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& Bullets

Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.


With reviews of books that cover these topics


Flying the Beam

Navigating the early US airmail airways 1917-1941


Henry R Lehrer

Purdue University Press

ISBN: 9781 557536853

The Americans grasped the commercial opportunities offered by aviation after the Great War with both hands. As the subtitle implies, it was the US Post Office Department which drove the early development. As Lehrer  chronicles, even as early as February 1918 it was commissioning the design and production of five special airplanes [sic] to carry mail. These long dead civil servants deserve much credit for their foresight. The first flights, in May that year, attracted huge crowds. Within two years the mail service was achieving 92.7% success in completion of its flights – an amazing statistic given the technology of the era, and the topography and conditions the pilots had to endure.


It was soon realised that an efficient  mail service required night flights – which exacerbated the problems of navigation. The first solution, which seems simplistic to 21stC eyes, was to light the airways! Enormous beacons and lights were installed across the US to point the way. Together with the creation of intermediate landing grounds this represented an enormous investment in infrastructure, manned by ‘airway keepers’ and staff who were rather poorly paid, especially since much of their work was at night.


The Post Office eventually relinquished control to the Dept of Commerce (Lehrer strangely does not specify the date), and the dissemination of navigational updates became more professional. I was surprised not to find any mention of Elrey Jeppesen, the founder of the eponymous navigation business, although his genesis in the early Thirties  was from the airlines rather than  the mail.

Various government agencies funded the development of blind flying techniques and instrumentation. In 1929 Lt James Doolittle (who of course went on to find great fame in WW2) completed a fifteen minute flight solely by reference to instruments – an incredible feat.


I felt rather cheated on completion of this volume – there is no flying in it, despite its title. It is in effect  a rather dry economic history, and reads like a doctoral paper (which perhaps should not be surprising since it is from an academic publisher). There are no first person accounts in it. I know, from research on my current book, that the life of an early US mail pilot was fraught with danger – there are first person accounts out there, and the inclusion of some would have added colour to what is a very grey book. One really gains very little insight into the difficulties of actually flying these early routes. On the other hand, if you want to know the candle power of a light erected in Indianapolis, this is for you!

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