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The Suicide Club: Early American Airmail Pilots

In 1918, airplanes were still a new concept, and outside of a few stunt promotions, were only used for war and for delivering mail. The US Army encourage the Post Office Department to buy their surplus planes after World War I. Flying the mail across the country was a dangerous job.

The initial mail routes stretched between New York, Washington D.C., and Philadelphia, expanding to Cleveland and Chicago within the next year. In the early days of the Air Mail Service, risk was at an all-time high. From 1918 to 1926, there were 35 pilots who died trying to deliver the mail, with one death for every roughly 115,000 miles flown in 1919, and there were 15 deaths alone in 1920.

It was at the time one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, and the pilots knew it. The average flying time clocked by a pilot before death was estimated at only around 900 hours.

To do a job like this, black humor was sometimes necessary, says Nancy Pope, historian and head curator of the Smithsonian National Postal Museum. “One of the pilots was kidding around about it one day and said, ‘You know, we’re nothing more than a suicide club,’ says Pope. “It kind of became a badge of pride to these guys, that, you know, ‘We’re risking our lives to do our jobs.’”

It was dangerous because those early planes had few safety features, aerial maps were fairly primitive, and pilots were expected to fly through any weather. The men who flew the planes were aware of the dangers, but they were risk-takers who lived to fly. Read about them at Atlas Obscura.

(Image credit: Smithsonian National Postal Museum)

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