Bellefonte First Stop in 100-year Commemoration of Transcontinental Airmail
BELLEFONTE — One-hundred years ago, on Sept. 8, a DH-4 biplane full of mailbags landed in Bellefonte, completing the first step in a historic journey that started on Long Island and ended in California. The first transcontinental airmail voyage took off that day in 1920, changing the way we live, and Bellefonte was one of the stops on the route delivering mail across the country.
Before that historic day, regional airmail service had begun two years prior, linking New York and Washington, D.C., and by 1919, planes were regularly carrying mail between Omaha and Chicago.
Beginning that September 100 years ago, the whole continent would be linked by airmail. Those first pilots called themselves “The Suicide Club” because of the difficult nature of navigating the airways without modern technology.
On Sept. 8, 2020, a group from U.S. Air Mail 100 set out to commemorate that historic event with a series of volunteer flights linking 16 of the original transfer points.
The first leg of the trip brought Christopher Freeze, flying a Cessna 182 (N610DB), and Warren Morningstar and Keith West, flying AOPA’s Beech Bonanza camera plane, to Bellefonte Airport by way of the Farmingdale, New York.
Joining the relay team to Bellefonte was Christopher Polhemus, flying a vintage Pitcairn Mailwing.
“It was beautiful, crystal clear clouds … couldn’t have been nicer, not a ripple, the forecast was perfect and the airplane has been running flawlessly,” said Polhemus.
“It is an honor” to be a part of the historic event, he said.
Back 100 years ago, the airmail planes landed in Tom Beaver’s farm field, but that field, like so many of the other former landing strips, is no longer in existence, so the Bellefonte Airport served as a surrogate location.
Polhemus said the mountains of Pennsylvania made for difficult flying a century ago; he said of the pilots, “Those guys were iron men. That’s what they were. They were heroes.”
After Bellefonte, the relay team was off to Geauga County Airport in Middlefield, Ohio — another small community airport — before the next group of volunteer pilots were to take off for Bryan, Ohio, and its Williams County Airport.
By the end of the first day of flying, the relay team was scheduled to overnight in Joliet, Illinois. On Wednesday, they were to be off to Iowa City, and Omaha and North Platte. The team prepared for a winter storm forecast over the Rockies.
“The last thing we want is for any of our pilots to run into icing conditions. We’re working on a couple contingency plans, including driving the mail from North Platte or Ogallala, Nebraska, to Cheyenne, Wyoming,” said organizer Bill Moore. “In a strange way, it would be almost historically appropriate to have one leg of the relay be by surface transport. This often is how the post office got the mail through when a plane was forced down — the pilot put it on the first train headed in the right direction. That was also the advantage of following railroads at the time.”
The planes arrived in Concord, California, on Friday and the mailbags with the commemorative postcards the pilots collected along the route of the relay will be driven to Martinez Marina on the Sacramento River.
From there, the plan was for these bags to be loaded on Seaplane Adventure’s DeHavilland DHC-8 “Beaver” float plane for the last few air miles to the shore of Marina Green, just east of the Golden Gate Bridge, and the site of the original landing in 1920.
There the pilots planned to hand over the mailbags to San Francisco’s postmaster or his representative. From there, the postcards were to be driven to the main San Francisco Post Office to be postmarked with the commemorative stamp the USPS had made for the occasion.