Tuesday, July 7, 2009


On April 6, 1926, pilot Leon Cuddleback of Varney Air Lines took off from pasco, Wash. in a Swallow biplane to become the first man to carry U.S. Mail by air in the pacific northwest. Two newspapers in Boise, Idaho covered it. They were the Idaho Statesman and the Evening Capital News. It's intersesting to see two differant views of the same story.

He flew over the Blue mountains, stopping in Boise to pick up more mail, then went on to Elko, Nevada. He flew the last part of his journey in a heavy thunder storm. The route was soon extended to include Salt Lake City, Utah.

The open-cockpit biplane carried 216 pounds of airmail on that first flight and traveled at between 85 and 90 miles an hour. Boise did not have an airport, just a rough landing strip located wheer Boise State University now stands.

The city would not provide funds for the landing strip, but the field had been graded. A few days before the flight was scheduled, members of numerous civic organizations, including the American Legion and Boy Scouts of America, volunteered their services to haul away rocks and boulders and make the ground smooth enough to allow the plane to land without damage. Many a man and boy went home with sore and blistered hands, but by the end of one day these dedicated volunteers had a landing strip ready for Mr. Cuddleback to land his airplane. One advantage this landing strip ahd that others didn't--it was located just a mile from the Post office.

Taking off from Elko at about the same time that Cuddleback left Pasco, was pilot Franklin Rose, who was to fly the route in the opposite direction. Rose, a former stunt pilot who had helped grubb out the landing strip, was excited about the new venture. He flew as far as the remote southwest corner of Owyhee County and was forced down by bad weather. He borrowed a horse, and with the mail slung over the horse's flank rode into Jordon Valley. There he was given a ride to Boise where he delivered the mail to the Post office.

Some of the other pilots flying the Pasco, Boise, Elko, Salt Lake City run were George Sanburn, Franklin Rose, Charles Wrightson, Christian de Velschow and Franklin Bell. The airline was owned by Walter T. Varney.

This flight marked the beginning of regularily scheduled air mail service in the western United States. Previous to this irregular air service existed first between New York City and Washington D.C. and was later extended to include Cleveland, Ohio and Chicago, Illinois. These flights were made through the efforts of the U.S. Army and the Postal Department.
The Varney Air Line flight was the first by a private contractor to carry mail any place in the United States. By the end of the decade a variety of private airlines were providing airmail service to most large cities in the country.
Five of these airlines, Pacific Air Transport, Boeing Air Transport, National Air Service and Empire Air Line, Joined Varney Airlines in supplying service up and down the west coast. By 1928 routes had been extended to connect with such cities as Dallas, Texas and Chicago, Illinois. In 1931 these five airlines joined together to form United Airlines.
On April 6, 1976, United Airlines pilot Captain E.E. "Buck" Hilbert flew a rebuilt blue and silver Swallow plane over the same route mr. Cuddleback had taken exactly 50 years earlier. Captain Hilbert carried the same amount of mail and also flew through bad thunderstorms, and he too arrived in Boise on time. He flew on to Elko, Nevada and Salt Lake City, Utah the following day before returning to Boise to complete the commemorative flights.

Here's what Leon Cuddleback said about his experience:
I arrived in Pasco without incident at night, and there was a lot of talk that night about a big clebration the next day because of the inaugural flight.
The Army Reserve from Vancouver and Spokane, Washington, had sent planes down for the event, and newspaper reporters came from Spokane, Portland, Seattle, and surrounding areas. I wasn't particularly interested in any celebrating, so I got my airplane all redy to go and then went to the hotel and went to bed.
The takeoff was scheduled for 6 A.M.__just about daylight__and the mail arrived from Portland, Spokane, and Seattle by railroad sometime during the night. I got up at 4 A.M., had some coffee and went to the airport, and quite a crowd had gathered there.
Appropriate for the occasion, an authentic mail stagecoach drove up and handed over the mail, which I signed for. There were 9,285 pieces of mail in six sacks, weighing just over 200 pounds, destined for Boise and points east. We put the mail in the Swallow's mail pit, and I was all set to go. But when we tried to start the airplane, the engine balked. We cranked, and it balked, and we cranked. I was almost ready to set fire to the darn thing to see if it would burn up, but it finally got going.
I was 23 minutes late getting off, but the 244-mile flight went fine. The weather was clear at Pasco, and the flight was uneventful, even over the blue mountains. They were only about 4,500 feet high and were not a very high range.
I flew at an altitude of about 500 feet over the mountains to LaGrande and flew at 2,000 feet over the flatlands from there on. The flight took less than three hours, and I arrived at Boise at 10:10 A.M. local time (9:10 A.M. Pasco time.
I didn't expect much of a reception, but therre was a huge crowd a Boise when I touched down. It seemed like everybody was there__dignitaries from Washington, D.C., the state, the city, postal officials and a number of school bands. I dropped off the mail for Boise and picked up the mail from Boise to other points and had it all loaded aboard another Swallow that I was to use for the boise To Elko leg.
But again the k-6 engine wouldn't start. So I had them fuel up the original airplane I arrived in, Varney airplane #3.
In those days, three of four hours of flight time were supposed to be the maximum put on an engine at one time. After that it needed an overnight overhaul.
I took off again in #3 from Boise at 10:55 A.M., and all went well at first. I faithfully followed that little map Walter varney had drawn on the postcard as I was afraid that if I lost my way for 5 minutes I probably would never find it again.
About half way to Elko I ran into a mean thunderstorm, with heavy rain and quite a bit of turbulance. It was rough, with some hail, and it forced me to stay down very close to the road, right down on the ground. Fortunately, I was over a valley with no hills to cross, so I was able to get low under the storm clouds.
I got into Elko at about 12:27 P.M., Pasco and Elko time (1:27 P.M. Boise time), and again there was a big crowd to greet me, with more bands and officials. I briefed Rose on the thunderstorms and advised him to go around them to the southwest, and he took off. Rose got blown far off course and landed in the desert, and it was days until we heard that he was all right.
I didn't have much else to do as Walter Varney was at Elko to meet me, and he took charge of things. And his father, Thomas H.B. Varney, sent me a telegram from Los Angeles, which read: "Congratulations on the first successful commercial airmail delivery."
There was a lot of celebrating, too, at Elko, but I was tired and my cares were over, so I relaxed. I went to the hotel and went to bed.
It had been a long day for all of us, and we had proved a lot of people wrong. We had been told we were trying to do the impossible, but we didn't know better, and we went ahead and did it.