Air Race of 1919
To focus public attention on the army’s Air Service, as the US Air Force was then known, decided to stage an air race between the East and West Coast and back again. Another, more important, purpose of the race was to identify aerial landmarks along the route for future airmail operations. Only US army planes flew in the race. On their way across country, the D.H.4 aircraft used the area that is now the Hutton Heights housing subdivision of Green River as an overnight landing field. The planes were guarded during their brief stay by the local Boy Scouts.
Flying the Mail
In 1917, the first US airmail flight occured between Washington and New York, with an intermediate stop in Philadelphia. When World War I ended in 1918, the Post Office acquired several war-surplus aircraft and began working towards its goal of transcontinental air service. In 1920, the first mailplanes crossed the continent. Airplanes still could not fly at night when the service first began, so the mail was handed off to trains at the end of each day. None-the-less, by using airplanes the Post Office was able to shave 22 hours off coast-to-coast mail deliveries. In 1921, the Army began installing rotating beacons along the route. The beacons, visible to pilots at 10-second intervals, made it possible to fly at night. The Post Office took over the operation of the guidance system the following year, and by the end of 1924, beacons extended coast-to-coast. Mail then could be delivered across the continent in as little as 29 hours eastbound and 34 hours westbound (prevailing winds from west to east accounted for the difference). Delivery was two to three days less than it took by train.
Airmail pilots used an airfield four miles north of Rock Springs as a stopover site on the route between Cheyenne and Salt Lake City. The county fairgrounds now occupies the old airport site. Pilots spending the night in Rock Springs stayed at the Park Hotel on North Front Street.
Designed in 1916 by British aviation pioneer Geoffrey de Havilland, the two-place, biplane D.H.4 earned its reputation as one of the best day bombers in World War I. Built under license from the British in America, it had a Liberty 400 horsepower engine and it was the only American-made plane to see combat in the First World War.
To fly the mail, the front cockpit became the mail storage area and the pilot’s seat was moved to rear gunner’s cockpit. In 1923, the Mail Service modified their D.H.4s to fly at night. They added landing lights, flare boxes under the fuselage, larger wheels, a brass-tipped propeller and longer exhaust pipes to shield the pilot’s vision from the glowing exhaust.
CAPTION FOR DH4 SQ PHOTO
Members of a US Army Air Service squadron pose in front of a de Havilland 4 bomber in 1919. Note that the propeller is similar to the one on display.
Airmail pilot Robert Ellis landed in the snow near Rock Springs in January 1922. Ellis and the mail were pulled up the plateau by a human chain of rescuers. In June the plane was dismantled and trucked to the airfield to be repaired.
CAPTION FOR STAMP WITH BEACON
Thirty-six inch revolving lights were mounted on fifty-foot high towers across the Great Plains to guide airmail pilots on their routes.
The International Group of Historical Aircraft Recovery. “The Earhart Project” [http://www.tighar.org/Projects/AEoverview.html] (April 10, 2000).