By John Ottley, Jr.
Past Commander, American Legion Fulton County Post 134
On May 27, 1926, a 23-year-old newspaper reporter tried to put Atlanta on the aviation map by persuading legendary pilot Roscoe Turner (1895-1970) to fly passengers from the city’s 287-acre dirt airport to New York. Also aboard would be a $1 million check from the Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank destined for its New York counterpart and letters from the Atlanta postmaster to postmasters in Washington and New York.
Turner (right) flew in World War I and gained post-war fame as an air racer, winning the coveted Thompson Trophy three times. His flamboyant style and nose for showmanship made him a legend in his own time.
In 1926, he bought the Sikorsky S29A, a 1924 one-off transport designed and built by Russian-American aviation pioneer Igor Ivanovich Sikorsky (1889-1972) . Powered by two 400-hp Liberty L12 water-cooled engines, the S29A accommodated 14 passengers. Registered as NC 2756, it reportedly was the first aircraft to have an air stair door.The pilot and mechanic rode in an open cockpit astern of and above the passenger compartment. Some accounts credit it with being the first twin-engine plane able to maintain altitude if one engine failed. This soon would be put to the test.
Back in the day when persons still looked up at a passing airplane, Turner used the broad-sided Sikorsky as a flying billboard. His client in 1926 was Davison-Paxson-Stokes, a prominent Atlanta department store, later acquired by Macy’s. The store’s name was in giant letters on the Sikorsky’s fuselage.
Five boxes of the latest women’s Paris gowns were Turner’s cargo when he landed at Atlanta’s Candler Field from New York in May, 1926.
He was interviewed by an Atlanta Journal reporter who also chaired the Aviation Committee of the city’s Junior Chamber of Commerce (Jaycees).
In his role as aviation booster, the enterprising newsman asked whether Turner, on his return trip to Gotham, would take a group from Atlanta along. It would be the first commercial passenger between the two cities. The million-dollar check would illustrate that transferring funds faster between Federal Reserve banks would benefit the banking industry and its customers. The letters would be Atlanta’s first air mail. The Jaycees would sponsor the venture. Turner, never one to avoid good publicity or revenue, quickly agreed.
At that time the Atlanta airport had no commercial air service. Contract Air Mail Contract (CAM) route #10 would begin, but not until the following September. Its first leg would be to Macon, GA, only some 84 miles distant--hardly a record-setting event.
Adding further ignominy, Macon initially would be a “drop stop”. Due to problems with the airport there, the Macon postmaster would wave a white handkerchief in each hand. This would signal pilot Carl Benjamin Eielson (1897-1929) to descend and drop the mail bag without landing.
CAM-10 was awarded to Florida Airways, founded in 1926 by Edward Vernon Rickenbacker (1890-1973)--the top American ace of WWI--and Reed McKinley Chambers (1894-1972). Rickenbacker claimed 26 kills in the Great War and won the Congressional Medal of Honor. Chambers was credited with seven aerial victories.
Originally, CAM-10 service began April 1, 1926, with a Curtiss Lark biplane droning between Jacksonville, FL, and Miami with interim stops in Fort Myers and Tampa. Florida Airways added regularly scheduled passenger service on June 1, 1926, between Tampa, Miami, and Jacksonville. The airline ceased operations on June 9, 1927, and declared bankruptcy.
In 1926, Harold Frederick Pitcairn (1897-1960) founded Pitcairn Aircraft Company.
He bought the assets of Florida Airways, formed Pitcairn Aviation (airline), and won CAM-19 which would fly air mail between Atlanta and New York. It also included the abandoned CAM-10 mail route between Atlanta and Miami.
Starting May 1, 1926, scheduled air mail would leave Candler Field at 6 p.m., and, if all went well, arrive in New York the next morning at 10:30 a.m. Beacon lights were installed every 10 miles along the route to aid pilots navigating at night. Each flashed a unique identifying code.
The Pitcairn PA5 Mailwing, designed and built to carry air mail, was an ideal vehicle for the newly-formed airline. Its 220-hp Wright Whirlwind J59 radial engine could pull 500 pounds of mail at a then impressive 131 mph. It had fuel for a 500-mile range which enabled the single-pilot biplane to return to previous stops if it encountered bad weather enroute.
Dawn was still 30 minutes away in Atlanta on Thursday, May 27, 1926, when Turner’s Sikorsky took off at 6 a.m. for what the Jaycees hoped would become a milepost in aviation history. In addition to the young newspaperman, the passengers included City Councilman William Berry Hartsfield (1890-1971), national Jaycee vice president Robert Emmett Condon (1896-1981), Robert Leroy Harwell, (1898-1982), and H.W. Hall, a 20th Century Fox Corporation newsreel cinematographer. Seated beside Turner in the open cockpit was his mechanic, Jimmy Maxwell, of New York.
Before the passengers boarded, an enthusiastically-worded telegram arrived from John H. Cox, mayor of Fayetteville, NC, wishing them a good flight and stating that a formal reception would honor them that evening. When they arrived in Washington, the entire Georgia delegation and Commerce Secretary Herbert Clark Hoover (1874-1964) were to greet the flight. In New York, Mayor James John “Jimmy” Walker (1881-1946) would host a reception at City Hall. Fate intervened, however, and none of these elaborate greetings would occur.
A little more than an hour into the flight, Turner noticed his right engine overheating. He made a precautionary landing near Abbeville, SC, 255 miles short of Fayetteville, NC. At 7:10 a.m., he touched down in a farmyard and rolled to a stop with one wing almost touching an apple tree about 25 feet from farmer L.A. Jackson’s back door.
Cameraman Hall was first to exit. He yelled to farmer Jackson, trembling in his doorway, “We just dropped in to pick some apples!”
All the terrified Jackson could muster was, “Sorry, mister, but t-t-t-they ain’t r-r-r-ripe yet.”
The forced landing drew a large crowd--so many, in fact, that they drank poor Jackson’s well dry. He did OK, however, when someone set up a stand to sell cold drinks and ice cream and paid him a percentage of the proceeds. Another man, duly impressed, promised to donate land for an airport.
Mechanic Maxwell found that a water-cooling hose had worked loose, causing the engine to overheat. A rudder cable had frayed and a shock absorber on the right main landing gear had been damaged. These could be repaired, but the flight was delayed until the following day.
Fred D. (Devereaux) West (1900-1955), editor of the Abbeville Press and Banner, treated the passengers to lunch downtown and made a car available. Go-getter Condon drove it into Abbeville, organized a Jaycee chapter, and had it chartered that very same day.
Although repairs were completed and terraces had been leveled at Jackson’s farm, on Friday, May 28th, Turner was not sure he could takeoff fully loaded. Someone in the crowd knew of a large grain field in Calhoun Falls, SC, some 15 miles to the southwest, that would be suitable for landing. The passengers and their baggage were driven there. Turner got the big Sikorsky back into the air and headed for Calhoun Falls.
A farm worker was driving a wagon through the grain field. Thinking he was in mortal danger from the low flying plane, he whipped his mules, dodging back and forth. A bystander drove his car out into the field to calm the worker and get him and his wagon out of Turner’s way.
One of the passengers noted smoke coming from the troubled engine. As is the case today, an inflight engine fire while airborne can be exceptionally bad news. Turner circled and put the plane back on the ground in the grain field. The previous overheat had caused a piston to crack, allowing oil into the combustion chamber.
This time, no one knew how long it would take to get spare parts and make repairs. The flight was canceled.
Interestingly, this wasn’t the first time the Sikorsky had been forced down with water-cooling trouble. That occurred on May 9, 1925, in Baltimore before Turner bought the plane.
Although the 1926 Atlanta-to-New York attempt failed, the effort drew wide press coverage for Atlanta throughout the Southeast and even as far as Huntingdon, IN.
The Abbeville adventure bore a striking resemblance to the U.S Post Office’s launch of the nation’s first scheduled air mail service In Washington, DC, on May 15, 1918. The initial route was to New York with a stop in Philadelphia.
VIPs assembled to watch the takeoff included President Thomas Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924), U.S. Postmaster General Albert Sidney Burleson (1863-1937), and Assistant Secretary of the Navy (later president) Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945).
At 11:47 a.m., Army 2nd LT George L. Boyle shoved forward the throttle in his Curtiss JN4HM “Jenny” biplane and lifted off the polo grounds.
He followed the wrong railroad tracks and, 18 minutes later, landed at Waldorf, MD, to figure out what had gone wrong. Boyle touched down hard and the Jenny’s propeller broke. He, and his 140 pounds of mail, returned to Washington in a truck.
Originally Army pilots flew the mail, but this did not work out well. The Air Mail Act of 1925--the Kelly Act--authorized the U.S. postmaster general to contract for domestic airmail service with commercial air carriers. It also set airmail postage rates and established what the government would pay the mail haulers.
Although individual barnstormers already were charging for rides, the Kelly Act is considered the beginning of U.S. commercial aviation.
On January 17, 1930, after several corporate iterations, Pitcairn Aviation became Eastern Air Transport (later Eastern Airlines).
Atlanta’s first scheduled passenger service began October 13, 1930, when American Airlines began flying from Atlanta Municipal Airport to Dallas and Los Angeles.
The fate of the million-dollar check is not recorded. In all likelihood it was returned to the Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank.
On April 3, 1928, Turner sold the S29A to the Caddo Company, Inc. of Hollywood, CA. The plane crashed March 29, 1929, while posing as a German Gotha G. V bomber in Howard Hughes’s WWI movie epic, Hell’s Angels. This time, it was beyond repair.
Atlanta’s airport was renamed William B. Hartsfield International Airport in 1971, honoring a former mayor and passenger on the 1926 flight. In 2003, the City Council voted to rename it Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, honoring Maynard Holbrook Jackson (1938-2013) who was elected the city’s first African-American mayor in 1973.
A final detail: the ambitious young newspaper reporter who organized the 1926 flight was John K. Ottley, Sr. (1903-1982), the author’s father, and a former member of the American Legion’s Fulton County Post 134. Ottley, Sr. left The Atlanta Journal March 1, 1928, to become southeastern promotion executive for Pitcairn Aviation. Later, he joined Eastern Airlines, served in the U.S. Army Air Force in WWII, and ended his career in the advertising field.
 Also famous for producing and promoting the Juan de la Cierva C30 autogiro.
 Located on its right side.
 Than by train.
 Eielson AFB, AK, is named for him.
 Sometimes every 5-10 miles.
 31 mph faster than Turner’s two-engine Sikorsky.
 On April 16, 1925, he persuaded Atlanta Mayor Walter Arthur Sims (1880-1953) to lease an automobile racetrack from Coca Cola magnate Asa Griggs Candler (1851-1929). It would become the city’s airport.
 Later 31st president of the U.S.
 Grandfather of current president, Lamar T. West, Sr.
 Fred J. Wiseman claimed to have flown the first air mail by plane on February 18, 1911, when he delivered two letters 15 miles from Petaluma, CA to Santa Rosa, CA.
 24 cents an ounce ($4.50 in today’s money).
 Thus renamed in 1942.
 The Greenwood (SC) Index-Journal reported the amount was $5,000, while the Abbeville
(SC) Press and Banner stated it was $9,000.
About North Georgia website
Contract Air Mail website
Georgia Info, a University of Georgia website
Hartsfield-Jackson Airport website
SHORPY Historical Photos website
Sikorsky Aviation News Archives
Sometimes Interesting website
Abbeville (SC) Press and Banner of May 27, 1926
Duffy, James P. Lindbergh vs. Roosevelt. Regnery Publishing, Inc. Washington, DC. 2010
Greenwood (SC) Index-Journal
John Ottley Sr,’s autobiography
Kuhn, Clifford, M., Joye, Harlon E., and West, E. Bernard. Living Atlanta: An Oral History of the City. University of Georgia Press. Athens, GA, and London. 1990.
Schwaemmle, Frederick John. The Life of an Aviator in His Own Words (personal memoir). Edited and supplemented by his son, Fritz.
The Pitcairn Mailwing by Robert G. Waldvogel
Vintage Airplane Magazine