Published in July 2015 issue
Based in Wilmington, Delaware, and backed by the prestigious DuPont family, it established a mail pick-up service that, ingeniously, did not require landings and take-offs at intermediate points. Rather, an airplane took a low fly-by of the field where the outgoing mail pouch was secured to a wire strung between two posts. A cable extending from the aircraft would snag the outgoing mail sack with a hook while the inbound mail was deposited in another pouch dropped from the plane. This clever procedure brought airmail service to dozens of small communities in the Mid-Atlantic States, West Virginia, and Ohio.
By David H. Stringer
The pick-up system was the brainchild of inventor and company founder Lytle S. Adams. Richard C. DuPont provided the financing and organization to transform Adams’s concept into a successful commercial enterprise. DuPont and Adams eventually went their separate ways, and DuPont took over operation of the company.
Holding a certificate for an experimental operation, All American Aviation launched its service on May 12, 1939, operating a fleet of five Stinson SR-10C Reliants on routes extending from Pittsburgh to bring airmail service to small cities and towns in the mountains and valleys of western Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
The airmail pick-up concept was almost written off as merely an interesting experiment. The service was unable to operate at night because of the risks involved in performing the low altitude fly-bys after dark. As most correspondence was mailed and postmarked at the end of the business day, the nighttime restriction was a serious handicap.
Then, World War II broke out and, with civilians on the home front avidly writing to their loved ones overseas, the volume of airmail skyrocketed. All American’s revenues increased dramatically and many other companies around the country followed the innovator’s lead and applied for airmail pick-up route certificates. All American Aviation applied for more pick-up routes as well: in New England, the Great Lakes region, and the Southeast. The requests for new airmail pick-up authority were to be considered by the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) during the same hearings in which it would review requests for feeder airline certificates and helicopter service certificates.
Just as the onset of war had seen a rise in All American’s revenue, the end of the war brought a decline in available mail. The flow of correspondence to servicemen decreased and highway improvements accommodated the use of more mobile postal units by the Post Office Department.
Like the new feeder carriers, the company was dependent on airmail subsidies. The feeders, however, also generated revenue from carrying passengers, a source of income unavailable to All American. Feeder airlines carried airmail aboard their passenger flights; All American considered doing the opposite. The company proposed combining passenger service with the airmail pick-up, landing the aircraft at airports between the pick-up points to accommodate passenger boarding and deplaning. At first the CAB was optimistic about the prospect—if and when an aircraft suitable for such operations would become available. But, as time passed, the proposal lost favor. The numerous quick descents and ascents required for servicing mail at the smaller towns would not be conducive to passenger comfort and the CAB wisely questioned the safety of the concept. The idea was shelved.
The low-altitude airmail pick-up scheme turned out to be a short-lived phenomenon. By the time the CAB got around to issuing a decision on All American’s request to establish pick-up routes in the New England states in 1946, it was clear that the concept had seen its heyday. All American’s applications for expansion into other regions, as well as airmail pick-up proposals by other applicants, were rejected. The company had petitioned for permission to serve 168 points on an extensive network of pick-up routes extending from Buffalo, New York, to Bangor, Maine.
In its decision, the Board stated that “All American’s operating requirements compel it to originate its schedules not earlier than a half hour before sunup and to contact its last pickup station within a half hour after sunset. This pattern, as proposed for the New England Case communities, is not designed for first-carrier delivery in the morning, nor for the handling of the great bulk of mail originating in the late afternoon.” The Post Office Department was so little interested that it did not even send a representative to All American’s New England Case proceedings.
At its zenith after the war, All American Aviation had provided air mail pick-up service to 121 communities in six states, from Delaware to Ohio, serving many small cities and towns embedded in the mountainous terrain of the Appalachians. While the executive offices remained in Wilmington, the operations base was more centrally located in Pittsburgh. The company’s primary fleet type was the Stinson Reliant. In addition, All American had purchased two Beech D-18Cs in anticipation of the joint passenger/airmail pick-up flights that never materialized. All American’s unique type of operation was now losing money hand over fist. The CAB determined that the needs of the traveling public and the Post Office Department would be better served by conventional passenger-carrying operations and, by late 1947, it had become obvious that All American’s future lay in the hopes of establishing a traditional feeder service.
In 1948, looking favorably upon All American’s nine years of experience operating a complicated aviation enterprise throughout the Mid-Atlantic States, the CAB selected the company over other applicants to provide feeder airline service in the region. All American now had the opportunity to transport passengers, mail and freight to cities and towns with adequate airport facilities in the same region that it had served with airmail pick-up flights.
The certificated routes stretched west from Pittsburgh to Cincinnati, north to Buffalo, and eastward over Pennsylvania’s mountainous terrain to Philadelphia and Washington. Each route included several intermediate small cities, the primary reason for the airline’s existence. All American was also certificated to provide feeder service east to Atlantic City, New Jersey, and to cities in Maryland and Delaware on the Delmarva Peninsula.
Both Lytle S. Adams and Richard DuPont had championed the airmail pick-up service as a way to bring the benefits of the air age to those small cities and towns that lacked access to an airport large enough to accommodate transport aircraft. With the award of a feeder airline certificate, that vision could be taken a step further by bringing passenger transportation to smaller cities, many of which, after the war, now had airports capable of handling DC-3s. DuPont did not live to see this blossoming of the seed that he had planted back in the late 1930s, when his money and his foresight had gotten All American Aviation off of the ground. He was killed in a glider accident in California in 1943.
Guiding the company now was Robert M. Love, whose task it was to transform the air transport division of the company from a mail carrier to a traditional passenger service. The company would use war-surplus C-47s, converted to passenger DC-3 standards. The name of the air transport division was changed from All American Aviation to the more suitable All American Airways, and the airline’s executive offices were moved from Wilmington to Washington National Airport.
Meanwhile, All American’s engineering division, which had developed and manufactured the mail pick-up equipment, continued to function in Wilmington. The division used the knowledge gained from developing the pick-up apparatus to develop applications for the military, including pick-up mechanisms to save downed flyers.
Before inaugurating passenger service, the company was awarded one more new feeder route by the CAB: a link between Pittsburgh and New York (Newark, New Jersey) via several cities in central and northern Pennsylvania.
All American Airways operated its first scheduled passenger flight as a feeder carrier on March 7, 1949, over the route between Washington and Pittsburgh via Baltimore, Frederick, and Hagerstown, Maryland; Martinsburg, West Virginia; then back into Maryland to land at Cumberland; and, finally, Connellsville/ Uniontown, Pennsylvania. The airline’s other certificated routes were phased into service with a fleet of 11 Douglas DC-3s during the course of the spring and summer, until the entire system was operational by July 25. Meanwhile, the airmail pick-up service was being phased out, route-by-route. On June 30, 1949, the last Stinson-operated pick-up flight followed the old Route 49D from Jamestown, New York, to Pittsburgh, with many descents to scoop up airmail pouches in between. The innovative pick-up service had come to an end. The company had completed its transition.
It was not an easy task to transform a business that flew Stinson Reliants on somewhat daredevil maneuvers that involved scooping up mail sacks, into an operator of passenger-carrying transports that catered to the needs of the traveling public. But it needed to be done. As Robert M. Love stated in All American’s 1949 Annual Report: “Airmail pickup suffered from a continuing ailment that, over the years, constantly sapped its financial strength. That ailment was that, fundamentally, airmail pick-up had only one customer, the United States Post Office and, as such, it was never able to gain the strength necessary for an expanding operation. Only by amplifying our service to include passengers and thereby increasing our earnings potential… could we hope to have an economically self-sufficient company.”
As expected, All American Airways lost money in its first year of passenger operation. Getting a feeder airline off the ground was an expensive proposition. As Love went on to report in 1949, the company had to set up “the equivalent of 35 ‘branch offices’ in 35 different localities within the space of a very few months. By ‘branch offices’ I mean, of course, company operated stations at each landing point on our route. Each station had to be staffed with trained personnel, equipped with Teletype and telephone communications, and have a radio receiver and transmitter installed so that it could communicate with both arriving and departing flights. In addition, each station had to be stocked with the required equipment, covering well over 100 items, from pencils, paper clips, and stationery, through tickets, scales for weighing baggage, a safe and arrangements for a local bank account.”
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Personnel had to be hired and trained. Manuals had to be written. A maintenance organization had to be set up and stocked with spare parts. A communications network had to be established over the entire route system. An intensive advertising campaign was undertaken to familiarize the public with All American’s new service, and, of course, money had to be spent to acquire and modify the fleet of DC-3s.
By the end of summer 1950, Love could report that All American had “forged ahead… to first place” among the local service carriers for number of passengers carried. He was confident that All American had established a pattern of service reliability, one which could give customers from the cities and towns around the system access to air travel “on a scale comparable with that enjoyed by the long-established air carriers.”
The CAB assisted All American in its early years by allowing some modification to route patterns for better traffic flow and by granting permission to terminate service at a few underperforming stations.
In addition to being a transportation lifeline to the smaller cities that it served in the Mid- Atlantic region, All American was blessed with a lucrative route authority to serve resort locations on Delaware’s “Eastern Shore”, and Cape May/ Wildwood, New Jersey, in the summer season, when tourists flocked to the region. While these flights carried a “high volume” of traffic, Love was quick to point out that there was a “daily unbalance caused by large amounts of one-way travel.” In other words, full airplanes traveled to the Shore at the beginning of summer and on Fridays all season long, while full airplanes returned from The Shore toward the end of the summer and on Sundays. The CAB helped by adjusting the dates for this service to be provided each year to more closely match the beginning of the “season” in these resort towns.
All American Airways continued to lose money until it reported a small profit at the end of fiscal year 1951. However, for the calendar year 1952, the airline reported a net loss of $141,947.
Not only had All American Aviation pioneered the airmail pick-up service, the company’s engineering and research division had invented all of the equipment used in the operation. Even after the airmail pick-up had been long abandoned, All American’s engineering division, still located in Wilmington, was working on projects that were outgrowths of the equipment originally manufactured by the company; customers included the US military and Goodyear Aircraft’s airship division, a component of the tire and rubber company. By 1952, it was apparent that the development and manufacturing of equipment undertaken by All American Aviation’s engineering division had little in common with the feeder airline, All American Airways. It was time to separate the two companies and for each to become an autonomous entity.
In October 1952, the stockholders and the board of directors transformed the engineering division into a new corporation to be called All American Engineering Company. All American Airways was given its independence. This presented the opportunity to rechristen the airline with a new name. The company’s route system stretched across the Allegheny Mountains and the Allegheny Plateau, so it seemed appropriate to choose the name for the new corporate identity. As of January 1, 1953, All American Airways officially became Allegheny Airlines.
That April, a new leader was selected to help transform Allegheny into an airline that could make the most of the territory it served. Robert M. Love was named chairman of the board, and Leslie O. Barnes, recruited from American Airlines, took over as president of Allegheny Airlines. Barnes would spend the next 22 years at the helm, developing Allegheny into a top performer among America’s local service carriers.