At Ranchito Hondo, Texas...
I know, I know. It has been more than two months since I've posted. I can only take so much fussin' now, so give me a little slack. We've already talked about this...if we're not traveling, we're just not going to bore you with mundane details about which no one is interested. With this in mind, I'll give you a few of the more unusual goings-on and then include my latest column that I write for my hometown advertising/local interest newspaper; I enjoy that quite a lot.
I've had fun here at our local old folks' RV park. Most of the time, we're in short sleeves except for about a week when it dipped below freezing a few times. Now, the trees are almost fully leafed out, and we're running the A/Cs. I've been doing some keyboard playing over the last few months which everyone seems to enjoy. You can catch that and other silliness on my YouTube channel. Just go to YouTube and input "Mike Mills P515" or "Mike Mills Battle of the Keyboards" and you can wander around in there. I've got to learn to dress a little better when I'm doing these videos. I'm still new at it. Some of the videos are OLD! If you see the quartet singing at the old sanctuary at First Baptist Dallas, the pianist is yours truly.
I'm really enjoying my new digital piano, which is a top-of-the-line Yamaha P-515. Its keyboard is the same as a grand piano's, and so is the sound, in my opinion.
The piano playing has come to a screeching halt for a couple of months, however, as I have just had surgery on my left wrist/thumb to relieve some increasing arthritis pain. I put up with it for a long time, but it eventually restricted my left hand reach to an octave rather than its usual tenth, so I knew it was time to get help. I had the surgery a few days ago, and this is what my left hand looks like right now:Six weeks, they say, to get the cast off and 2-3 months after that for back to normal. This is a well-proven surgery that's been around a long time, so I'm hopeful to reach the tenth again. Gonna take a lot of practice to get back to normal after being away from the piano so long.
Air Mail: The Early Days
And a Second Time Around--
Right Here in East Texas
Some folks are vaguely aware through their studies in history of the beginnings of air mail flights in the United States during the earliest days of aviation. The experiment began in 1911 by the U. S. Army Signal Corps, which developed into the U. S. Army Air Corps in 1926 and, ultimately, into the U. S. Air Force in 1947. Because of the primitive nature of the earliest “production” aircraft—open-cockpit biplanes whose fabric-covered wings were held in position largely by wires—and the inexperience of the pilots, who largely had to learn to fly on their own, air crashes were numerous and deadly.
The Signal Corps decided that assisting in the longtime goal of the U. S. Post Office for faster mail delivery might be accomplished by flying mail via its airplanes—initially from New York to Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. The Corps had their own motive, however; they thought the straight routes between large cities with plenty of landmarks could help the pilots gain more experience, both in flying and navigating, thereby helping reduce the horrendous accident rate. It was not uncommon then for pilots frequently to find themselves lost, as there were few, if any, radio navigation aids at the time and no radios in the cockpits to receive signals. The pilots had only rather primitive maps that pointed out cities and significant objects on the ground, and the airplanes had compasses that were notoriously unstable and difficult to read.
This mail-flying experiment had some success, finally stretching coast-to-coast, but accidents, while lessened in number, were many, and the air mail was eventually tendered in 1926 to the nascent airlines that had begun to develop.
Few people know that the U. S. Postal Service tried flying the mail a second time nationwide some fifty years later. Even fewer know that east Texas—the same area reached by the very publication you’re reading right now—was involved. And you might be surprised to learn that the pilot who flew those nightly mail runs from Lufkin to Dallas was none other than yours truly, the humble author of this piece.
I was 21 years old, and it was my first real flying job. My first flight began on May 8, 1968, almost exactly fifty years after the first of those primitive mail flights began on May 15, 1918. While, like most young men, I felt indestructible at the time, so I had little hesitation about a checkout in an ancient Beech 18, a type derived from an old military C-45 and considerably more challenging than is normally allowed for a relatively novice pilot like me. It had Pratt and Whitney R-985 radial engines and was considered by most pilots as a bit squirrelly, especially upon landing, due to its tailwheel configuration, requiring the initial touchdown on the main landing gear then lowering the tail to the runway. This could be tricky with the then-reduced forward visibility, especially in a crosswind.
I loved flying the old airplane, and, after a while, it felt a part of me. I must admit, however, that the many flights I made in it were not without a few tense moments. Like the pioneer mail pilots of 1918, I learned more about flying during the five years of flying east Texas’ nightly mail than in most of the rest of my aviation career. I’m including a photo of one of the Beech 18s I flew at the time, taken at what was then called Del Rentzel field in Nacogdoches:
The postal carriers would gather mail in trucks from all over east Texas during the day and bring it to the Lufkin post office, where it would be sorted and sent out to the Angelina Country Airport, where it would be loaded onto my airplane for its flight to Dallas Love Field. Takeoff time was about 9 p.m., and I made a stop in Palestine to pick up another load that had been gathered from that area. I arrived in Dallas at about 10:30 p.m., along with as many as a dozen other mail planes that had arrived from other cities around Texas. Postal workers would take the mail from the airplanes in trucks to a sorting facility and, at about 2:00 a.m., the armada of mail planes would depart for their return trips, loaded with the next day’s mail that would be flown out to their airports of origin and distributed among the dozens of small towns from which the previous day’s loads had originated. I would touch down in Lufkin at about 3:30 a.m., after which the mail was taken to the Lufkin post office and sorted again for delivery around east Texas.
During this era, first-class mail was carried along with the air mail in order to have a sufficient load; first-class was placed in green sacks, and air mail in gold ones. Eventually, air mail would cease to exist; it would become “Priority Mail.” This same scenario was carried out in a hub-and-spoke system across the U. S. five or six nights per week.
This second mail-by-airplane experiment lasted about as long as it did the first time in 1918. By 1976, it was largely over. I’m not sure why it ceased, for I had moved on to airline flying by then.Flying the mail was a heady time for this east Texas-bred boy from Nacogdoches, and I have a few stories to tell about it, including how a mail pilot (me) got to visit with Ray Price under these unusual circumstances.
Thank you, Lord, for this wonderful life; please forgive me if I don't appreciate it as I should every day.