A Trailblazing Freight Flight Between New York City and Chicago

December 23, 1940

United Air Lines (later retitled United Airlines) launched what is generally regarded as the first all-cargo air service in the United States. The maiden flight for this service began when one of the company’s planes left New York City at 11:50 p.m. This aircraft, which carried approximately 2,500 pounds (1,134 kilograms) of mail and express deliveries but no passengers, landed in Chicago at 3:40 a.m. Central Standard Time after stopping in Cleveland en route.  

The plane used for this flight was a Douglas DC-4 airliner (pictured above). Just a few years earlier, United Air Lines president William A. Patterson had spearheaded the push for the Douglas Aircraft Company to develop this type of four-engine plane specifically for use as an airliner.

At the time of its first all-cargo trip from New York City to Chicago, United Air Lines announced plans to implement similar flights between those cities on a nightly basis. “Flights will be made with 12-ton [10.9-metric ton] Douglas Mainliners capable of transporting up to 5,000 pounds [2,268 kilograms] of mail and express,” reported the Wall Street Journal. “By utilizing passenger space, the planes will be able to carry not only much greater cargo loads but larger shipments than can be accommodated in cargo pits.”

As it turned out, this pioneering freight service lasted just over five months before United Air Lines canceled it. Nonetheless, the flights proved to be influential in the long term; within a few years, many U.S. airlines – including United Air Lines – had regular all-cargo services in place.

That New York City-Chicago freight delivery route also epitomized Patterson’s overall trailblazing style as United Air Lines president from 1934 to 1966. Under his longtime leadership, the company also introduced such other innovations as improved evacuation procedures for passengers; computerized flight plans; and hot-meal services in place of box lunches as an on-board dining option. “Though William Allan Patterson stood just 5 feet 3 inches [160 centimeters] tall, no one cast a longer shadow as a pioneer in commercial air travel,” reported the Los Angeles Times at the time of his death in 1980.  

For more information on the history of United Air Lines (now known as United Airlines), please check out https://www.centennialofflight.net/essay/Commercial_Aviation/UnitedAirlines/

Additional information on the history of freight delivery flights is available at https://www.freightwaves.com/news/flashback-friday-the-history-of-air-freight

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