As we approach the Centennial Anniversary of the first air mail flight in the U.S. (2011), the question of who gets credit for making the initial flight continues to be asked by both professional and amateur historians. As announced in my last Petaluma360 blog (“Start your engine,” posted 11/7/10), several Sonoma County historical societies and organizations are in the process of planning local centennial events and activities; but, why for February 17-18, 2011?

Many aviation historians have known for years and are familiar with the position of the U.S. Postal Service, as stated in “A Brief History of the Air Mail Service of the U.S. Post Office Department (http://www.airmailpioneers.org/history/Sagahistory.htm)

The first air mail service in the United States, however, was conducted at the aviation meeting at Nassau Boulevard, Long Island, N. Y., during the week of September 23 to 30, 1911. Earle L. Ovington, with his “Queen” monoplane, was duly appointed an air mail carrier and covered a set route between the temporary post office established at the flying field and the post office at Mineola, N. Y., dropping the pouches at the latter point for the postmaster to pick up. (It should be noted that Ovington, was sworn in by U.S. Postmaster General Frank Hitshcock as the first U.S. airmail pilot in history on September 23, 1911.  His flight, that day, is considered the first official experiment at flying Air Mail to be made under the aegis of the U.S. Post Office Department.)

Some historians will remind us that there were earlier deliveries of mail by air, such as: (1) a personal letter from George Washington was delivered  by Jean-Perre Blanchard from Philadelphia to Deptford, New Jersey, on January 9, 1793, by balloon; (2)  anothrt balloon flight from Dover to France near Calais carried a letter on January 7, 1785; and (3) on August 17, 1859, John Wise piloted a balloon starting in Lafayette, Indians with a destination of New York. Thes mail deliveries were made by balloon, not an airplane.

However, there was yet another flight in the U.S., on February 17, 1911,  in which a letter was mailed from the postmaster in Petaluma, J.E. Olmsted, to H.L. Tripp, the postmaster in Santa Rosa, as well as two other letters and 50 copies of the Press Democrat. Obviously, a controversy was created when you compare locally “sanctioned” letters flown by an “unofficial” pilot with letters carried in a flight piloted by an “official” pilot, and “sanctioned” by the Postmaster General of the U.S.  Some will say it came down to a “technical” or a “political” decision concerning Ovington’s recognition at the “first” air mail pilot. But, then; 36 years later, on May 15, 1947, “the Smithsonian Institution confirmed Wiseman’s feat as the world’s first airmail run.”

The key words in making this decisions may be found on the Fred J. Wiseman monument dedicated, in his honor, on August 17, 1968, in Kenilworth Park, Petaluma, near his take off spot in 1911. The words on the  monument plaque includes, “It was the first recorded airplane flight sanctioned by a local post office and available to the public.” 

When all is said and done, it comes down to how your want to define “first” and “official.” Stay tuned for future blogs related to the Centennial Anniversary Celebration of  Wiseman’s Air Mail Flight from Petaluma to Santa Rosa, CA, February 17-18, 1911.