the Jenny was a two seat trainer, capable of barely 65 miles an hour and with a range of less than 90 miles. In other words, a Jenny couldn’t reach Philadelphia from either New York or Washington. The secretary explained that what ever the difficulties were they had to be overcome, because the Postmaster General, Albert S. Burleson, had already issued the press release.Major Fleet (personal motto, "Nothing Short of Right Is Right") immediately called the Curtiss Aeroplane Corporation on Long Island and ordered conversion of twelve Jenny’s - replacing the front seat controls with mail bag storage, changing the 90 hp engine with a 150 hp one, and adding fuel tanks to increase the range. Curtiss promised to deliver the planes to Belmont Park airfield on May 13.
But as Fleet overcame each obstacle it seemed two more popped up. He wanted to start the Washington flights out of College Park, Maryland, nine miles north of the capital. But the Post Office insisted on using Potomac Park, on the Tidal basin, right in the middle of town and ringed by huge trees. Fleet asked for six of the most experienced pilots in America. He got four, and two political "ringers".
The two ringers were Lieutenants James Edgerton and George Leroy Boyle. Both men had just graduated from flight school in Texas (almost)and so far their solo flying experience consisted of one cross country flight of 15 miles. But Edgerton was the son of a Post Office purchasing agent and Boyle was engaged to marry the only daughter of Interstate Commerce Commissioner Charles McChord. That made both young men poltiically qualified for staring roles in the Air Mail drama. Major Fleet knew enough about the way Washington worked that he did not argue a point he could not win. After leaving instructions for the surreptitious removal of one particularly pernicious tree in Potomac Park, Fleet left Washington by train with what he judged were his best five pilots. They were on their way to Long Island to pick up their planes. Fleet left Lt. Boyle behind to entertain the lovely Miss McChord, and presumably, Comissioner McChord as well.At the aerodrome inside the Belmont Park race track Major Fleet found his modified Jennys had been delivered as promised – but still in their crates. The mechanics and pilots spent the next two days desperately throwing the required six planes together. Two newly assembled Jennys were flown to Philadelphia. Two more planes were ready to go from Belmont. And early on the fifteenth, Fleet, exhausted and bone weary, flew the last plane assembled (Number 38262) from Philadelphia to Washington, landing at Potomac Park at 10:35AM, with barely twenty-five minutes to spare before the 11AM takeoff deadline, as per the press release.The First Lady and President Woodrow Wilson arrived. The previous day Wilson had placed his hand on a cannon barrel still hot from having fired a salute. His right hand was wrapped in a bandage. Franklyn Roosevelt, the under-Secretary of the Navy, arrived: as did the Postmaster General and the Secretary of the War. But where was Lieutenant Boyle?
Fleet was just about decided to take the flight himself when a voice from the crowd boomed out confidently, “Never fear because Boyle is here.” Forward stepped the cocky young Lieutenant George Leroy Boyle, followed by the lovely Margaret McChord, carrying a dozen roses she had gotten from somewhere. Fleet bravely tolerated the distribution of commemorative watches and posed for handshakes, and then ignoring the photographers the Major attempted to coach Boyle on how to follow the railroad tracks north from Union Station. But the photos of the Lieutenant give the impression of a man prone to motion sickness who has just realized that he has volunteered to be abandoned on a life raft in the middle of hurricane. As he struggled to keep Boyles' attention Major Fleet was interrupted by a wail of sirens. A mail truck, carrying 140 pounds of First class (24 cent) Air Mail in four bags had arrived. The photographers were momentarily distracted, getting pictures of the bags being loaded into the Jenny.
The noise and excitement didn’t help Boyles’ concentration, and eventually Major Fleet simply taped the road map to the now almost catatonic Boyle’s leg. Boyle was now starting to resemble a hunter on his way to meet a firing squad of well armed pigeons.
There were more photos taken as Boyle climbed aboard the unfamiliar airplane and set the switches to start the engine. A sergeant windmill-ed the propeller three times to pull fuel into the cylinders. Lt. Boyle yelled, “Contact!”, and the sergeant pushed the propeller through again, hard. The engine coughed and died. Twice more Boyle and the sergeant tried to start the engine, but the motor stubbornly refused to engage.
The President was getting annoyed. The crowd was starting to giggle. Boyle was beginning to look as if he might pass out in the cockpit. Finally the sergeant thought to look in the gas tank. It was bone dry. Fleet had been lucky to arrive that morning before he ran out of gas. And no one admidst all the whoopla, not even the exhausted Fleet, had thought to refuel the plane.
Fuel was borrowed from some planes in the nearby U.S. Naval Yard and, 45 minutes late, Lt. Boyle turned his wings into the wind and roared down the open lawn. The crowd held its breath as he cleared the trees at the end of the makeshift runway by all of three feet. The U.S. Army was in the Air Mail business; sort of.Meanwhile the flight from Belmont Park had gotten off on time, and arrived at Philadelphia two hours later. But after waiting for Boyle for almost another hour, the Jenny bound for New York took off from Philadelphia without any mail and headed north. When it arrived on Long Island everyone was so excited they forgot to ask where was the mail. But beyond that , where was Boyle? The answer to that question arrived an hour later.After finally getting into the air Boyle came to the depressing realization that he could not read a map to save his life. He mistakenly followed a branch line of railroad tracks for 20 miles to the southeast from Washington. By the time Lt. Boyle had realized his error, and tried to figure out just where he had gone wrong, he had almost run out of gas. On crash landing near Waldorf, Maryland, the chastized Lt. Boyle flipped his Jenny onto her top. Boyles’ mailbags were eventually delivered to Philadelphia the next day by another pilot. But thankfully, the wartime press corps chose to bury the lead of the story. And that should have been the end of that.And it would have been the end but the Postmaster General urged Major Fleet to give Boyle another chance. Which is why, on May 17th, Lt. Boyle took off from Washington yet again. This time he was following another pilot who guided him north out of the capital and up the four track main railroad line toward Philadelphia. Boyle followed the guide plane for fifty miles. But eventually the other plane turned back, which was when, finally alone in the air, somehow the dashing but incompetent Lt. Boyle managed to get turned around yet again. Boyle ended up flying for three hours and fifteen minutes to the south, eventually landing on Cape Charles, on the very Southeastern tip of Virginia.Determined not to fail this time, and having missed the Atlantic ocean by a hair's breath, Boyle bought gasoline out of his own pocket, got directions from a farmer, took off again and this time actually made it to Philadelphia; where he crash landed on the Philadelphia Country Club golf course, sheering both wings off his Jenny and bending the landing gear.
When the Postmaster General Burleson asked that Boyle be given a third chance, Major Fleet replied, “The conclusion has been reached that the best interests of the service require that Lieutenant Boyle be relieved from this duty.” And so he was. But oddly enough, the man who replaced Lt. Boyle suffered through five forced landings over the next three months.P.S.; Major Fleet went on to fame and fortune in the air plane industry, leaving his name on the Air and Space Museum in San Diego, California. But so far I have been unable to find out what ever happened to the intrepid Lieutenant George Leroy Boyle, after his dismissal from the mail service. All I know is that Margaret and George did marry, (date ?) and had a daughter named Josephine. In 1928 Margaret and Josephine were living at the Willard Hotel in Washington. D.C., with her parents. The family later (1930+) applied for Josephine to enter the school at the Cours de ifAssumption in France. I have posted the question on a number of billboards. If you hear anything, I would be very grateful in learning the story of George L. Boyle’s, Margaret McChord-Boyle or Josephine’s Boyle's later life.
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5 comments:

  1. Lt. Boyle ended up being a lawyer. Not sure how successful he was, but it was better than his pilot career.

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  2. Margaret's mother Nellie Grundy was my Grandfathers sister.

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  3. I would love to know what became of her and her husband. My limited access to historical records prevents me from learning. Would love to include it in the piece. Do you know?

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  4. Margaret divorced and returned to Washington to live with her parents at The Willard.She had a daughter Josephine that spoke fluent French before English.She had a french nurse and lived in France for many years. I think she is buried in Bardstown Ky.with her family.I have one of Margaret's storybooks, Her nickname was Babes

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  5. Thank you, Christinia. A little piece of history - the history of human beings. If I may ask one other thing....what was the title of the storybook?

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