Four Aircraft that Changed
the way Mail was Delivered

Once upon a time, the world moved at a slower pace than it does today. No mass media, no 24-7 news channels, and no next-day mail delivery service were available. But with the advent of the aircraft as a functional operational machine, the world changed completely in an instant. In the past, mail was delivered on horses, trains, boats and even primitive automobiles and/or four-wheeled trucks, these methods of delivery took days, weeks or even months in some instances; but with the invention and development of the airplane, mail delivery reached a new dimension. Thus the airplane had a direct effect on how people could communicate throughout great expanses of territory. They shortened, not the distance between sender and receiver, but the time the mail took from getting from the originating party to the end user. In the course of the early aircraft-supplied mail delivery system, four very distinct aircraft stood out from the pack. These four represented the epitome of air cargo delivery in an age of constant development and improvements.

In the spring of 1911, an early sample of the Wiseman-Cooke airplane was the first flying machine to deliver mail in the United States, when pilot and aviation pioneer Fred Wiseman carried a pack of letters from Petaluma to Santa Rosa in California. The complete eighteen-and-a-half mile trip was covered by Wiseman in two full days. Many mechanical difficulties, common on those early flying machines, delayed his trip. When he was airborne, the Wiseman-Cooke plane could only muster speeds just short of seventy mile per hour. Slightly built and very similar in airframe construction to the famous Wright Brother’s Flyer, the Cooke was powered by a Hall-Scott V8 engine modified to give the 670 lbs airframe enough speed to clear the ground. The next generation of mail delivery airplanes instituted a big move forward with the inception of the Curtiss JN-4, also called the Jenny. The Jenny was an advanced version of an early Curtiss JN model used mainly as a training aircraft during the Great War by the British Royal Flying Corps. Introduced in mid 1915, the JN-4 had a fuselage of 27′-4″ in length with a height of 9′-10.5″. Total wing area for the Jenny was 352 sq ft. A Curtiss designed OX5 in-line piston engine, capable of generating nearly seventy miles per hour, powered the JN-4. After the War ended in August 1918, the United States Postal Office adopted the Jenny as it’s first official air mail carrier plane. But the Jenny’s relatively small operational range, (it could operate only about one hundred and seventy five miles without refueling and maintenance); made it ill-suited for long-range mail delivery. It also did not help that the Jenny’s payload capacity was only three hundred pounds. Soon after its incorporation into the US Mail System, the Jenny was retired from front line service in less than a year.

When the US Postal Service bought the JN-4s, they also acquired a small group of de Havilland DH-4 airplanes from the US Army Signal Corp supply depot. The Airco, (or de Havilland), DH-4 was a two-seater daylight medium bomber produced in Great Britain. The DH-4 had an airframe 30′-8″ in length and a height of 10′-5″. When in combat, the DH-4 was armed with a single 7.7 mm Vickers machine gun mounted on the front of the cockpit, and another Vickers gun placed in the back of the fuselage for defensive cover – features removed for civilian operations. The DH-4 could carry up to 460 lbs of bombs internally, making the cargo payload a more manageable one. The plane was powered by one Roll-Royce Eagle VIII Vee piston engine capable of providing the aircraft with top speeds of just under 143 mph. The de Havilland’s operational range was an improvement over the other aircraft examples utilized by the Postal Service; it could operate at a range of 435 miles without any stops. As soon as they arrived, and after re-fitting, the DH-4 entered front-line service with the Postal Office. This plane was exactly what the mail service was looking for. It could carry a relatively large payload for long distances. But, as with all of the aircraft of the time, it fell victim to the newer, improved and less expensive aircraft coming along.

These two above mentioned aircraft represented a leap forward in aviation design. They were basically a tubular frame covered by sheets of canvas. The first departure from this design concept adopted by the Service was an impressive, albeit, dangerous one. The first US Postal Service all-metal aircraft was Germany’s Junkers JL-6 plane. First developed for military use in March 1917; the aircraft never saw significant combat in the Great War. A civilian version was introduced in the spring of 1919. It were to be the world’s first all metal monoplane use to ferry civilian passengers, doing so from the mid 1920 onward. But the JL-6 was a flawed design. Its electrical wire system was not properly insulated causing the plane to catch fire on mid-air. Many attempts were made to correct the problem, and all were unsuccessful, this fact lead the Postal Service to retire the JL-6 from front line service in the summer of 1921.

Today, the United States Postal Service utilized the latest commercial aircraft available and the best that technology can offer, this with the sole purpose of providing the customer with the best delivery capability the Service can offer. But in pioneer days of aviation, the Service needed to adapt promptly to new technology, new operational system, and by trial and error; they did. These four distinct planes, each of one served the Service in its own capability, proved that the aircraft was indeed, a practical and affordable mean of mail transportation, and on those days, this was a leap forward.

– Raul Colon


More information:
Fad to Fundamewntal: Airmail in America

Early Development of the United States
Defensive Missile System

As the tactical integration of the continental defenses in the United States in the later stages of World War II evolved, the airplane emerged as the main offensive weapon platform. It had demonstrated that its strategic advantage was un-rivalled at the time. The airplane, especially the bomber, was capable of delivering a heavy bomb payload to far and away locations with devastating effects. This concept was proven over the skies of Spain during that country’s civil war and then over the first two years of World War II. But the action that really made the bomber a weapon of fear was the bombing of Dresden, a major German city, in the later part of the war. The city’s destruction in just one day is widely recognized as the starting point for the development of the strategic annihilation of a city-wide target. As these developments were taking place overseas, the United States began to develop and deploy Interceptor Commands Units all around their coastal areas in late 1941. These units were a combination of two major assets that were to be re-arranged in order to provide a more reliable anti-aircraft system. The first, were the attachment of units of Army Air Forces to Interceptor Command and their deployment near major coastal cities in America. Also, on March 1942, the United States Army constituted the Army Anti-aircraft Command (AA). The newly created command would have control over all Costal Artillery Anti-aircraft Army Units as well as that of the Army’s Interceptor Commands. During the next months, the United States Army developed more advanced anti-aircraft weapon systems. At this time, rockets were staring to appear as accepted weapon systems. Radar, developed in Britain before the war, was rapidly becoming a serious method of detecting and tracking incoming targets. When the war ended in Japan on August 1945, the United States had over 331 active AAs battalions world-wide, with around 246,000 troops at their disposal.

On June 1945, Bell Labs, acting on a request from the Army, commenced the development the first integrated defensive missile system. The Army’s first surface-to-air missile system program was based on an internal Army memo suggesting that the United States must not waste any more time in the development, and ultimately, deployment of an advanced radio-controlled anti-aircraft rocket system that could protect major cities in America against bombing from the air. The new program was code-named Project Nike, after the winged goddess in the Greek mythology. Three months later, with the surrender of Imperial Japan, the U.S. Army started its massive de-mobilization. Most of the active AA units in Europe and the Far East were de-activated and shipped home along with their equipment, the same holds true for the AA battalions in Continental America. The majority of them were de-activated within weeks of the armistice. But the situation would change dramatically in three years. By 1948, the Cold War had broken out in Europe – countries on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain were engulfed by the Soviet Union, and a new age of terror had arrived. America began a prompt process of re-arming and re-organizing its coastal defenses and the U.S. Army re-started its missile development programs that had been shutdown after the war. At the beginning it was anticipated by high ranking officials in the newly created United States Air Force, that high flying interceptor fighters would be the main layer of defense against massive Soviet bomber formations and first generation Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) coming inbound from Soviet mainland bases. U.S. Air Force Strategic bombers as well as the Navy carrier-based attack planes would also participate in the defense of the continent, but it was clear early on, that a new mechanism for dealing with the bomber and, more importantly, with the offensive ballistic missile, was needed. A missile defense system that could replace the outmoded conventional Anti-Aircraft-Artillery guns was imperative to the defense of America. The three services, Navy, Army and the Air Force, revamped their respective missile development programs with the idea of fielding a continent-wide defense missile platform as quickly as possible. In the end, the Navy dropped out of the running, but the Air Force and the Army would fight for the next two decades over control of the missile systems and its funding. A fight that would make a possible deployment of a workable defense missile system a long and tedious process. The main responsibility for the defense of the United States against bomber attacks was assumed by the Air Force in the early 1950s. The Air Force went on to develop the Defense in Depth Strategy that would form the backbone of the U.S. Cold War continental defenses. The new strategy called for the use of high-frequency early warning radar stations along with ‘ready for take-off’ interceptor fighters and long-range anti-aircraft missiles positioned around the perimeter of the U.S. If this defense system was breached by a Soviet force, the U.S. Army would activate its own batteries of anti-aircraft missile systems located around key U.S. industrial and military sites.

In the mid 1960s, the United Stated Air Force was ready to deploy its first advance surface-to-air missile defense system, the Bomarc. The Bomarc was to have a 440 mile range of operation, but constant problems with their guided system limited the deployment of the system from nation-wide, integrated system to a more regional basis. On the other hand, the U.S. Army had fielded its own missile defense system since 1953, the Nike. The initially deployed surface-to-air Nike system used the Nike-Ajax liquid fueled missile with an operational range of thirty miles as it’s main interceptor asset. By the late 1958, there were over two hundred Nike missile batteries in the U.S., primarily defending nuclear research facilities and depots. On December of 1958, the Army began the process of supplanting its Nike-Ajax missile with the more advance Nike-Hercules. The Hercules was a leap forward in the development of a surface-to-air missile. It was propelled by solid-fuel which gave the missile an operational range in excess of seventy five miles. The Hercules was also the first interceptor missile with a nuclear warhead capability. About one hundred Nike sites were upgraded with the Hercules. Of these facilities, around fifty were redeployed to defend the Air Force’s Strategic Air Command bomber bases. The Air Command was the United States primary source for massive nuclear retaliation after a Soviet attack. The key component of the Nike system was an advanced early-warning radar. The U.S. Defense Department was committed from the beginning to building a series of interlocking radar stations that would allow the Army to monitor the perimeter and selected interior parts of the North American continent. The goal of the system was to provide the Air Force and Army with up to five hours of warning to respond in case of a Soviet bomber attack. The U.S. Air Force took the lead in the design, development and deployment of radar systems. The first significant anti-aircraft radar platform was the LASH-Up system. It was designed by the Air Force to cover America’s costal centers and major nuclear production facilities. In 1949, LASH-Up radar stations numbered just seven, but by the end of 1951, the system grew to fifty stations. The LASH-Up system was eventually replaced by the PERMANENT system, which was to number seventy-four radar locations by mid 1952. The U.S. early warning radar system was supplemented by the thirty four stations of the PINETREE LINE system located across the vast Canadian territory, which in theory could provide the Air Force with two additional hours of warning in a case of a surprise attack.

In the summer of 1957, the U.S. Department of Defense approved the production of its more ambitious early detection radar system, the Distant Early Warning (DEW) radar line and the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) air defense control system. The DEW consisted of a series of radar stations fifty miles part, stretching along the northern boundary of the North American continent, several miles north of the Artic Circle. In 1962, the system was upgraded to include an imaginary line from Midway Island to Scotland. The DEW radar line was the outmost line of early warning and it was assisted by the Mid-Canadian Line, the PINETREE Line, the PERMANENT radar system and the Gap Filler Radar System. By the mid 1960s, the U.S. Navy had joined the club with its ship and air-borne radar picket units. With all of these layers of protection, America was still susceptible to one weapon platform, the intercontinental ballistic missile. The SAGE system incorporated the latest in computer technology to support the estimated fifty Air Force Combat Direction Centers it was schedule to defend. The Combat Direction Center was the predecessor of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, NORAD. Its main function was to coordinate all aspects – radar, sensors, the interceptor aircraft squadrons and the anti-aircraft missile batteries – of the continental air defense system. SAGE became partial operational in 1958 and was fully deployable in early 1961. Each of the massive 275 ton SAGE tracking and targeting computers were housed in four-story windowless buildings. Because of their immense size and the fact that they needed to be located above ground, they were extremely vulnerable to any air attack. Still, SAGE was the first truly integrated tactical command system in the United States. It linked the Air Force’s Air Defense, Tactical Air and Strategic Command with the Army Air Defense Command and ARADCOM’s Nike missile system. This capability gave NORAD the necessary resources to detect and track and inbound aircraft coming to the North American continent.

– Raul Colon

More information:
wikipedia: Bomarc Missile
The Pinetree Line
SAGE Air Defense

Japan’s World War II Tailless Aircraft

During the early days of World War II, the Imperial Japanese Navy and Army’s Air Forces had minimal interest in the development of a tailless configuration airplane. This dramatically contrasted with the view held by their main ally, Nazi Germany, who had experimented with tailless aircraft for several years. The lack of effort by the Japanese Navy, the one service viewed by most observers as the forerunner in military aviation in Japan, did not imply that the Army would follow them. Indeed, the Army quickly started a crash design program in late 1939. Because of the lateness of their start, the Japanese Army top brass knew that they needed to set up a program that could achieve in a short time, and with a dwindling financial resource base, maximum results.

The HK1 with a rudder but no tailplane. (photo, via author)

Efforts by the Imperial Japanese Army concentrated on the glider designs of the Kayaba Works Corporation, as well as the Mitsubishi Company’s tailless aircraft designs, which copied the German Messerschmitt Me 163 rocket fighter concept. The Kayaba designs were first conceived to collect data on tailless airplane configurations. Many designs were submitted by engineers inside Kayaba and outside consultants. The most promising design program was the HK1. The HK1 was the brainchild of a brilliant, albeit, obscure Japanese engineer, Dr. Hidemasa Kimura. He based his design on the concept of Kumazo Hino, the pioneer aviator who was the first person in Japan to fly a plane – performing the feat in the spring of 1910. Initial tests on the HK1 design were promising and lead the Japanese Army to sponsor an aircraft concept program – the first step in establishing a development and production program for a military aircraft. Working closely with Kayaba’s Chief Developing Designer, Dr. Shigeki Naito, Kimura designed and constructed a tailless test model aircraft. The model, designated the KU2, was extensively tested between early November 1940 and May 1941.

The KU2 with wingtip rudders. (photo, via author)

After the test phase of the KU2 was over, Dr. Kimura, with the assistance of another brilliant Japanese engineer, Joji Washimi, began to work on a more advance design in the spring of 1941: the KU3 was born. The KU3 was a two-system experimental model, it had no vertical control surfaces and the edges of its wings were cranked, incorporating sections of different angles of sweepback. The KU3 had three-control surfaces arrayed along the trailing edge of each wing. The KU3 made 65 test flights before the only built model crash landed in late 1941.

The KU3, showing it’s cranked wing. (photo, via author)

Kimura wasn’t done with tailless aircraft. He took the data recollected on the KU3 program and used it to built the first Japanese powered tailless aircraft, the KU4. At this moment time was running out for Japan and Kayaba had not shown sufficient concrete results to merit further investment of resources. Japan’s limited resources were needed in other areas. The tide of war had turned against the Empire. The KU4 program was terminated by the Army as soon as the drawings were on the table. This marked the end of any official Japanese-funded research on a tailless aircraft design. Then in 1944, the appearance of America’s massive B-29 bombers in the skies over Japan’s Home Island changed the equation. The Japanese Army, now with the complete support of the Navy, re-started the tailless aircraft program. The need for a high flying interceptor plane to take out the B-29s became imperative. The Army knew time was running out, and so turned to the Germans for help. They knew that any aircraft development program would take years to produce a serviceable plane, and in the case of a radical design such as a tailless aircraft, the development process could take at least a decade. With this situation on their minds, the Japanese Navy leadership decided that the only route available to them was to copy the only successfully operational tailless design program in the world, Germany’s Me 163 Komet rocket fighter. The Mitsubishi Company, using German supplied Me 163 Operational Manuals as well as a Walter HWK 109-509 rocket engine, was selected for the job of interpreting the data given by the Germans. They promptly went to work on a design for the new tailless airplane. In a matter of only months, thanks to the assistance of German engineers, Mitsubishi produced a test version of what they thought would be the next great Japanese plane. The J8M-1 Shusui (Swinging Sword) was unveiled in late December 1944. Mitsubishi built first a glider version for data collection purposes. It first took to the air around mid January 1945 and was subsequently placed in full prototype production mode. Two prototypes models were designated for the two services, the previously mentioned J8M-1 for the Navy and the Army’s Ki-200.

Two MXY-8 training gliders. (photo, via author)

Pilots started taxi-run practices with the J8M-1 gliders at Kashima Air Base in the spring of 1945. Rigorous testing and practice runs were made at Kashima by Navy pilots in preparation for the day when the Walter rocket engines would be fitted on the J8M-1 and the aircraft could take-off under their own power. The first powered J8M-1, fitted with the Walter engine, first took to the air on the morning of June 7th, 1945. A catastrophic engine failure shortly after takeoff resulted in a massive crash and subsequent explosion. The test pilot was killed instantly. This crash and the end of the war just two months after, spelled the end of the minimal Japanese attempt of acquiring a tailless fighter. The J8M-1 never entered assembly line production status, and the next generation Ki-202 advanced fighter never made it off the drawing board. When the Allies entered Japan in August 1945, they discovered, to their relief, a crude tailless program, a program that was doomed before it could takeoff.

– Raul Colon

More information:
wikipedia: Kayaba tailless gliders
The Mitsubishi J8M Shusui
wikipedia: Mitsubishi J8M