Today in Transportation History – 1926: A Small Precursor to a Big Airline Makes Its First Flight

Varney Air Lines officially began service with a history-making U.S. airmail flight that originated in the city of Pasco, Washington. “America’s most modern and rapid transportation of mail was brought to the northwest today,” reported that day’s edition of the Salt Lake Tribune.

Walter T. Varney, founder of the predecessors of United and Continental Airlines, circa 1921.

Walter T. Varney, a pilot in the aviation section of the U.S. Signal Corps during World War I, had won an airmail contract in the fall of the previous year. This contract was one of the first to be awarded to a private airline by the U.S. Post Office Department for designated mail-delivery routes.

Varney’s airborne enterprise was launched at 6:20 a.m. (Pacific Time) on April 6, when his chief pilot Leon Dewey “Lee” Cuddeback flew out of Pasco in a Laird Swallow biplane with a sack of mail on board. (The sack had been delivered to the airport less than an hour earlier by a six-horse stagecoach.) Approximately 2,500 people were at the airport that morning to cheer Cuddeback on as he took to the skies for the first leg of his southbound journey in Boise, Idaho.

Cuddeback arrived in Boise at 10:10 a.m. (Mountain Time), and was greeted there by a similarly large and enthusiastic crowd. After receiving a couple of more sacks of mail to transport, Cuddeback departed Boise at 10:58 a.m. for the final stage of the route in Elko, Nevada. He reached Elko at 12:38 p.m. (Pacific Time) and was again welcomed with a great deal of fanfare. Cuddeback’s flying time of four hours and 28 minutes was a notable improvement over the 49 hours it would have normally taken a train to deliver mail from Pasco to Elko. In addition, this flight marked the first scheduled delivery of airmail by a civilian in the United States.

Another one of Varney’s pilots, Franklin Rose, subsequently took over for Cuddeback to fly the refueled biplane (carrying a new load of mail) on its northbound trip from Elko to Pasco via Boise. Rose’s return flight proved to be more dramatic than expected or even desired. When he did not make it to Boise by 6:00 that evening, the Varney Air Lines staff initiated a frantic and far-flung effort to find the missing pilot and aircraft. He was finally found the following day, grounded but uninjured in a desolate area just north of the Nevada-Idaho state line. The biplane had been blown about 65 miles (104.6 kilometers) off course, but Rose managed to land it safely in a grain field. Unfortunately, however, the aircraft became stuck in some deep mud there in the field and Rose was not able to resume his flight.

In 1930, Varney Air Lines was acquired by United Aircraft and Transport Corporation and merged into an airline group that also included Pacific Air Transport, Boeing Air Transport, and National Air Transport. This group, in turn, formed United Airlines in 1934.

For more information on the inaugural airmail flight of Varney Air Lines, please check out http://uahf.org/united_history_01.asp.

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