June 15, 1928
The first successful aircraft-to-train transfer of mail took place in southwestern Illinois. This pioneering handover from a U.S. Army airship (also known at the time as a dirigible) to an Illinois Central Railroad (IC) train specifically occurred in the vicinity of the city of Belleville.
That experiment in mail delivery was a joint effort of Colonel John A. Paegelow, commanding officer of the Army aviation base Scott Field (located near Belleville and now designated as Scott Air Force Base); and IC officials. The U.S. War Department’s Air Corps News Letter recounted, “There was practically no advance preparation other than setting the time of the attempt and the place, one of the purposes of the test being to demonstrate the possibility of intercepting a train in an emergency and transferring mail or passengers from airship to train while both are in motion.”
The New Orleans-bound express train participating in the test left Belleville at 7:21 on the morning of June 15. At just about that same time, Paegelow was given a sack filled with mail for use in the planned linkup with the train. The sack was quickly placed on board a C-class patrol airship there at the base. (The above photo taken in 1925 shows that type of airship flying over Scott Field.) Lieutenants Karl S. Axtater and Edward H. White, along with at least four other servicemen, then took to the skies in the airship to catch up with the train and drop off the mail.
That task was a lot easier said than done. The obstacles that the airship’s crew had to deal with included the numerous block signals and crosswires set up along the tracks. In addition, that morning’s weather presented its own unique hindrances. The Air Corps News Letter reported, “A crosswind made it difficult to keep the ship, which is 210 feet [64 meters] long, in a position parallel to the train and there was danger of fouling the rudder in the telephone lines along the track.”
Another big challenge involved the efforts to synchronize the speed of the airship with that of the train. The engineer of the train slowed it down on a couple of occasions in hopes of better matching up the speeds of each transportation mode, only to have the airship overshoot that train’s railway post office car (mail coach) each of those times. Ultimately, however, the sought-after transfer of mail was accomplished just a few miles (kilometers) outside Belleville.
“The dirigible was over the tracks as the train came in view,” reported the Associated Press (AP). “The airship crew, regulating its speed to correspond with that of the train, maneuvered into position over the mail coach.” This AP news account then stated, “The dirigible was brought down over the train so that the [aircraft’s] control car rested on top of the coach for a moment as a member of the crew handed the sack to a mail clerk standing in the doorway of the coach.” After this first-of-a-kind multimodal mail delivery was completed, the airship was flown back by its crew to Scott Field.
Photo Credit: Public Domain
Additional information on the first official transfer of mail from an aircraft to a train is available at https://media.defense.gov/2011/Apr/22/2001330125/-1/-1/0/AFD-110422-030.pdf