I believe the decision by the United States Post Office to leap into the 20th century of mail delivery was taken with all the alacrity and planning you would expect from the second oldest and most entrenched bureaucracy in the U.S. government. On Monday, 6 May, 1918 - 15 years after the Wright Brother's first flight - United States Army Major Reuben Fleet was summoned into the office of Secretary of War, Newton D. Baker. There Baker told the pilot that he was now responsible for setting up the first Air Mail Service between Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and New York City. Further, the stunned Major was informed that the first flight of the new service would take off from Washington, D.C. at 11:00 a.m. on Wednesday 15 May , just nine days hence.
Major Fleet was flabbergasted. This is the first he had heard of any 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. But the Jenny was so under-powered that if you tried to execute a turn without first dipping her nose, the Jenny would stall.
Worse, the Jenny was a two seat trainer, capable of barely 65 miles an hour and had a range of less than 90 miles. In other words, a Jenny couldn’t reach Philadelphia non-stop from either New York or Washington. The Secretary responded that whatever the difficulties, they had to be overcome because - and this was the kicker - the Postmaster General, Albert S. Burleson, had already issued the press release. And as any military officer in Washington can explain, once the press release has gone out, you are committed.
Major Fleet - whose personal motto was, "Nothing Short of Right Is Right" - immediately called the Curtiss Aeroplane Corporation on Long Island and ordered the emergency conversion of twelve Jenny’s - replacing the front seat controls with storage for mail bags, changing the 90 horse power engines for ones with 150 horse power, and adding fuel tanks to increase the range. Curtiss promised to deliver the planes to Belmont Park airfield by Monday, 13 May.
But as Fleet overcame each obstacle it seemed two more popped up. Naturally, he preferred to start the Washington flights out of College Park, Maryland, nine miles north of the capital (thus saving nine miles on the first or last leg of each flight). But the Post Office press release insisted on using Potomac Park, on the tidal basin, (top of the above photo), right in the middle of Washington, and ringed by tall trees. The Department of the Interior was insistent that not a branch of those magnificent 100 year old trees be broken. Fleet then asked for six of the most experienced pilots in America to fly the routes.
He got four very good pilots and two political "ringers". The two ringers were Lieutenants James Edgerton and George Leroy Boyle, both of whom had just graduated from flight school in Texas (well, almost), and so far their solo flying experience consisted of one 15 mile journey across the south Texas prairies. In fact, before Major Fleet had been given his orders, Lieutenants Edgerton and Boyle had received theirs, and were already on their way to Washington. It was a an old bureaucratic trick known as the fait accompli. The two ringers would get the credit if everything went well. Major Fleet would get the blame if the ringers screwed the pouch.
On the other hand, 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 (above, holding the bag). That made both young men politically if not avionically well qualified for staring roles in the Air Mail drama. Major Fleet knew enough about the way Washington worked that he did not argue with their selection. So, after leaving instructions for the surreptitious removal of one particularly pernicious tree at the edge of Potomac Park, Fleet left for Long Island by train with what he judged were his five best pilots. Fleet left his sixth pilot, Lt. Boyle, behind in Washington to entertain the lovely Miss McChord, and presumably her father, Commissioner McChord, as well. Frankly, after having met him, that was the assignment for which Major Fleet figured Lt. Boyle was best qualified.
At the aerodrome inside the Belmont Park race track outside New York City, Major Fleet found his modified Jennys were waiting as promised – but still in their crates. The mechanics and pilots spent the next two days desperately lashing together the required six planes. Two first newly assembled Jennys were then flown to Philadelphia. The next two were made ready to fly from what they were now calling Belmont Field. And early on Wednesday, 15 May, the exhausted Major Fleet flew the last plane assembled (Number 38262) from Philadelphia to Washington, landing at Potomac Park at 10:35 a.m., with barely twenty-five minutes to spare before the 11:00 a.m. takeoff deadline, as per the previously released press release.
The makeshift airfield was filled with brass and political heavy weights. Franklin Roosevelt, the under-Secretary of the Navy, had arrived, as did the Postmaster General and the Secretary of the War. Fleet may have been hoping the President would be late. The previous day POTUS had rested his hand on a cannon barrel still hot from having fired a salute in his honor. But just after Major Fleet parked his Jenny, Woodrow Wilson drove up, left hand wrapped in a bandage.. But where was Lieutenant Boyle? Fleet had just about decided to take the flight himself when a voice from the crowd boomed out with disturbing confidence, “Never fear, because Boyle is here.”
Forward stepped the cocky young Lieutenant George Leroy Boyle (left), looking like a young Jay Leno, and followed by the lovely Margaret McChord, carrying a dozen roses she had gotten from somewhere. Boyle put on a brave face during the distribution of commemorative watches and nobly posed for official handshakes. Then , ignoring the photographers, Major Fleet attempted to coach Boyle on how to follow the railroad tracks north from Union Station. But the closer they got to take off time, 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 four 140 pound bags of First Class (24 cent) Air Mail had arrived.
The photographers were momentarily distracted, getting pictures of the bags being loaded into the Jenny. The noise and excitement did not 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 throw up 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, amid all the hoopla, not even the exhausted Fleet, had thought to refuel the plane.
Fuel was borrowed from some planes in the nearby U.S. Naval Yard field (which raises the question why the army was not using the Navy air field) and, 45 minutes late, Lt. Boyle's wings were turned his wings, and he roared down the open lawn. The crowd held its breath as he just 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. Right on schedule. But after waiting for Boyle in Philly for almost an hour, the New York bound Jenny took off without any mail and headed north. When it arrived on Long Island everyone there was so excited they forgot to ask where the mail was. But eventually somebody thought to ask "What happened to Lt. 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, even one taped to his own thigh. He mistakenly followed a branch line of railroad tracks for 20 miles to the southeast from Washington, the approximate opposite direction from New York City. By the time Lt. Boyle had realized his error, he had almost run out of gas. On crash landing near Waldorf, Maryland, the chastised Lt. Boyle did a ground loop, flipping his Jenny onto her top.
Boyles’ mailbags were eventually delivered to Philadelphia the next day by another pilot. And thankfully, in a swell of patriotism, the wartime press corps chose to bury the lead of the story. The failure to refuel the plane, and Boyles inability to read a map, went unmentioned. And that should have been the end of that. But the Postmaster General was not inclined to let the story or Lt. Boyle fade into the crowded grey pages of history. Instead the Postmaster General urged Major Fleet to give Boyle another chance.
Which is why, two days later, on Friday 17 May, 1918, Lt. Boyle took off from Washington, again. This time he was following another (more qualified) pilot, who guided the wandering pathfinder due north out of the national capital and up the four track wide main railroad line toward Philadelphia. Boyle faithfully followed the guide plane for fifty miles. But eventually the guide plane turned back. And that was when, finally alone in the air, headed in the right direction, somehow, someway, the dashing but incompetent Lt. Boyle managed to get turned around yet again. All he had to do was not turn. And yet that is exactly what he did. And evidently, he did so almost immediately after the guide plane left him. This time Boyle ended up flying for three hours and fifteen minutes the due south. Not only could he not read a map, he couldn't read a compass. Eventually he set his ship down successfully, safely, landing on Cape Charles, on the very Southeastern tip of Virginia, barely avoiding an excursion out over the open Atlantic only because he ran out of fuel first.
Determined not to fail this again, and having missed the Atlantic ocean by a hair's breath of petrol, Lt. Boyle bought gasoline out of his own pocket, got directions from a farmer, took off again and this time actually made it to Philadelphia. Well, close to Philadelphia. 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 it would appear that Lt. Boyd was such an incompetent pilot that he somehow managed to cause the man who replaced him to suffer five forced landings over the next three months. Whatever affliction Lt. Boyle was suffering from, it was contagious and he was a carrier.