Turning Point 6: Special Delivery: How Air Mail Saved (and Almost Undid) Boeing

  • By Walt Crowley and the HistoryLink.org Staff
  • Posted 4/05/2001
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9300
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The sixth essay in the Turning Points series prepared by HistoryLink.org for The Seattle Times  focuses on the roles of federal air mail contracts and visionary pilot Eddie Hubbard in rescuing Boeing from bankruptcy following World War I. Beginning in 1927, Boeing rapidly assembled an aeronautical empire, United Aircraft and Transport, and established United Air Lines. The alleged monopoly was broken up in 1934, and a bitter William Boeing severed his ties with his namesake company. This article was written by Walt Crowley and the HistoryLink.org staff and was published on April 5, 2001.

In one of the most famous photographs in Seattle history, two stoical pilots pose on a Lake Union dock in front of a spindly floatplane. The taller of the two, William E. Boeing, holds the first bag of international air mail to be delivered to the United States. The shorter man on his left seems to be suppressing a grin, and for good reason: Eddie Hubbard knew this short hop from Vancouver, B.C., would help to blaze the future of civil aviation.

The date was March 3, 1919. Boeing's little airplane company was less than three years old, and teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. The end of World War I had terminated Boeing's lucrative contracts for Navy trainers and flying boats. He scrambled to keep his workers busy making furniture, repairing Army planes, and building speedboats that would become popular with local bootleggers during Prohibition.

You've Got Mail!

At 30 years of age, Hubbard was Boeing's lead test pilot, and only the second man in Seattle to win a formal license from the Aero Club of America (the first was Terah Maroney, who introduced Bill Boeing to flight in 1915). A passionate aviator, Hubbard was convinced the future of "this wonderful machine that is to play such an important part in the future of man" lay in transporting passengers and goods.

While Boeing doggedly chased federal contracts for "pursuits" and bombers, Hubbard organized the company's Aerial Taxi service. When he won permission to carry mail between Seattle and Canada in 1920, Hubbard organized his own firm and bought a new Boeing B-1 seaplane for the job. This was Boeing's first commercial airplane sale, and the craft now resides at the Museum of History and Industry.

International air mail contracts were the bread and butter for services like Hubbard's, but most domestic air mail was carried by government pilots. This changed with passage of the Kelly Act in 1925, which authorized the Post Office to contract with private carriers on designated routes. This law's effect was equivalent to the previous century's transcontinental railroad land grants: it laid an economic foundation for commercial air travel.

Coffee, Tea or Milk?

Boeing's military production had begun to recover, but he was not oblivious to new developments on the civil side. Indeed, the air mail revolution literally landed on its doorstep on September 15, 1926, when Vern Gorst's Pacific Air Transport Company delivered Seattle's first bag of domestic air mail to Boeing's Duwamish River airstrip.

At that moment, Boeing was finishing work on a powerful new mail plane, the Model 40, but the company was still wary of getting into the airline business. When the Post Office advertised for bids on the Chicago-San Francisco route on November 25, 1926, Hubbard persuaded a skeptical Boeing to make a proposal. The company won with a bargain rate of $1.50 per pound of mail and established a new subsidiary, the Boeing Air Transport Corporation, later the "Boeing System."

Hubbard rejoined Boeing to help organize the new airline, while workers rushed to complete two dozen Model 40As for duty on July 1, 1927. The following year, Boeing purchased Gorst's Pacific Air Transport and introduced larger Model 80 and 80A trimotors. Their cabins could hold up to 18 passengers, who were attended by registered nurses -- the nation's first "stewardesses."

An Empire Built on Air

Airliner production overwhelmed Boeing's crude landing strip on the Duwamish, and it lost use of Sand Point when King County sold the airfield to the Navy. The company threatened to relocate to Los Angeles unless local government built a new airport, and King County obliged with Boeing Field.

Meanwhile, Eddie Hubbard threw himself into developing a national system of airports to service Boeing's route, and he ignored a worsening stomach ulcer. While in Salt Lake City, he died of complications following emergency surgery on December 18, 1928. Boeing and other aviation pioneers paused to salute their fallen comrade, and then went back to work to realize Hubbard's dream.

On February 1, 1929, William Boeing and Fred Rentschler, president of Pratt & Whitney engines, incorporated United Aircraft and Transport. It quickly acquired other aircraft companies, including Stearman, which established Boeing's presence in Wichita, Kansas. The following year, the McNary-Watres Act reorganized Post Office air mail contracts with the aim of winnowing out weaker "fly by night" carriers.

Herbert Hoover's Postmaster General, Walter Folger Brown, convened a series of what later became known as "spoils conferences" to allocate major routes to the strongest companies. American Airlines took the southern U.S., Trans-Western Airlines (now TWA) was created to serve the middle, and Boeing founded United Air Lines in 1931 to serve the northern tier. Building on military technology, Boeing pursued ever larger and faster all-metal monoplane designs culminating in the Model 247. As United's flagship, the 247 set a new paradigm for airliner performance, speed, and comfort in 1933. Ironically, Boeing's inability to supply 247's to TWA led to development of the Douglas DC-3, which soon surpassed Boeing's design.

Return to Sender

Boeing was still flying high when the new Democratic Administration and Congress began investigating the Hoover Administration's regulation of airlines. On September 28, 1933, Senator (later Supreme Court Justice) Hugo Black opened highly publicized hearings and lambasted Bill Boeing for his "monopolistic" practices.

Amid the growing scandal, President Franklin Roosevelt cancelled all airmail franchises on March 10, 1934, and turned the mails over to poorly equipped Army pilots. Ten perished during the following two weeks, and the Post Office quickly solicited new private carriers. In a move clearly aimed at Boeing, aircraft manufacturers were prohibited from competing for the new contracts.

During 1934, United Aircraft and Transport was dissolved, United Air Lines became independent, and the Boeing Airplane Company reorganized under the leadership of Claire Egtvedt. His empire in ruins and deeply embittered by his Congressional inquisition, William Boeing retired and never again played a significant role in his namesake company.

Boeing's founder died in 1956, not long after the debut of the prototype for the 707 jetliner. It was just the latest advance in a revolution that Bill Boeing and Eddie Hubbard had launched a mere 37 years earlier with a bag of 60 air mail letters from Canada.

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