On December 18, 1918, two airplanes carrying U.S. mail departed from Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, headed for Cleveland, Ohio, on the second leg of scheduled service from New York City to Chicago. Local newspapers reported the day’s events accurately if not always clearly, but wire service reports in national newspapers got the details wrong.
Unfortunately, the mistaken wire service reports, not the correct local reports, became references for airmail specialists. Thus the American Air Mail Catalogue makes no mention of either Bellefonte departure, but erroneously says, “Pilot Leon D. Smith left New York with 226 pounds of mail, and was forced down at State College, Penn., where the mail was placed on a train.” It falsely lists covers posted at Bellefonte as “(not flown).”
Kathleen Wunderly has splendidly described and explained the reasons for the two flights, the dedication of the pilots, the enthusiasm of the crowds who came to welcome them and to see them off, the mishaps that befell them, and their enduring stature in Bellefonte lore and history, in her book Bellefonte and the Early Air Mail 1918–1927, second edition, published in 2018 by APS, and in “The ‘Suicide Club’ and ‘Hell’s Stretch’,” in the May 2018 American Philatelist, which earned the Barbara Mueller Award for the year’s best article.
(Disclosure: I wrote the “U.S. Airmail Stamps and Postal Rates” chapter of Wunderly’s book.) My purpose here is not to reprise an inferior digest version of her narrative, but to expand on the postal and philatelic aspects of those two flights, to explore why and how airmail specialists misunderstood them, and to set forth the collectible evidence necessary to correct the record.
Confusing and Contradictory Official Notices
Unlike the launch of scheduled airmail flights between Washington, Philadelphia, and New York City seven months earlier, which had attracted widespread public interest and the enthusiasm of airmail collectors, the attempt to inaugurate service westward from New York to Cleveland and Chicago as the first step toward establishing a transcontinental route — devoid of presidential involvement and publicity – drew less interest.
Worse still, the Post Office Department’s announcements sowed confusion about when the service would begin and where it would originate. The December 6 Postal Bulletin carried this announcement:
AEROPLANE SERVICE ESTABLISHED NEW JERSEY
The establishment of aeroplane service is authorized from Elizabeth, by Cleveland, Ohio, to Chicago, Ill., distance Elizabeth to Cleveland, 399 ms., Cleveland to Chicago, 311 ms., one round trip daily, including Sundays and holidays, from Dec. 15, 1918 [3 Dec.
The December 10 issue announced this change, which delayed the inaugural date by three days:
AEROPLANE SERVICE ESTABLISHED NEW JERSEY
613002. Elizabeth to Chicago, Ill. Order of Dec. 3, 1918, is hereby amended to read in part as follows: “one round trip daily, including Sundays and holidays, from Dec. 18, 1918.” [10 Dec.
No explanation for the delay was provided, but the reason probably concerned the resignation of Aerial Mail Service superintendent Benjamin B. Lipsner on December 6. Lipsner had quit for two reasons: first, because he thought the Post Office Department should have used war surplus aircraft to transport mail instead of buying new custom-designed airplanes; second, because he disagreed with launching the new service at the onset of winter.
The December 12 Postal Bulletin repeated the December 10 order, but the December 16 issue, distributed just two days before the new service was scheduled to begin, changed the point of departure from New Jersey to New York while retaining “New Jersey” in the heading:
AEROPLANE SERVICE ESTABLISHED NEW JERSEY
613002. Elizabeth to Chicago, Ill. Order of Dec. 3, 1918 (Bul. 11822), as modified by Order of Dec. 10, 1918, (Bul. 11825) is hereby amended so as to show eastern terminus as Belmont Park (n.o.), Long Island, N.Y., instead of Elizabeth, N.J. [16 Dec.
I believe the parenthetical abbreviation “(n.o.)” meant there was no post office at the Belmont racetrack. The most diligent airmail collector or dealer would have been sorely challenged to keep abreast of these changes, and to know where and when to submit covers to be flown on those flights. But those were not the only factors that muddled subsequent references.
A New Rate, a New Stamp, and an Established Postmark Procedure
Other aspects included a reduction in airmail postage that coincided with these flights and a new stamp issue to pay the reduced rate. The December 2 Postal Bulletin announced that effective December 15, “Mail carried by aeroplane shall be charged with postage at the rate of 6 cents an ounce or fraction thereof.” The previous 16¢ rate had included special delivery service; the new rate separated 6¢ for postage from 10¢ for special delivery.
On December 11, the Third Assistant Postmaster General notified the press that a 6¢ air post stamp was being issued to meet that need, and that “the 16-cent aeroplane stamp will be available for special delivery fee and a single rate of letter postage (6c) on aeroplane mail.”
These changes meant that dealers and collectors could save money by franking their flight covers with 6¢ postage instead of 16¢, and the Post Office Department provided an attractive orange 6¢ Curtiss Jenny stamp (Scott C1) for that purpose. All covers posted for transport on these flights are scarce today, and most of them are franked with 6¢ Jenny stamps.
The largely unforeseen consequence is that, unlike covers flown from May 15 to December 15, which included special delivery service, and therefore had been backstamped on arrival at their destination locations, very few December 18 flight covers bear arrival datestamps. The Post Office Department had discontinued backstamping of letters in 1909, except for registered, special delivery, and forwarded mail, and did not begin routine backstamping of airmail covers until 1925.
Without an arrival datestamp, a cover cannot serve as evidence of the date that it reached its destination. As scarce as December 18, 1918, flight covers are today, the great majority lack proof of having been flown. The exceptions are covers franked with green 16¢ Jenny airmail stamps (Scott C2), which were given special delivery service that required arrival datestamps. They are difficult to acquire, but well worth the pursuit and expense.
The First Airmail Flight from Bellefonte to Cleveland
Post Office Department planners envisioned the new route to operate in relays. One pilot would carry the mail from New York to Bellefonte. Upon arrival, mail for local and nearby destinations would transfer to the post office, while mail for destinations in Ohio and farther west would transfer to a second pilot for the next leg of the trip, and so on from Cleveland to Chicago.
En route to take up their respective relay and reserve posts, three pilots — Carroll C. Eversole, Julian Sykes, and Dan Davison — flew their planes from Elizabeth to Bellefonte and beyond on December 16. A fourth pilot, Carl B. Smith, crashed and died shortly after takeoff, the first casualty of the Aerial Mail Service. On the afternoon of December 17, pilot Edward Albert “Al” Johnson arrived at the Bellefonte airfield.
Johnson was supposed to await the mail from New York before departing with that load, plus mail posted at Bellefonte, on the second leg of the relay from Bellefonte to Cleveland. But instead of waiting for the New York flight to arrive, he took off at 9 a.m. with just one bag of mail, which contained only letters posted at Bellefonte, bound for points to the west.
Why did he leave before the New York flight arrived? My hypothesis is that Johnson, an Army Flight instructor whose name did not appear on the December 1918 Aerial Mail Service pilots’ roster, had been conscripted to take the deceased Carl Smith’s place, was quickly sworn as a mail carrier, and hastily given his orders that he must not have fully understood. (The January 1919 roster lists him as a reserve pilot, which is consistent with my conjecture.)
In any case, Johnson got lost along the way, flew past Cleveland, and landed near Sandusky, Ohio. He telephoned the Woodland Hills airfield, where he was expected, and asked for assistance. His mailbag went back to Cleveland by road or rail transport, arriving there by 11 p.m. The Figure 1 cover provides the documentation, because it was treated as special delivery mail, canceled 7-30 A[M] December 18 at Bellefonte and backstamped 11 PM December 18 at Cleveland.
I acquired that cover about 15 years ago when Wunderly and I had a business partnership in Bellefonte called Collectors Advisory Team. Today the American Philatelic Research Library owns the airmail collection assembled by CAT, including that cover, which as I write is part of an exhibit on display in the lobby of the American Philatelic Center.
Figure 1. The 7:30 a.m., December 18, 1918, Bellefonte cancellation and 11 p.m., December 18, Cleveland backstamp prove that this cover was transported by air on E. A. “Al” Johnson’s inaugural flight between the two cities.
The datestamps on the Figure 1 cover prove that it was flown. There was no same-day railroad connection from Bellefonte to Cleveland. Other covers from the same flight that were prepaid only for the 6¢ airmail postage rate were not required to be backstamped. Covers for destinations farther along the route have later arrival dates, and therefore lack proof of having been flown. For example, a special delivery cover to Bryan, Ohio, the next fueling station after Cleveland, is backstamped December 19.
Figure 2. This news item from the December 18 Philadelphia Evening Ledger reported both Bellefonte flights, but mistakenly stated that Aviator Johnson had relieved Leon D. Smith. Johnson had not waited for Smith to reach Bellefonte before leaving for Cleveland. He had departed at 9 a.m.; Smith did not arrive at Bellefonte until 11:15 a.m.
But besides postmark evidence, some Ohio and Pennsylvania newspaper reports recorded pertinent details of Johnson’s flight, which should provide sufficient documentation for collectors who possess flight covers that were posted at Bellefonte. One from the December 18 Philadelphia Evening Ledger is reproduced here in Figure 2.
The First Airmail Flight from New York to Bellefonte
Pilot Leon D. “Windy” Smith did leave Belmont Park, New York, at 7:30 a.m. on December 18 with 226 pounds of mail, as the American Air Mail Catalogue says, and he was forced down at State College, Pennsylvania, at 10 a.m. However, after making the necessary repairs, he flew on to Bellefonte. Smith delivered the Bellefonte mail, kept the mail for points farther west on his ailing airplane, and took off for Cleveland in the early afternoon. In a January 22, 1960, letter to Bellefonte aviation historian Daniel Hines, he recalled:
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 got as far as Sharon when four connecting rods went through the crankcase, at twelve thousand feet. Fortunately I landed O.K. but it was more luck than anything else.
Figure 3 shows a souvenir cover from New York that Smith carried on that flight, which sold on eBay in June 2019 for $208.50. Considering what we now know, the buyer paid a bargain price for a truly scarce crash cover, which was flown from New York to Bellefonte and from Bellefonte to Sharon, then sent onward by rail to Cleveland. Prepaid for special delivery service, it was datestamped 730 AM upon arrival at Cleveland.
Figure 3. Airmail dealer Albert C. Roessler mailed this cover as a souvenir of the inaugural flight from New York to Chicago. Pilot Leon D. “Windy” Smith carried it first from New York to Bellefonte, and then from Bellefonte to Sharon, Pennsylvania, where he crashed near the Ohio border. From Sharon it went by rail to Cleveland, where it was datestamped December 19. The scheduled flights to Chicago were delayed, but it was eventually returned to the addressee at Bronx, New York, on January 5, 1919.
Scheduled onward service to Chicago was delayed, so the cover did not return to the addressee at Bronx, New York, until January 5. Besides being a desirable cover for its own sake, it further proves that Smith’s flight departed Bellefonte later than Johnson’s. The catalog needs to be revised to list both flights, and to state clearly that all the covers that originated at Bellefonte, as well as all the covers from New York carried onward from Bellefonte, were flown, and that the New York to Cleveland combination went aboard a flight that was interrupted by a crash landing.
The January 4, 1919, Postal Bulletin brought a merciful end to the service, tacitly demonstrating that Lipsner had been right when he objected to attempting these difficult flights in December:
AEROPLANE SERVICE DISCONTINUED NEW YORK
613002. Belmont Park, Long Island, to Chicago, Ill. Effective Dec. 22, 1918. [22 Dec.
Mail service on the first leg of the transcontinental route from New York to Chicago via Hollidaysburg and Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, and Cleveland and Bryan, Ohio, finally resumed on May 15, 1919, with a much-improved result. Read it in Wunderly’s book, Bellefonte and the Early Air Mail 1918–1927, second edition, which is available for purchase at aps.buzz/books.
Editor's Note: This "Revisiting the two December 18, 1918, Westbound Airmail Flights from Bellefonte" article is current as of the February 2020 issue of The American Philatelist. APS members can read the full February issue here and discover back issues of the AP.