Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Lucky Air Mail Route 13

Obviously this was staged, as they guy doing the "painting"
clearly can't keep his brush in the lines!
The PR department at Western Air wasn't afraid to play with superstition when it came to flying (in contrast, next time you're on a modern airliner, look for row 13!), issuing this rather fun press release photo on May 13, 1934. The location of this photo is not specified, but it could well have been taken at Glendale, California. The caption read:
Airline Employees Not Afraid of "13" Hoodoo
Designated as U. S. Mail Route 13 by the Post Office Department under new contracts, the Western Air division of General Air Lines defied superstition by waiting until May 13 to paint it on ship tail surfaces. Employes [sic] of the company consider the symbol lucky. When private mail carrying was resumed May 6, General Air Lines transported 13 pounds on its first load. There were originally 13 employes on April 17, 1926; 13 emergency landing fields mark the Los Angeles-Salt Lake City route; 13,000,000 miles have been flown without serious injury to 110,000 passengers; Ship 113, oldest in company's service, has flown 800,000 miles without even a punctured tire, and 13 pilots are now employed by the line.
The original caption, pasted on the back of our 8x10 glossy
NC584K was a Fokker F-10A trimotor, construction number 1045, and was originally operated by West Coast Air Transport before that company was acquired by Western Air Express in 1929; it was one of 25 F-10/F-10As operated by WAE. At the behest of the Postmaster General, Western merged with Transcontinental Air Transport to become Transcontinental and Western Airlines, the forerunner of TWA.

But to understand the real significance of this photo and press release, we need to digress for a moment and look back at the history of how air mail was contracted in the early 1930s. As air mail routes were consolidated at what later became known as the "Spoils Conference" following the Air Mail Act of 1930, T&WA became one of only three airlines (along with American and United) granted air mail contracts (otherwise known as CAM routes).

This led to allegations of fraud and collusion, resulting in a Congressional investigation and what was termed the "Air Mail Scandal". As a result, an angry President Roosevelt cancelled all commercial air mail contracts immediately, and the job of hauling airmail was assigned to the Army Air Corps. The Army initially used P-12 fighter planes, which could only carry 50 pounds of mail each. Later observation aircraft and even B-2 Condor bombers were used.

The Army was ill-equipped to do the job that commercial air mail pilots had been doing, and disaster ensued. Because air mail was so lucrative, companies that had been carrying airmail had pushed the technological development of commercial aviation hard, to the point that the industry was far ahead of the military technologically in areas such as intrument flying. As luck would have it, severe blizzards greeted the Army pilots on the first day of operations, and that was only the beginning of the Army's problems. In the first three months of operations, the Army suffered 66 accidents with the loss of twelve pilots. The public was outraged and President Roosevelt was quite embarassed.

The government had to do something, so the Black-McKellar Bill, aka the Airmail Act of 1934, gave the contracts back to commercial airlines, but under some very restrictive regulations. The chief of these was that any airline and any airline executive that had been involved in the previous contracts was barred from bidding on the new ones. Which meant that T&WA was out of the running. What to do? Work around the rules: in May 1934 the assets of the old Western Air Exress were severed from the larger corporation and operated as the Western Air division of General Airlines until December of that year, when they took on the name Western Air Lines. As a "different" company, Western could apply for their old Los Angeles to Salt Lake contract, now designated Route 13, which they won. Of course, this was with a wink and a nudge...even the language of the caption above makes it sound as if this was just the continuation of the previous airmail carrier's work, not a separate company that had not been involved in the previous contracts.

The public sentiment surrounding the Army's disasterous performance would have been very fresh on the minds of the readers of our featured photo caption, which puts the celebratory humor used here in a much clearer light.

And yes, this was intentially posted on Tuesday the 13th.

1 comment:

  1. The guy? That's Jack Frye, TWA's first president and airline pioneer beginning with Aero Corp and Standard Airlines.