Few readers will recognize the names of Lts. Jean D. Grenier, Edwin D. White, James Eastman, or Durward Lowry. They were among those who gave their lives in what Air Force historian Maurer Maurer has called “one of the largest projects–and in many ways the most important”–of the years between world wars. That project was AACMO (Army Air Corps Mail Operation), in the winter of 1934. It was the first troubled step in a chain of events that ultimately led to an independent US Air Force.
In early February 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt directed Postmaster General James A. Farley to cancel airmail contracts with the airlines because of contractual irregularities. The previous year, the airlines had carried several million pounds of mail over routes in the US that totaled nearly 25,000 miles. Most of the mail was flown at night in modern passenger planes equipped with the latest flight instruments and radios. Along the routes were well-equipped maintenance facilities.
On Feb. 9, Air Corps Chief Maj. Gen. Benjamin D. Foulois was directed to take over the airmail operation covering a reduced route structure. He was given 10 days to prepare for the task. Driven by the can-do spirit that impelled him to teach himself to fly, Benny Foulois enthusiastically accepted the assignment, underestimating the magnitude of the task and overestimating the capacity of the Air Corps to handle it.
An organization to manage the operation had to be set up and en route maintenance sites established in whatever facilities were available. Where there were none, maintenance often had to be done in the open, sometimes in subzero weather. That, and the shortage of spare parts, resulted in many in-flight emergencies and accidents.
Air Corps aircraft of that day were designed and equipped for clear-weather, daytime use. Few had any instruments beyond needle-and-ball, altimeter, and airspeed indicators. With one or two exceptions, all the pursuit and observation planes and bombers that would be used as mail planes were open-cockpit aircraft. Pilots had little experience in instrument and night flying and were generally unfamiliar with the routes they were to fly. What radios were on hand were of very short range and questionable reliability. General Foulois directed that all AACMO aircraft be equipped with directional gyros, artificial horizons, and radios. There were not enough to go around, and some flight instruments were installed improperly.
The Air Corps decided not to draw personnel from the training schools, where most of the experienced pilots were assigned. Thus, the great majority of AACMO pilots were lieutenants with limited flying experience. More than half of the 260 pilots had less than two years’ flying experience. Only 31 had more than 50 hours of night time; the great majority had less than 25 hours of actual weather or hood time. Most of their flying would be done at night, in fog, snowstorms, and extreme turbulence.
The winter of 1934 brought the worst and most prolonged bad flying weather in many years. In route-familiarization flights over the Rockies, Lieutenants Grenier, White, and Eastman crashed in bad weather and were killed before the operation actually began. Lt. Joseph Hopkins, later a brigadier general, described one flight into Denver, Colo., in an open-cockpit P-12. After he landed, he had to use his right hand to remove his frost-bitten left from the throttle. Another AACMO pilot told a New York Times reporter, “Picture an Army aviator flying at night in subzero weather . . . in the open with a biting wind [lashing] him at 100 miles an hour. . . . He is trying to navigate his ship . . . to operate the radio . . . [and] hang onto the controls [while] sitting in a tiny cockpit with hardly enough room to move.”
As the toll rose (the final count was 12 deaths and 66 crashes), the Air Corps came under harsh criticism from the public and Congress. General Foulois several times issued safety orders, but the young pilots, who often cleared themselves for a flight, continued to fly into weather they should not have attempted. Despite all these hardships and hazards, there were more volunteers to fly the mail than there were spaces available. These young men were out to prove the Air Corps could do the job.
With the coming of spring weather and with experience, crashes and casualties declined. On June 1, 1934, new contracts with the airlines were signed, and the Air Corps was relieved of all responsibility for the mail. Its operation, labeled a fiasco or a victory depending on one’s point of view, had focused attention on the Corps’s inadequacies in equipment, training, and organization. It was largely responsible for appointment of the Drum and Baker Boards that led to the establishment of the General Headquarters Air Force in March 1935–the first long stride toward an independent Air Force–and for more generous appropriations beginning the following year. The young lieutenants who suffered and too often died during that terrible winter of 1934, deserve a large share of credit for an outcome that few had foreseen. Valor takes many forms in peace and in war.
Published March 1995. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.