Aviation has seen a lot of changes since the first US Postal airmail flight in May of 1918. But on May 13 of this year — 100 years from the first flight — an official airmail flight will take off from San Diego as three huge radial engines roar to life for the first leg of a ten-stop flight to Seattle.  One thing will remain the same: the intrepid spirit of the pilots behind the gauges. RAF members Jeff Hamilton and Addison Pemberton of Spokane along with Ben Scott of Reno, Nevada are conducting a flight of three vintage open cockpit biplanes that will fly the original San Diego to Seattle contract airmail route, carrying actual US mail. The route was in regular use in the early 1930s and includes ten stops along the coast.

Back then, pilots navigated by dead-reckoning, eventually depending on a spotty scattering of beacons and huge concrete arrows painted yellow. It’s hard to imagine them flying through blizzards with nothing but a silk scarf and sheepskin jacket for protection against the 125 mile-an-hour wind, but the contract mail pilots were dedicated to the maxim, “The mail must get through.” And these modern pilots will be tasked with the same responsibility — each will be officially sworn in by the US Postal Service, and will be seated in their open cockpit in the actual type of aircraft in use then, the Stearman Model 4 Speedmail.“This aircraft was designed to fly fast and carry the mail.  It was a remarkably good flyer for the era,”  Jeff explained. Only 41 were built between 1929 and 1931, originally equipped with P&W and Wright radials.  He and Addison each own one of the remaining seven, and hangar them at Felts Field. “They’re a dream to fly — they’re stable and land straight-ahead,” he added, having had plenty of comparable experience in his Stearman biplane, also hangared at Felts. Jeff’s and Addison’s 1931 Speedmails are only three serial numbers apart and have a similar history. Both aircraft began life serving American Airways (now American Airlines). From 1939 into the 1950s they worked hard as cropdusters, which allowed them to avoid the scrap heap. Jeff found his airplane in 2016 in California, and with a ferry permit, brought it home to complete its restoration. “The Speedmail is the ‘Mona Lisa’ of airplanes,” he said. We agree — it’s graceful, rare and captivating to look at. See more photos here. The May commemorative flight is building up to a series of crowd-pleasers, from aircraft enthusiasts to stamp collectors.  Postmasters at each of the stops have designed special hand stamps, and each letter that makes the journey will receive a unique hand stamp at each stop before being cancelled in Seattle and mailed to its addressee.Jeff’s oldest daughter Katie LeFriec will be in the front cockpit, sharing flying duties and blogging details about the journey. She inherited her love of flight from Jeff, and got her pilot’s license at age 17. Now Katie flies a variety of vintage and modern aircraft, and is also an RAF member. Jeff will have his Spot PLB linked to this website so you can follow along throughout the six-day flight.

Submitted on March 25, 2018

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