The U.S. Postal Service experimented with flying mail as early as 1911, but it wasn’t until the end of World War I that there was a supply of planes and trained pilots. These men had learned to fly and would do anything to be able to continue flying. The serious pursuit of airmail began in May 1918.
The U.S. Army flew the mail from May to August 1918 but wouldn’t fly in bad weather, so the program was not successful. The post office took over with its own pilots, who would have to fly in all conditions to meet the credo that the mail must go through. The operation was unregulated, disorganized and in the hands of a group of adrenaline junkies who had good reason to call themselves “The Suicide Club.”
When service expanded across the country, Lock Haven was chosen as the first east-west stop, but river fog often made the field difficult to find. Bellefonte community leaders convinced postal officials that Bellefonte would be a more suitable location. Max Miller, Aerial Mail Service Pilot No. 1, was sent to check it out.
On Sept. 20, 1918, a red blanket was spread to mark a field at Tom Beaver’s farm on East Bishop Street, where Bellefonte Area High School now stands. School children were taken to the field to witness this historic moment and to welcome the pilot. Miller landed, refueled the plane and ate a lunch provided by well-wishers. He reported to postal officials that the Bellefonte location was suitable for an airfield and that the people were welcoming.
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By mid-November, a lease for a field 1,000 feet long and 400 feet wide was in place. A temporary wooden hangar was built, and a circle that could be easily seen from the air was added.
On the morning of Dec. 18, 1918, Leon Smith took off from a temporary airfield on the infield of the Belmont Park, N.Y., race track. He landed at Bellefonte at about 11 a.m. with the first official westbound mail. He wrote about this first flight in a 1960 letter to Daniel Hines, who made it his life’s work to chronicle the airmail service, with a focus on his hometown, Bellefonte.
“The planes in the early days had never been test flown. The first went bad over New York City, but I was lucky enough to land back at the race track in Long Island. The second plane I landed at Bellefonte — and this was as far as I was supposed to fly, but there were no planes there owing to wrecked planes — so I was ordered to fly to Chicago. My motor was running very hot and I knew it would go to pieces. I didn’t have any map and Toner Hugg cut a section out of his in the office.”
Pilots were larger-than-life adventurers with wonderful, somewhat swashbuckling stories to tell. Soon it became a status symbol to host a flier. Some of the finest homes opened their doors. Fliers’ activities were often noted in local newspapers, recording the story about real people and real events of national significance.
OLLI at Penn State — open to adults who love to learn — will offer more than 100 courses this spring semester, including “U.S. Airmail Service Comes to Bellefonte,” led by Romayne Naylor. To receive a free spring semester catalog, call OLLI at Penn State at 867-4278 or visit olli.psu.edu.
Romayne Naylor is an award-winning writer and local historian.