The Story of Air Mail Pick-Up

Story by M. Charles Pyles

My interest in the Pick-up really began when I was invited to attend a meeting of the AM49er's Club in Pittsburgh many years ago. I had the honor to be among the men and women who made the Pick-up a success and call them my friends

Jennings Randolph (Longtime Congressman) and I share the same hometown of Elkins, WV. The last time I visited with him, he wanted to make sure nobody forgot that he was the "Legislative Father" of the Air Mail Pick-up service. This story will help modern historians get a feel for that era. Congressman Randolph shared the story with me and now I get to share it with you.

The Air Mail pick-up service was designed to bring those of us from small towns in the USA a chance to learn of the outside world a little faster because:

  1. The major airlines at the time planned their routes between cities between 150-250 miles apart and sometimes as far as 700 miles apart. The communities that would be served by Triple A were only 17.5 miles apart on average. Some of them were closer than that..

  2. Major airlines didn't want to make landings more often than one to one and a half hours. Triple A on the other hand had stations as close as 5 to 22 minutes apart.

  3. Major airline schedules called for speeds averaging 155 m.p.h. while the speed of the Pick-up service averaged a scheduled speed of 110 m.p.h. never cruising at speeds over 140 m.p.h.

The secret of All American's success was the fact they never stopped while serving the small communities along the route. When a community had no airport to erect one of the portable pick-up stations, arrangements were often made with farmers or parks on a hilltop or even the peak of a mountain. (In 1984 I attended the Air Mail Flyers Fly-in on one of these mountains near State College, PA) .

Triple A made it possible for communities where conventional landplanes could not operate to have an efficient and fast means of communicating with the rest of the world. At this time there were 4,000 cities in the United States with populations of 5,000 or less and only 210 of them had direct mail service over an established system. All American Aviation filled the gap.

The Stock Market collapse in 1929 snuffed out the light that had been lit by Dr. Lytle Schuyler Adams temporarily. Dr. Adams, a dental surgeon was introduced to aviation when he flew with Glenn Curtiss in California sometime in the early 20's. A prolific inventor, Dr. Adams began spending money on an idea for the pick-up around 1924. By 1927, he had erected his first full size working model which he demonstrated to officials in Washington. The demonstration took place between the Leviatihan and New York City which made it the first ship to shore of the air mail. Adams had his financing in place to inaugurate the service but the Market collapse destroyed that dream.

Not one to be denied, Adams stepped away from his dental surgery so he could continue to demonstrate his system. He was able to do this in 1933 for the post in Washington and then at the Chicago World's Fair. Neither demonstration netted him a contract.

Adams was somewhat discouraged, but Congressman Randolph met with him in his office at Washington, D.C. in 1935. Adams carried with him a letter from W. P. Wilson of Wheeling, WV. Wilson was board chairman for the Fokker Airplane Corporation and knew of Randolph's interest in expanding the air mail system. Adams was allowed to do another demonstration for Randolph (this time) and after Congressman Randolph went over the material given him by Adams, the implications of the idea piqued his imagination.

At a time when less than 200 cities were receiving air mail, Randolph realized that now there were 15,000 cities considered 1st, 2nd and 3rd class post offices and around 30,000 4th class facilities. He reasoned that most of these should have air mail service. Randolph's colleagues began to share his new found enthusiasm and finally in April, 1938 authorized the post office to begin experiments.

The authorizations didn't provide funds though and Randolph told me that he introduced an amendment to the post office appropriations bill which in turn earmarked $100,000.00 for the experiments. This led up to the department laying out the routes and putting them out for bid.

Doc Adams' invention made it possible for the inbound plane to drop a bag of mail and make a pick-up of outbound mail simultaneously. The airplane would approach the pick-up station described earlier at 90 to 125 m.p.h. and swoop down between the 36 foot high poles spaced only 60 feet apart and grab the line with a hook from between the poles.

Almost any type airplane could be used, but All American had 5 Stinson SR-10C Reliants specially equipped with330 h.p. Wright engines. The pilot had a flying mechanic in the back to reel in the bag of mail after pick-up was made. I 'm very pleased to share with you that Vic Yesulaites who reeled in the very first bag of mail was my friend.

By the time Congress appropriated funds for the airmail, Dr. Adams had organized Tri-State Aviation Corporation carrying packages from his Wheeling base down to cities including Fairmont, WV for department stores headquartered in Pittsburgh and Baltimore.  25 cities were served by Tri-State.

All American Aviation was also formed by Dr. Adams and by the time Congress authorized the pick-up, famed glider pilot Richard duPont had invested in and and became president of All American. The duPont investment enabled the operation which became a huge success even after the tragic death of duPont in a glider accident in 1943.

How does all this relate to CAHS? Here's a newspaper story for  you:

New Non-Stop Service Would Benefit Smaller Cities and Towns in State

Cincinnati Post Story April 15, 1941

Cincinnati will become a terminal point for a pick-up air mail service to cities and towns throughout Ohio if the Civil Aeronautics Board approves applications filed at Washington Tuesday by the All American Aviation Co., Wilmington, Del.

The pick-up service does not require a landing, the company's planes swooping down over a field and picking up the mail sacks while in flight.

No word of the proposed service has been received by officials locally. However, an official of the American Airlines said the pick-up service would not interfere with its air mail contract here.

Other terminals of the proposed service would be at Columbus, Buffalo and Pittsburgh. The company asked to extend its service to 32 other Ohio cities and towns as follows: Youngstown, Delaware, Marion, Bucyrus, Galion, Mansfield, Lancaster, Circleville, Chillicothe, Washington Court House, Newark, Zanesville, Cambridge, Coshocton, New Philadelphia, Dover, Carrollton, East Liverpool, Xenia, Middletown, Hamilton, Niles, Warren, Ravenna, Salem, Alliance, Canton, Massillon, Wilmington and Wooster.

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