by Paul R. Spitzzeri
After several years of experimentation, the United States Post Office Department (later U.S. Postal Service) inaugurated regular air mail delivery in spring 1918 using government aircraft and pilots. The initial craft utilized were biplanes, because, in the early days of flight, the lighter aircraft needed to sustain air transportation had to have two sets of wings.
The Contract Air Mail Act of 1925, also known as the Kelly Act after its sponsor in the House of Representatives, Clyde Kelly of Pennsylvania, mandated that air mail delivery had to be contracted to private commercial firms. This proved to be a landmark in the creation of a private airline industry in America.
The mid-1920s was also a period in which aviation standards and rules were becoming better codified, including the creation by President Calvin Coolidge of a commission, led by Charles Lindbergh’s father-in-law, to make suggestions towards a national aviation policy. This was followed by the passage of the important Air Commerce Act of 1926, which specified the federal regulation of air traffic rules.
At the same time, a federal highway system program was in the works, so the professionalization of transportation systems was a significant development during the Twenties.
With respect to the privatization of air mail delivery contracts, one early firm to win such a concession was Pacific Air Transport Company, whose route was from Los Angeles to Seattle. Established by Vern Gorst, the fledgling firm obtained six monoplanes (single wing) from Ryan Aircraft, an early leader in building airplanes, for the new route.
Today’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead collection is a press photograph with a caption dated 11 March 1926 showing a monoplane parked on a dirt landing strip, perhaps at San Diego where Ryan had its facility, though it could also have been taken at Los Angeles in preparation for a flight to the Pacific Northwest. A caption on the back added that the plane could acheive a top speed of about 100 mph and that there were two cockpits, one for the pilot and the other for the cargo.
A month prior, the Los Angeles Times reported on the new contract, stating that Gorst was also looking to establish a passenger service along the same route. At the time, Gorst, who was staying in town at the Biltmore Hotel, constructed a few years prior and now a historic hotel across from Pershing Square, was looking for firms in the east to build his craft, as well as getting the half-dozen planes from Ryan.
The paper noted that the Pacific Air deal meant there were three air lines terminating in Los Angeles, including ones to San Diego (for passenger service) and Salt Lake City (an upcoming mail line). Flight times were anticipated to take fifteen hours compared to fifty hours by rail and just under three hours by jet travel now. Return flights included a six-hour layover in San Francisco for the pilot to rest.
In addition to the Bay Area city, stops on the line included Bakersfield, Fresno, Medford and Portland. Pacific Air intended to use the Ryan Airlines passenger field at Western and 99th streets in South-Central Los Angeles, where Jesse Owens Park is situated now, “pending establishment of a municipal or government field here. The company was incorporated in Oregon with Gorst joined by associates from St. Joseph, Missouri and Los Angeles.
Once the craft were built, a series of test flights were conducted to determine the reliability of the planes and the viability of the route, with a major full route test held in July. Satisfied with the results, Pacific Air launched its inaugural flight on 15 September and it was deemed a success. However, two months later, a Pacific Air mail plane crashed in the Santa Monica Mountains above Hollywood and a passenger was killed. Later in November, a plane went down in bad weather near Bend, Oregon, though there were no injuries.
The early days of commercial aircraft were ones of significant risk and speculation and Pacific Air struggled financially, until banker William A. Patterson arranged a loan to save the firm and then arranged for its purchase by Boeing Airplane Company, which was not yet the huge firm it later became. In 1934, Patterson united Pacific Air, Boeing’s air transport company, and two others into what (surprise, surprise) was called United Airlines, a firm he guided into preeminence in the industry.