Friday, August 22, 2008

Vintage airplane takes to the sky

As Larry Tobin rolled his biplane out of the hangar at tiny Felts Field airport in Spokane, you could feel a rush of nostalgia in the air.

This was the final test flight before he leaves on trip that has been the buzz of aviation enthusiasts. Tobin and two other antique aircraft will reenact the first transcontinental Postal Service Air Mail flight 90 years ago.

The trio will start their trip from New York Republic field. The planes will appeat at a total of 15 historic Air Mail stops long the way and finally land in San Francisco. The trip will take six calendar days with approximately 29 flying hours.

The flight will carry several hundred pieces of U.S. Mail –– envelopes that will collect postmarks from each stop along the way.Tobin’s aircraft has been lovingly refurbished, and has more than 80 percent of its original parts, including the wooden wings.
It has taken Tobin several years – and more than $200,000 –– to restore the airplane.Tobin’s airplane, a 1927 Stearman C3B, will be joined by a 1928 Boeing 40C and a 1930 Stearman 4E. All three airplanes were at one time used to carry mail.

Spokane Postmaster Karen Fairlee was on site to witness the test flight when Tobin offered her a ride.Strapped into the front seat with flight cap and modern communications equipment, Fairlee took to the friendly skies for a bird’s eye view of her domain.“It’s like riding in a convertible,” she said.

One major innovation to the airplane is GPS device to pinpoint location, but Tobin, a retired commercial airline pilot, normally uses major highways for long-distance trips. Having a big patch of asphalt is also handy for that unplanned stopover. “It’s easier to land and get help,” said Tobin.

With a 42-gallon tank and a top speed of 100 mph Tobin says he can travel far, but rarely exceeds two hours because of the physical exertion of flying.

The reenactment flight will start Sept. 10 from New York Republic Field. It will stop at historic airstrips in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and California. The planes will touch down at Hayward, CA on Sept. 15.

The first Air Mail flight would prove to be a boon to aviation. Air Mail service eventually became both reliable and lucrative, so manufacturers began to engineer larger airplanes. These planes could carry cargo along with the mail and eventually passengers.One of the modern aviation giants, United Airlines, got its start as an airmail network. The airline industry literally was born from a sack of mail.

Just like today, there was a constant need to move the mail along faster and also, just like today, the answer was found in better technology. The Postal department pressed for and funded better navigational instruments, radio communications and beacons to fly at night.

Spokane Postmaster Karen Fairlee

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