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Volunteer Pilots Are Flying Across America to Celebrate 100 Years of Airmai

Virginia Flight Instructor and wheelie world record setter Christopher Freeze kicked off the relay Tuesday, September 8 when he took off from Long Island, New York. Freeze got in a turbocharged Cessna 182 and flew the first leg of a relay event honoring the 100th anniversary of the first transcontinental U.S. airmail route.

Pilot and Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) member Bill Moore organized the flight relay, with Freeze and half a dozen others flying across the country from one small airport. These pilots are tracing the 15 segments of the original 1920 airmail route from Long Island to San Francisco. Since many of those original airfields have been closed and developed, the organizers stuck as close as they could to where the route first wove through the U.S.

 “There's a lot of parallels between right now and 100 years ago,” Freeze said. “We're recovering from a pandemic, and I saw this as just an opportunity to get a little nostalgic and live as an airmail pilot for a couple hours [and] honor the pilots who came before. As both a pilot and history buff, I could not be more proud or happy to be a part of this commemoration of air mail history, and I was thrilled to be given the role of carrying the first leg’s payload.”

The postal service made and mounted hundreds of gas-powered beacons that could be seen from 10 miles away, each acting like a dotted-line path from one stop to the next. The earliest airmail pilots flew biplanes like the Curtiss JN-4H, and manufacturers soon made special models for airmail. Airmail challenges helped to fuel development of commercial and passenger flight.

Freeze says the Great Depression halted flight innovation and airmail, but the industry roared back after the technological leaps required by World War II helped make air travel safer, faster, and more reliable. Visionaries made that happen. Today, most long-distance letters go at least partway by air, and there's no separate domestic or international airmail.

Read more about the mail relay and see photographs.