The Saratoga Sun -

Mail by the 'seat of their pants'

Pair delves into history of Wyoming Airmail with new book

 

Starley Talbott left, shares a laugh with Michael Kassel, co-author of Wyoming Airmail Pioneers after a book signing at the Medicine Bow Museum.

Wyoming's contribution to aviation history cannot be understated when looking back at the world of air we know now.

The first airline school for stewardesses used by Boeing Transport–which later morphed into United Airlines–was based in Cheyenne. The school for stewardesses started in the early 1930s and was in operation in Cheyenne until it moved to Chicago in 1961. Before the school opened, there had never been servers on planes. The job of stewardess originated in Wyoming.

According to the book, "Wyoming Airmail Pioneers", by authors Starley Talbott and Michael E. Kassel, during World War II, Cheyenne had 3,000 people working at the Cheyenne modification centers and a total of 5,736 planes were retrofitted from September 1942 to July 1945.

Nearly half of all Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bombers used in the war had new military technology installed in Cheyenne's modification facilities.

Cheyenne's modification center was the largest in the Rocky Mountain region not Denver or Salt Lake City.

Wyoming's prominence in aviation history makes sense when looking at the major route airmail pioneers used between Chicago and San Francisco going back to 1920.

Although Kassel and Talbott are knowledgeable about all years of aviation history concerning Wyoming, their book focuses on the airmail pioneers.

Talbott met Kassel three years ago while she was working on a pictorial book on Cheyenne's Frontier Days and she credits him with helping her tremendously.

"Michael works at the Old West Museum in Cheyenne as curator and he is knowledgeable about so many subjects.," Talbot said. "He is a wonderful speaker and I went to a program where he addressed the airmail pioneers."

Talbott knew then she wanted to join forces and do a book with Kassel. She says Kassel did a lot of research on the topic, making the book easy to visualize.

Kassel has been interested in Wyoming history since his days at University of Wyoming. He wrote his thesis on Cheyenne versus Denver and fight for aviation supremacy along the Rocky Mountain front range. It was during this time he became aware of Wyoming airmail pioneer's contributions.

"Because of United having their headquarters in Cheyenne and the path the airmail pilots followed from Chicago to San Francisco, Cheyenne and Wyoming was the center for aviation in the Rockies, not Denver," Kassel said. "That was until after World War II."

The Rockies around Denver could not be flown over with the planes used during the early 1920s for air mail service, so Southern Wyoming became the dominant route used by airmail pilots because of the railroad. Union Pacific had laid out a path that avoided most mountains and had towns for the pilots to land in.

Initially, air mail was started in 1918 and military planes were used. In 1920, the U.S. Post Office took over and established the flight path of planes and operated those routes until 1927 when commercial airlines took over.

Pilots used landmarks in the beginning and only flew in the daytime. In 1924, regular nighttime flights for air mail started when beacons were installed at airfields and marking lights were placed at emergency landing strips.

Pilots took their lives into their hands with this job. During the nine years the U. S. Post Office ran the mail delivery service, 32 pilots died.

Kassel said the planes were dangerous with little in the way of instrument panels, and one pilot who died lost sight of the railroad tracks after leaving Medicine Bow area.

"He got caught in a snow squall, lost sight of the tracks and crashed into Elk Mountain," Kassel said. "Around Elk Mountain was considered the most dangerous part of the flight to San Francisco from Chicago."

Most people in Carbon County, flyers or not, would understand the pilots' fear of being in the air near Elk Mountain.

"These guys flew by the seat of their pants and they had to take some incredible risks," Kassel said. "Some of the tales are just phenomenal. These guys were some of the best to have graced the skies anywhere."

Kassel and Talbott have stories of different pilot exploits, but Harold T. (Slim) Lewis has one of the funniest stories.

Lewis often found himself landing in pastures when weather dictated he should get out of the sky. One foggy day, Lewis had to land his plane east of Cheyenne at the Wyoming Hereford Ranch into what he thought was an empty pasture. It wasn't. He crashed into the prize sire bull of the ranch. Lewis told the owners not to worry, that the Post Office would pay for their loss. When the bill was submitted, the Washington D.C. Post Office headquarters asked the Cheyenne Post Office superintendent if Lewis "had exterminated a whole herd of bulls."

Kassel and Talbott's book chronicles the planes used, how the U.S. Post Office came to embrace air mail, the pioneer pilots and parts of aviation history.

Kassel and Talbot will be giving a presentation on Wyoming airmail pioneers at the Encampment Opera House from 6:30 p.m. until 7:30 p.m. September 21. Afterwards, they will be doing a book signing.

Refreshments and door prizes will be offered.

The book has pictures from the times of early aviation history along with its tales of the pilots.

Talbott thanks Kassel for getting her interested in this period of time in Wyoming.

In return, Kassel thanks Talbott for helping him pull all his research together into a book.

"Without Starley, these stories would never be out there the way they are now," concluded Kassel.

Any aviation buff or historian should not miss this program on September 21.

The 10 year slice of time the authors concentrate with the airmail pioneers allows an understanding to how far aviation has come in a 100 years and Wyoming's place in flight history.

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