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R.E.G. Davies ( Ron Davies )  Smithsonian Institution, Washington                                                     source    
R.E.G. Davies also wrote on  the French company AEROPOSTALE  (text translated into French)


 


The Birth of Commercial Aviation in the United States

 A Question of Definition 
 A Question of Record-Keeping
 The World's First Airline
 Restricted Opportunities 
 The United States Air Mail Service  
 The Lighted Airway
 The Foreign Air Mail Contractors  
 The First Post- War Passenger Airline    
 The Route To Avalon  
 Aero Limited  
 Aeromarine   
 They Also Flew 
 Hiatus 
Setting the Table


 Map: the earliest air routes in the United States  
 Table: US airlines 1914-1925  





A Question of Definition   
Every few years, one of the leading United States domestic airlines -United, American, Delta or TWA, for example- will celebrate an anniversary of its birth and customarily will trace its history back to an ancestor airline, and claim to be the oldest airline in the United States. They can all make a reason ablecl aim. United, for example, habitually points to Varney Air Lines, which started operations on 6 April 1926; American goes back almost as far, with Robertson Aircraft Corporation, which started on 15 April; while TWA and Delta both claim Western Air Express's 17 April date for their claim to firstliness. United's claim is a little weak, as Varney only made one flight on 6 April, and operations were not resumed for another three weeks. Delta's claim is because it bought Western Air Lines, WAE's descendant, in recent years.
Another claim is made by Northwest Airlines, which took over the operations of another air mail contractor which had started on 7 June 1926. All these airlines have valid claims to early pioneering, and each claim is valid, provided the necessary adjectives are used to ensure strict historical accuracy. Without detracting from these worthy claims for recognition, the term old est is often, unfortunately, confused with first; so that the general impression is that all the airlines of the USA were years behind Europe, Australia, South America, and Japan -even darkest Africa- in starting air transport operations as a commercial venture. This could not be further from the truth. Many air lines in the United States had existed, even for a brief period flourished, before 1926, and this does not even include the splendid Post Office Air Mail Service. This organization served the nation from 1919 to 1927, establishing a commendable record and building up a fund of experience. It was able to pass on many hard-won lessons for future operators before the decisive govern mental decisions of 1925 (The Air Mail Act) and 1926 (the Air Commerce Act) established the formula by which the air mail was carried by independent companies under contract to the us Post Office.


A Question of Record-Keeping 
One reason why the annals of the pre- 1926 airlines have not been handeddown for posterity is simply because of a possibly unintentional accident by an administration that was confronted with an entirely new form of transport and technology, and of which no authority, official or otherwise, had been charged to keep records. Before 1926, the pioneering operators did not have to comply with established federal regulations and were responsible mainly to local authorities. Thus, no records were apparently kept in Washington. Since 1926, however, almost without exception, published records have drawn on government archives for source material. These invariably begin with the Department of Commerce, Aeronautics Branch's Bulletin Number 1, published by the Department on 15 March 1928. This was only 15 months after the first Air Commerce regulations came into force on 31 December 1926. The document reviewed the course of commercial aviation up to that time, and included some statistics, especially about the Post Office air mail. In Bulletin No. 1, Table 6 was a "Chronology of Air Transport" beginning with the transcontinental air mail route, and it included the first contract air mail routes awarded under the "Kelly" Air Mail Act of 1925. But it also stated (or admitted) that "Previous short-time post office and
commercial lines have not been included". The reason for this was not ex plained, or defended. This was a remarkable statement. For there had been several examples of airline enterprise during the previous years; and one of them, Aeromarine, had received some prominence, not only in Florida, where its activity was considerable, but also in the New York, New Jersey, and Great Lakes areas; while in California, other operations had attracted much attention, and these should have been noted by the Commerce Department. Oddly, no credit was given to Aeromarine for having started the first for eign air mail service in 1920, and the numerical precedence, FAM-1 (Foreign Air Mail No. 1) was given to Colonial Air Transport, which did not start until 1926. Furthermore, the original Key West-Havana Aeromarine route (see details below) was seemingly forgotten and a new FAM-4 was awarded on the same route to the new Pan American Airways. The reasons for this apparent lapse of record-keeping may never be known. The Department of Commerce must have known about aviation activities that had occurred during the five years or so preceding the publication of the report; yet it chose not to publish the record of what was then a chronicle of events of recent memory. This work was left to subsequent historians, manydecades later, to fill in the details.


The World's First Airline 
Strangely, the right to claim, with justifiable pride, that the first commercial airline in the world was in the United States was ignored by the Commerce Department. If any federal agency was involved, it certainly made no overt gesture at the time; but this may have been because in 1914, communications were slow, and the news may not have filtered through to Washington. Unnoticed by the federal authorities, the initiative was taken by a far-sighted engineer, Percival Fansler, who recognized the potential of an airplane in crossing a stretch of water that was within the capability of an airplane at that time, only ten years after the Wright brothers had first demonstrated how to fly and to guide a heavier-than-air-machine. One such stretch was in Florida. Tampa Bay separated -by about 18 miles- the cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg, the latter adjacent to other fast-growing communities (see map). The then-current choice of travel was a two-hour boat trip or a circuitous rail or road journey that could take up to 12 hours.
The St. Petersburg- Tampa Airboat Line was founded on 4 December 1913. On 13 December, Fansler signed a contract with the city of St. Petersburg for a subsidy guarantee of $50 per day during the month of January 1914 and $25 for each of the two following months. On 17 December, Fansler signed a contract with Thomas Benoist, a prominent airplane constructor from St. Louis, to supply the aircraft. This soon arrived by freight train, was hastily assembled,and was ready for service on 31 December 1913.
The first flight on the next day from St. Petersburg to Tampa was truly historic. The pilot was Tony Jannus, a famous airman in his day, who had already attracted attention with notable distance flights, and who, had he lived, might have become one of the world's most famous aviators. The first passenger was A.C. Pheil, the former mayor of St. Petersburg, who paid $ 400 for the privilege - a substantial sum of money in those days, worth the equivalent of perhaps $5,000 today. Subsequently, other passengers paid only $5 for the single passenger trip, or the same amount for 100 lb of freight.
The Airboat Line settled down to a regular timetable of two round trips per day, taking, on average, about 20-25 minutes each way, depending on the wind. It was able to repay the municipal subsidy after the first month, and it paid its own way during February and March. When the contract with the city expired on 31 March 1914, the world's first airline had carried 1,204 passengers without mishap. Bad weather and mechanical breakdowns had forced cancellations on only eight days. The service ended during the early days of March, although sporadic flights were made until April. Many of the passengers had been vacationers from the Northeast, and, like migrating birds, had gone back home after the worst of the New York winter weather had passed.
Sadly, two of the leading participants in this pioneering enterprise did not survive long enough to try to repeat the experiment, either in Florida or else where. Tom Benoist was killed in a street car accident in St. Louis in 1917. Tony Jannus disappeared over the Black Sea in 1918, while training Russian pilots toward the end of the First World War. His brother Roger, who had also come down to Florida to share flying duties with the Airboat Line, was also killed on the Western Front of that war Meanwhile, another contemporary air transport event was taking place, in faraway Russia, where the great designer Igor Sikorsky was building his fourengined transport airplanes. In July 1914, the Il'ya Muromets made an historic flight, carrying a crew of four, over a distance of 660 miles. By an astonishing coincidence, that flight took off, bound for Kiev, from the Russian city of the same name as the Airboat Line's origin: St. Petersburg.



Although never published as an airline schedule, this advertisement shows a regular
timetable of morning and afternoon round trips on a daily basis, in January 1914



Restricted Opportunities 
After 1914, no records of any kind have been found of any commercial application for the use of airplanes in the United States until the latter months of the Great War of 1914-18. The USA did not enter the War until 1917, but events in Europe undoubtedly influenced its affairs; and in spite of the aeronautical progress made by the Wrights, Glenn Curtiss, Tom Benoist, Glenn Martin, and others, far more advances were being made in Europe, especially in France.
The impetus or stimulation for air travel was also absent. The aircraft of the period up to the latter years of the War lacked both speed and range - they flew typically at about 80 mph (130 kph), and after about 200 miles (300 kilometers) usually had to land to refuel. They were unreliable, often even dangerous, and could not fly in bad weather nor land or take off from wet fields. Above all, they were very still small, the pilots (even hardy passengers) were exposed to the elements as there were no closed cabins, and therefore to take a flight in an airplane was very much an adventure. As a means of transport, therefore, they could not compete with what was then the world's most highly developed railroad system. One exception was in the carriage of mail, because the mail did not demand comfort; and if an organization such as the Post Office could organize the ground installations, the airplane could comp ete with the train.
On the other hand, the airplane could demonstrate that it could compete, by all those measures, speed and range, even reliability, over short water distances, where the competition was restricted to waterborne craft, ships or ferry-boats, which were relatively slow, and just as vulnerable to bad weather conditions. Consequently, Percy Fansler's perception in 1914 in recognizing the need across Tampa Bay was, consciously by example, or simply because "great minds think alike", echoed in 1919, after the Great War had come to an end, and ideas for putting airplanes to work for peaceful, rather than military means, were explored.


The United States Air Mail Service 
Because of the Great War, the general attitude in America towards aeroplanes was that they were dangerous. The exploits of the intrepid air force aviators, high-lighted by thrilling tales of dog-fights, equated aircraft almost to the category of weaponry. Returning home, the airmen put their skills to work by performing dangerous  acrobatics and circus-like stunts in what became known as barnstorming tours. They even emphasized the dangers of flying by their efforts in death-defying performances. The public, therefore, was skeptical of flying as a means of transport, especially as the railroad services were safe, reliable, and comfortable, none of which qualities could at that time be applied to aeroplanes.
The United States Post Office, however, recognized the possibility of carrying mail by aeroplane, as a significant saving in time could be demonstrated, even though a Curtiss Jenny, for example, could only cruise at about 80 mph (120 kph). Accordingly, late in 1917, the Post Office requested bids for the construction of mailplanes, and accepted them on 21 February 1918. To speed up the inauguration, the Army Air Corps cooperated by supplying aircraft and aircrew, and at noon on 13 May 1918, President Wilson presided over an opening ceremony in Washington to launch the air mail service to New York. In the northbound direction, the pilot lost his way, but the southbound plane arrived after a flight of 3 hr. 20 min. for the 230 miles flown, via Philadelphia.
On 12 August, the Post Office took over, under the command of Capt. Benjamin B. Lipsner, who resigned from the Army to organize the operation, using Standard JR-lB single-engined biplanes. The Washington terminus was moved from the Polo Grounds to the suburban College Park (still in use as the oldest operational airfield in the world). The mail rate was 24 cents per ounce, compared to 3 cents for the ordinary deliveries. But the time saved was not substantial and the service did not prosper.
Nevertheless this Washington-Philadelphia-New York service served as a training ground for a more ambitious project, no less than a 2,400-mile transcontinental air mail service. Late in 1918, the Post Office acquired 100 war surplus de Havilland DH-4 light bombers, converted to mail planes. The first transcontinental segment, Chicago-Cleveland, opened on 15 May 1919, saving 16 hours over the trains. New York-Cleveland followed on 1 July, and meanwhile in the west, San Francisco-Sacramento opened on 31 July. Chicago-Omaha followed on 15 May 1920, and finally the complete transcontinental link was forged on 8 September of that year. Even though the aircraft averaged only 80 mph (130 kph) the air mail saved 22 hours, or the equivalent of a whole day, over the rail journey.
Further improvements were made. Aircraft had flown during the daytime, and shuttled back and forth on allocated segments of the whole route, with mail sacks transferred at each interchange station. Then, on 22 February 1921, with some heroics by the several pilots involved, the mail was flown by day and night, for a total elapsed time of 33 hr. 20 min.


The Lighted Airway 
A prominent aviation executive in the late 1920s was later to state "90 % of aviation is on the ground". The air mail pilots of 1918-1922 could have vouched for this revelation. The fatality rate was high, not least because of the slogan "the mail must go through", which led many pilots to risk their lives by attempting to fly blindly in bad weather and poor visibility with aircraft whose single engine was unreliable. An engine failure often resulted in an unnecessary death.
A vast improvement was made in the summer of 1922, when the Post Office took over the night-flying system that had been developed by the Army between Dayton and Colombus. This was a series of high-powered beacons, at the airfields, emergency fields, and especially at locations along the route. These combined to provide the pilots with a system that was the equivalent of a well-lit city boulevard. The pilots simply had to follow the lights that could often be seen for 60 or more miles (100 km) ahead.
Regular night mail services began on 1 July 1924, and the transcontinental schedule of an average of about 32 hours saved two or three days over the rail service. The lighted airway was completed coast-to-coast by the end of 1925; and few would quarrel with Dr. Edward P. Warner's claim that this was the greatest of all American contributions to the technique of air transport operations.
The Post Office continued its pioneering work, introducing better aircraft, notably the Douglas M-4, after experimenting with many other types. Fiftyone Douglases were added to the fleet of 96 DH-4s, an indication of the magnitude of the US Air Mail service. In 1926, it carried 14 million air mail letters, with a regularity of 94 percent.
The Post Office had never intended to operate the air mail permanently, and its success went far beyond its initial expectations. Eventually, it had to accept the reality that it was not an air operator. There were also political undertones in a country which regarded government control in areas of potential free enterprise with grave suspicion. Consequently, after a fine record of meritorious achievement, the Post Office air mail routes were transferred to private contractors after the passing of the Air Mail Act of 1925 (the "Kelly" Act). The last bag of mail flown by the US Post Office in its own aircraft was from New York to Chicago on 31 August 1927, by which time the air mail rate was 10 cents per half ounce, regardless of distance.


The Foreign Air Mail Contractors 
In addition to its sterling work in pioneering the air mail services in the USA, the United States Post Office can take credit for recognizing too the advantages of using the aeroplane to fly short over-water routes, where the competition was from slow-moving ships rather than fast trains. It identified opportunities where this would be to the greatest advantage, and contracted with operators of floatplanes or flying boats to save precious air mail time.
The first contract was with Florida West Indies Airways, Inc., based at Key West, to fly the mail to Cuba. The distance to Havana was 90 miles, well within the scope of the contemporary aircraft types available. The contract was issued on 15 October 1920, but there is no record of Florida West Indies ever using it. Aeromarine Airways (see below) purchased the company, which for a short time was known as Aeromarine West Indies Airways. At that time, travel to Cuba was much easier than it is today. US citizens did not even need to carry a passport.
Interestingly, in 1926, Foreign Air Mail Contract N1 (FAM 1) was allocated to Colonial Air Transport; while Pan American Airways resumed air mail service, under a new contract, on the Key West-Havana route, as FAM 4. For some reason, the original contract to Florida West Indies, subsequently Aeromarine, was ignored or deleted from the records.
The second foreign air mail contract, designated FAM-2, went to Edward Hubbard, an experimental pilot working for the Boeing Airplane Company in Seattle. Operating as the Seattle- Victoria Air Mail Line, Hubbard flew small Boeing floatplanes from Lake Union, in Seattle, to Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. Service began along Puget Sound on 15 October 1920. In this case, the objective was not to improve the time between Seattle and Victoria, per se, but to save a whole day in the carriage of the trans-Pacific air mails. Hubbard met the Japanese ocean liner Africa Maru, and transferred United Statesbound mail swiftly into US Post Office hands. Under various ownerships, this foreign air mail route continued until 30 June 1937.
FAM-3 was somewhat similar to Hubbard's operation, in that it combined with a shipping ligne to speed up the mails. The Gulf Coast Airline was founded by a veteran air mail pilot, Merrill Riddick, to fly the mails from New Orleans, down the Mississippi River, to Pilottown, right at the mouth of the river delta. There it met the ships that crossed the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, in a similar manner to Hubbard's. Curiously, although classed as a foreign air mail contract, Merrill Riddick's HS-2l flying boats never left the United States. Riddick gave up the route, which was always a precarious operation, and it fell into disuse in the early 1930s.


The First Post- War Passenger Airline 
In the United States, new ideas were always welcomed. Americans grow up with the spirit of free enterprise inoculated into their bloodstream. They follow in the tradition of Thomas Edison, who began his career by selling news papers. When aeroplanes became available and could demonstrate the capability of carrying even a small load, many aspirant operators came forward. Like the Post Office, they realized that the best opportunity was to operatewater-borne craft over short stretches, ideally to offshore islands. The St. Petersburg- Tampa Airboat line, described above, was a perfect example of this approach; but it lasted for only a few months.
Two years after the Florida airline's demise, Rodman Wanamaker, owner of a New York department store, sponsored the construction of a flying boat, the Curtiss H-16, with the ambitious objective of flying across the Atlantic Ocean. In 1916, he formed the America Trans-Oceanic Company, but was frustrated by the participation of the United States in the Great War of 1914-18. But towards the end of 1918, or possibly early in 1919, some flights were made between New York and Atlantic City, a seaside resort town, and also some local flights in Florida.
Great care must be taken over the question of definition as to what constitutes an airline. Does a series of flights, flown only on demand, or occasionally or on only one route, qualify the operator as an airline? And for how long does the operation have to be sustained? In this review, such criteria have been carefully considered, with the conclusion that the operation should have been sustained for at least a few months, and that, preferably, a timetable should have been published.
By these criteria, the claim for recognition by the America Trans-Oceanic Company is marginal. But records show that, on 20 December 1919, it cooperated with the Bimini (Bay Rod and Gun) Club and Bahama Development Company to start services from Miami to the Bahamian islands. The H-16 flying boat was introduced on 24 February 1920, with regular services over the 50-mile route. It departed at 1 1 a.m. and returned at 4 p.m. - an attractive day trip for thirsty Americans who were suffering from the Prohibition Act, effective since 30 June 1919.
This rather cavalier operation was maintained during two winter seasons and was abandoned in the spring of 1921, possibly because of the strong comp etition from Aeromarine which, as will be described below, was a giant of its time.


The Route To Avalon 
Over the west coast, in California, one of the most popular resorts was the community of Avalon, on Catalina Island, 34 miles from the port of Los Angeles. Ferry-boats carried holiday-makers by the thousand to enjoy the pleasures of the island, which included a casino. On 4 July 1919, the boats were joined by a small airline operation, started by none other than Syd Chaplin, elder brother of the famous Charlie Chaplin. Using a Curtiss MF flying boat, the Chaplin Air Line maintained three round trips per day between San Pedro and Avalon until 15 September. The pilot, Art Burns, tried to keep the service going but had to give up after a few more months.
A year later, another entrepreneur recognized the business potential of the Catalina Island air route. Foster Curry, who had developed the vacation resort at Yosemite National Park, organized Pacific Marine Airways, late in 1920, using Curtiss HS-2L flying boats. This improved version of the MF was known - rather improbably - as the "flying limousine", and the operation was so successful that it was taken over by the air mail contract carrier, Western Air Express, on 29 June 1928. This route has the distinction of having been operated almost continuously, by various airlines, right up to the present day.


Aero Limited 
Among the various early airlines, each one of which can make some kind of claim for a place in aviation history, this short-lived company can probably be credited with publishing the first timetable or airline schedule in the United States. Aero Limited, based in New York, with a few war-surplus Curtiss HS-2l flying boats, began service to Atlantic City on 26 July 1919. Later in the year, as winter chilled the northeastern states, it moved south to join America Transoceanic to help relieve parched throats by flying to the Bahamas. But the operation was short-lived. In March 1922, the Miss Miami Curtiss boat crashed into the sea near Bimini, with a loss of lives; and its routes, if not the airline itself, was taken over by Aeromarine.


Aeromarine 
As mentioned above, here was a giant among pygmies. Whereas all the small companies tried their luck with just a handful of aircraft, usually operated just one route, and were so poorly capitalized that they lasted only a summer season or two, Aeromarine Airways, Inc. was all the things that the others were not. It had an airline fleet that, even a decade later, would have been impressive; it operated quite a number of routes with a good record of reliability; it was well financed; and it lasted for three years.
It was founded by Inglis M. Uppercu, a New York car dealer who had entered the aircraft manufacturing business during the Great War, with a factory at Keyport, New Jersey, building small flying boats for the US Navy. The Aeromarine Plane and Motor Corporation was a solid business, and Uppercu was a highly respected member of the aeronautical establishment of the time. At the war's end, he purchased some ex-Navy Curtiss HS-2L flying boats, and started airline operations in the summer of 1919, as the Aeromarine Sightseeinangd N avigation Company, based on the Hudson River at 86th Street, New York. The Curtiss boats had three open cockpits, one for the pilot, two for the passengers; the first-class luxury model had transparent hoods.
Uppercu's most important decision was, later in 1919, to acquire a fleet of large Curtiss F-5l (H-16 or Curtiss Type 75) flying boats. Unlike all the small single-engined flying boats, these were large machines. They had two 330-horsepower Liberty engines and could carry 14 passengers in comfort in a complete enclosed cabin that would not have been out of place if operated ten years later by Pan American Airways.
The first commercial F-5L was christened Santa Maria on the Hudson River on 22 June 1920 - almost exactly a year after the passing of the ProhibitioAnct . It was flown southward immediately and was soon joined by a sister ship, the Pinta, on 23 October. Others followed and these attractive flying boats soon established themselves as the link between Florida and the bars of Havana and Nassau; and Aeromarine consolidated its position by acquiring Florida West Indies Airways (see above) and with it, the mail contract to Cuba; and it took over the service of Aero Limited. For the next three years, Aeromarine dominated the airline industry of the United States. In those years, regulation from Washington was little more than an unsupervised paper exercise, with little direct control over matters of navigation or safety. Uppercu's chief pilot, Ed Musick (other well-known pilots flying the lines were CJ. Zimmerman and Durston Richardson) later admitted that he had indulged in bootlegging activities. Some flights were made between New York and Florida, to become known as The High-Ball Express -named after a well-known alcoholic concoction.
These episodes aside, however, Aeromarine compiled a record of airline services that was a truly admirable aeronautical achievement. It overcame the operational hazards of inclement weather by flying in the New York and Great Lakes area in the summer, and in Florida and the Carribean during the winter. A Detroit-Cleveland service began across Lake Erie on 1 June 1922, and was known as the Ninety Minute Line by the appreciative locals, as even though the fares were high, it avoided a tedious land journey via Toledo.
By 1923, Inglis Uppercu had invested an estimated $500,000 in Aeromarine, and because of the high operating costs, there was little prospect of turning a profit, even though the fares were high. The US Post Office terminated its contract on 31 March 1923, and by this time, experience had shown that the air mail revenues did not cover the costs of carrying them. Also, a good safety record had been marred by the crash in the sea near Havana of the good ship Colombus, on 13 January 1923. Altogether, it had been a disappointing year, and Uppercu finally faced the financial realities and terminated all operations in September.
By any standards of the 1920s, Aeromarine's service record was commendable and its operation should have served (and may possibly have actually served) as an example of how to operate an airline in those embryo years of the air transport industry. It carried about 17,000 passengers on scheduled services and possibly as many again on charter and sightseeing flights. At its peak period, 1922, it had six of the large Curtiss F-5Ls (11-14 seats), seven Curtiss HS-2LS (5seats), and three Aeromarine types (3 seats). Compared to other operators of its time, its safety record was excellent, although not 100% perfect. Six years were to pass before any us airline carried more passengers in one year than Aeromarine's 9,200 in 1921-1922. This airline has never been given the full recognition that it deserved, and Inglis Uppercu should have been honored as one of the founders of the US industry that was to develop and in a few short years to dominate the airline world.












These were the earliest air routes
in the United States. The first
airline was the St. Petersburg-
Tampa Air Boat Line of 1914.
The first foreign air mail
contractor to operate was
Aeromarine from Key West
to Havana, in 1920 (Aeromarine
operations underlined). The
first overland route was Ryan
in 1925.







They Also Flew 
As mentioned, before 1926, when the Air Mail Act resulted in official recognitioinn Washington, and the Air Commerce Act of 1926 introduced regulations, standards, and statistical record-keeping, no historical chronicle was kept. Researchers and historians have had to depend on fragmented sources, including newspaper accounts that were often the only notices of aviation activity. The word "airline" was not in common use, or it was sometimes misused. Some mention should be made, however, of a few other attempts to put the newly-invented aeroplane to commercial use.
During the summer of 1922, Grover Loening, an early aircraft manufacturearnd something of a socialite, launched the New York - Newport Air Service, Inc., using three Loening 23L Air Yachts to carry socially and financially prominent people to the fashionable Rhode Island port. The Air Yachts carried four passengers per trip at a $30.00 single fare - a high price and enough to discourage mass travel. Early in 1923, an Air Yacht crashed and the operation ended.
Serving a similar clientele, but with different purpose, Balsam's Air Service provided a newspaper delivery service from Garden City, Long Island to Dixville Notch, a New Hampshire summer resort, no doubt to bring news of the latest stock prices. Three Curtiss Orioles flew the 350-mile distance in about four hours, saving at least one day, and often two, over the surface modes. Other transitory companies included the Curtiss Metropolitan Airplane Company, which during the winter of 1923, carried newspapers and the occasional passenger between Miami and Palm Beach. Mercury Aviation, a fixed-base operator in Southern California, made an initial Curtiss Jenny
flight from Los Angeles to San Diego on 1 November 1920, but there is no record of this effort being continued. Walter Varney, later to found several airlines and the winning bidder of one the Post Office mail contracts in 1926, operated sporadically in 1922 in the San Joaquin Valley, south of San Francisco; but not on a regular route. John Wood, an ex-wartime flyer, upgraded his barnstorming in Kentucky to carry a few passengers late in 1922; but this could not be termed an air service.
Possibly because the name and the operation survived spasmodically from its beginning in 1919 until the present day, Chalk's Flying Service has a claim for inclusion in this list of pioneers. Arthur B. ("Pappy") Chalk bought a Benoist flying boat and operated it on demand from Miami to Bimini. There were periods when this service could almost have been defined as regular, but Pappy was not one for paper- work, and there is no evidence to confirm that he ever did more than fly when a customer appeared, at least during the first fewyears of operation.


Hiatus 
When Inglis Uppercu finally had to terminate Aeromarine in 1923, airline activity in the United States came to a standstill, with only the Loening operationin Long Island Sound a short postscript to the few pioneering years of the early 1920s. There had been too many false starts, and for all their enthusiasm U.S. Airlines 1914-1925 for a cause or perhaps the prospect of making a little money, the experimenters had to face the reality that aeroplane were not yet ready for commercial use. Without a subsidy in the form of a post office contract, there was no hope of sustaining an airline operation without losing the proverbial shirt.
In 1924 only one airline operation can be traced and that is remarkable for several reasons. The Farthest North Airplane Company was based in Alaska, where it competed not with railroads or ships, but with dog-teams. A Fairbanks school teacher, C.B. "Ben" Eielson, persuaded the US Post Office to grant him a "Star" mail contract to fly the mail to remote communities in the frozen western part of the State. He flew the de Havilland DH-4 from Fairbanks to McGrath, 421 miles (almost 700 km) in three hours. The dogs took more than two weeks. The significant aspect of Eielson's operation was that it was overland, and used a land plane. But, for reasons unknown, the company lasted only four months.
In the following year also, in 1925, one airline was in operation; and although it was sustained for only one year, it deserves, rather as does Aeromarine, more recognition than has been granted by most aviation historians. A San Diego manufacturer (the same that was to build the Spirit of St. Louis for Charles Lindbergh) began a regular passenger service from its base airfield to Los Angeles, on 1 March 1925. Ryan Airlines, Inc., flew 5-seat Standard land biplanes, converted for commercial air travel, and upgraded these with 1 1 -seat Douglas Cloudsters, again converted from the austere cabin layouts that had been used for the famous US Army round-the-world flights of 1924. During a single year's operation, Ryan carried 5,600 passengers, charging $17.50 one-way, including a limousine to and from the airfields. This was the first overland airline operation in the United States, and the first inter-city service. It deserves full credit for being the first to achieve this joint distinction paying the way for similar passenger services that were to follow the US Post Office contractors in the years to come.
Another small operation in 1925, using Curtiss hs-2l flying boats, was Commuters Air Transport, Inc., which flew a short time between New York and Fire Island, on the southern shore of Long Island. Its transitory claim to fame is that it was the first to use the Commuter name, one that was to fall into general use half a century later.






Setting the Table 
During the first approximate half-decade, 1919-1925, of the development of air transport in the United States (excluding the historic 1914 Tampa Bay operation) each of these small companies contributed, in their small way, to set the stage for greater things in 1926, when the government decided that the time had come to encourage the spirit of private enterprise with a subsidy, through the agency of the US Post Office mail payments to contracted air mail carriers.
The Post Office itself, with its own air service, established hitherto unexplored standards of operation, particularly in the maintenance of the aircraft and the emphasis (sometimes over-emphasis) on punctuality and regularity. It stimulated the construction of the Lighted Airway, which was a factor in ensuring that, once the permanent, well-capitalized, airlines got under way in 1926, elements of navigational aids were in place to guide the pilots. Above all, Aeromarine had demonstrated how an airline could be run, and that, given a reasonably comfortable cabin, passengers would fly in aeroplanes, however dangerous the barnstormers tried to present the heavier-than-air machines. But Inglis Uppercu also demonstrated that, without government help, aeronautical technology was not yet at a stage that it could be financially viable.
Curiously, one company, the Lawson Air Line, was the one that gained the most publicity at the time, mainly because of the vigorous promotion by its owner, Alfred Lawson. Yet he never operated a single route, although he did make a spectacular flight or two with a large passenger-carrying machine that was apparently based on the British Handley Page aircraft then operating in Europe. In that continent, the British and the French had converted wartime bombers to carry passengers - "swords into ploughshares" - and the Germans were designing passenger-carrying metal mini-liners. The Americans dragged their feet.
Nevertheless, and primitive though the now-forgotten airlines of the early
1920s were, they played their part. Their achievement, fragmented, uncoordinated and sadly unrecognized today, was to do the groundbreaking in an unprepared environment, and to lay the foundations of the United States air transport industry, which in a few short years, was to dominate the airways of the world.



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In: Revue belge de philologie et d'histoire. Tome 78 fasc. 3-4, 2000. Histoire medievale, moderne et contemporaine
- Middeleeuwse, moderne en hedendaagse geschiedenis. pp. 993-1008.
Citer ce document / Cite this document :
Davies R.E.G. The Birth of Commercial Aviation in the United States. In: Revue belge de philologie et d'histoire. Tome 78 fasc.
3-4, 2000. Histoire medievale, moderne et contemporaine - Middeleeuwse, moderne en hedendaagse geschiedenis. pp. 993-
1008.
doi : 10.3406/rbph.2000.4474
http://www.persee.fr/web/revues/home/prescript/article/rbph_0035-0818_2000_num_78_3_4474
The Birth of Commercial Aviation
in the United States
R.E.G. Davies
Smithsonian Institution, Washington