Temperatures plummeted from 98 degrees Sunday to only about 50 degrees on Wednesday, Sept. 9, as I sat in the coffee shop chatting with Sam Seafeldt, the airport manager at Lee Bird Field in North Platte.
The AirMail 100th Centennial Flight was expected at 1345 CDT, but, due to mechanical trouble with the first plane and storms in the Millard area, the plane’s arrival was now expected at 1722 CDT. This was nearly the same time the first air mail plane arrived at this field exactly 100 years ago, although Lee Bird field was not yet officially an air field until 1921.
Earlier, on my way in, I noticed a display case containing a worn leather jacket, a leather flight helmet, a set of goggles, a telegraph key, and a photo of a robust young airmail pioneer labeled “Jack Knight, First Night Flight Air Mail Pilot.”
After inspecting more photos and reading multiple placards around the airport lobby, it became apparent that Knight was a superstar pilot in the 1920s and 30s. One photo shows him standing on the wing of a DeHaviland (DH-4), a British bi-plane that was not only used in WWI, but was also the first American airmail plane. This was also the type of plane that Knight so often crashed — due to fog, darkness, or snow.
Knight said he always kept a list of farmers and their phone numbers on each route in case he crashed in their field and needed to get the sack of mail to the train as quickly as possible.
It turns out that as the “First Night Flight” pilot, he often flew in total darkness, on a clear night by the glint of the moon’s reflection on the Platte River, or sometimes by a fire in a barrel that a stranger lit on the ground out of kindness. Once he hiked several miles with the heavy bag of mail with a broken wrist and a broken ankle.
The AirMail100 Centennial flyers are a group of volunteer private airplane owners and pilots who spent Sept. 8–11 retracing the 15 segments of the original 1920 airmail route from Farmingdale, NY (on Long Island), to Concord, Calif. North Platte was the seventh stop of the relay, and on Thursday morning, the next crew departed Lee Bird Field for Cheyenne with a fresh bag of mail.
When the white Cessna 172 with blue, grey, and maroon markings landed and taxied to a stop near the small group of spectators, pilot David Ott and companion Erik Taylor disembarked. Ott, an airbus captain for a major airline, was originally a backup pilot for AirMail100. When the original plane had trouble at the airport in Millard, he was called upon to make the flight. And what about Taylor, a letter carrier?
“I had promised him a flight for a long time,” Ott grinned sheepishly.
Although small airplanes no longer use a relay method to get mail from one side of the country to the other, each plane on the centennial flight collected a mail bag from youth organizations along the route. Five thousand commemorative postcards were distributed beforehand, and these were carefully handwritten and brought to the airports along the way to be airmailed to loved ones.
Jack and Evan Condon, ages 10 and 8 respectively, were on hand in their Scout uniforms to help deliver the postcards. Jack said that he “felt happy and excited about writing the cards. My uncle in California loves transportation.”
He also has a “pen pal named Mary who is in her 70s. I really like to write to her, but I do prefer typing.”
Evan thought that it was “pretty cool,” because he has some people that he “hasn’t seen in a long time,” like his friend Lane who moved to Kentucky.
Planes have become much safer since 1920, instrument panels are more high-tech, and pilots do not need to fly by the light of the moon or burning barrels.
There was a definite nobility to the Air100 mission, and it was evident on the faces of the men who stepped onto the tarmac Wednesday. Taylor was even wearing his U.S. Postal Service jacket.
As the saying goes, “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”
In this case, neither a cold snap nor an airplane breakdown, either.