Lambert: Turk Bird and Frank Tower — Plainfield’s Aviation Pioneers
Part two in the series on the Plainfield pilot and the village's ties to the beginnings of the U.S. Post Office's air mail service.
Is it true that the establishment of the United States Post Office’s air mail service is tied to Plainfield, Illinois?
Intrigued by the delivery speed that was possible with mail transported by “aeroplane,” the United States Post Office Department, authorized its first experimental mail flight in 1911 at an aviation festival on Long Island in New York. During the next two years, the department authorized 52 experimental flights at fairs, carnivals and air meets in more than 25 states.
The experimental flights convinced the department that the airplane could carry a payload of mail. Advocating the efficiency and speed of air mail service, the Post Office Department repeatedly urged Congress to appropriate funding of the program.
Congress finally authorized the use of $50,000 from steam-and-powerboat service appropriations for airmail experiments in 1916. Air mail delivery was initiated in May 1918 with the establishment of the United States Army Air Service (USASS). The first air mail route was established between Washington, DC, and New York City.
During 1918, the post office hired 40 pilots. In its first year of operation, the post office completed 1,208 airmail flights. Of those flights, only 53 flights were cancelled on the account of weather conditions and 37 flights were uncompleted due to engine failure.
Initially, the largest air mail customers were banking organizations. Utilizing air mail to send checks and financial papers more quickly, bankers sought to reduce the float time of checks and pushed for an extension of routes.
However, the American public did not send much mail by air because airmail stamps cost more than stamps for mail sent by train.
When the post office charged a price that was high enough to cover its costs, people refused to send mail by air. In July 1918, the government tried to encourage the use of air mail by reducing the price of airmail stamps from 24 cents to 16 cents. Cheaper stamps meant less revenue to operate the air mail service. Financial records prove that 1918 was the first and last time that air mail delivery made a profit.
By 1920, the post office air mail service had delivered approximately 49 million letters.
Plainfield’s Aviation Pioneers
In August 1918, the experimental air mail service was transferred from the United States Army Air Service (USASS) to the United States Post Office Department. Benjamin B. Lipsner, who left the USAAS, was selected to head the civilian-operated Air Mail Service.
Lipsner was not a pilot, but was a mechanic who had, years earlier, perfected his trade as an auto mechanic in Chicago.
One of Lipsner's first acts was to hire four pilots, each with at least 1,000 hours flying experience, paying them an average of $4,000 per year. One of the first four pilots hired by Lipsner was his old auto-racing friend from Chicago and Plainfield native: Eddie Gardner.
According to Lipsner’s own records, Gardner was the highest paid of the first pilots, earning an annual salary of $5,000. Gardner flew his first air mail service flight on August 5, 1918.
During Lipsner’s tenure, the post office department abandoned the original airfield at the Washington, DC, polo grounds. Operations were moved to the larger airfield at College Park, Maryland.
There, Frank Tower (b. Dec 1885) was appointed chief mechanic for the fledgling air mail fleet. Tower supervised the maintenance of 15 planes; each plane was serviced by an eight-man maintenance crew. Prior to his appointment, Frank had also been a chauffeur in Chicago, where he had become acquainted with Benjamin Lipsner. Another of Plainfield’s native sons, Frank was the oldest son of George and Minnie Tower and a close friend of Eddie Gardner since childhood.
Frank Tower oversaw a fleet of World War I surplus aircraft, including the de Havilland DH-4 and the Standard Aircraft Company’s JR-1B. The de Havilland airplane proved too flimsy for lengthy cross-country flights. The post office also bought the German-made, all-metal Junkers F 13, which it renamed the J.L.6. Unfortunately, the German-made planes proved extremely dangerous and were removed from service after several pilots were killed in fiery crashes.
The Beginning of Cross Country Air Mail Delivery
Benjamin B. Lipsner wanted to expand service to Chicago for several reasons. The Chicago region had large commercial markets, political importance, heavy mail volume and Lipsner, himself, was a native Chicagoan.
Postal officials agreed to Lipsner's request for test flights from New York to Chicago, but stipulated that the distance had to be achieved by plane in less than ten hours. If the flight took more than ten hours, then mail could be transported by train more efficiently. Lipsner’s plan was to establish coast-to-coast air delivery service, but the establishment of the New York to Chicago route was the first step. Among the challenges of this route were the Allegheny Mountains, considered by some to be the most dangerous territory on the course.
For the flight, Lipsner asked his two best pilots to make separate journeys: Eddie Gardner and Max Miller.
The attempt was scheduled for Sept. 5, 1918, exactly one month after Gardner’s initial air mail flight.Each pilot would fly with his mechanic with one pilot beginning before the other. Miller flew in a Standard airplane powered by a 150-horsepower Hispano-Suiza engine. Gardner followed a short time later in a Curtiss R-4 powered by a 400-horsepower Liberty engine.
Neither pilot managed to finish their trip in the course of a single day as hoped. Both pilots’ planes were plagued with mechanical problems. Landing first, Miller arrived to a cheering crowd gathered at Grant Park, at 6:55 p.m. on Sept. 6, 1918. Gardner arrived the next morning, landing at 8:17 a.m. Miller and Gardner were instantaneous celebrities and, for several nights, were honored guests at numerous parties throughout Chicago.
The experiment was considered successful to a limited degree. However, the race would continue with the return flights from Chicago to New York a few days later.
Next Column: Memorialized on Canvas: An Artist’s Tribute to Turk Bird
Have a question about Plainfield’s history? Send your inquiries to Michael Lambert via Plainfield Patch.
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