Our Iowa Heritage: Iowa City – The Airport.

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(S-0031) The first U.S. postage stamp to feature an airplane (1912)

The Iowa City Airport Airmail Field Terminal – 1918.  Opened in 1918, this is the oldest civil airport west of the Mississippi River still in its original location. Commercial aviation was born right here in Iowa City, as the very first air mail flights flew through Iowa City, and many of the early pioneers of flight landed here, including Wiley Post, Jack Knight, Charles Lindbergh, and Will Rogers.

Read about Iowa City’s first successful flight in October 1910.

ICairport (L-0016) In December 1919, the Post Office Department in Washington, D.C. telegraphed Iowa City Postmaster Max Mayer to ask for information about the field. Mayer wired back: “Aviation field one and one half miles southwest of the post office. West of river on Red Ball Highway. Seven-tenths of a mile from street car. City phone in farm house. Transportation available at post office. Property of W. J. Benjamin. Field 440 yards square. Four way landing, no trees or brush. No building for airplane. Temporary markings only. Wire markings desired. Aviators report field first class.”

Ten days later, on January 8, 1920, Iowa City became the only stop during the very first air mail flight from Chicago to Omaha. The pilot on the return trip, Walter J. Smith, had the privilege of flying a live 10-pound piglet – the very first “mail” flown from Iowa City to Chicago in his open cockpit biplane. The pig arrived safely, and history was made.

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(P-0103) Iowa City from the air: pre-1924.
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(P-0104) Circa: Iowa City from the air: post-1924.

On May 6, 1918, Congress authorized the Post Office Department to carry the mail by airplane. The airmail rate was set at 24¢ per ounce and thus the first airmail stamp was born! But convincing people to use airmail was a hard sell, because it was less efficient (mail dispatched by air only traveled during the day, taking more time to reach its destination than mail sent by train), rates were high, and planes occasionally crashed! Postmaster General Irving Glover responded by drawing up plans for “day & night flights,” employing private contractors to fly the mail, with the goal of proving that airmail service was a time-saving device. The U.S. (from New York to the Pacific Coast) was divided into several zones and airmail delivery for a one-ounce letter, from one zone to the next, was reduced to 16¢ per ounce.

(L-0075) National Geographic Magazine (January 1926) offered a 61-page article on the new ‘day & night’ U.S. mail flights, and included numerous pictures taken at the Iowa City airport, one of the primary stops on the intercontinental flights.

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(S-0032) In 1926, as air travel became safer and more contractors were entering into the competition, (Ford Motors was the first private contractor) the Postal Service announced a new rate system, with a one-ounce letter traveling less than 1,000 miles costing the customer only 10-cents. This stamp was released on February 13, 1926 to reflect the new rate.
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(S-0033) The new 10¢ for one-ounce rate encouraged new airmail business and more contractors began entering into flight agreements with the US Postal Service. Seven months after the release of the 10¢ postage stamp (#C7), it became necessary to issue this 15¢ stamp (same design but different color) to pay for a one-ounce letter being flown over 1,000 miles.
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(S-0034) In 1927, a new airmail rate was once again announced. Effective February 1, 1927, all zones would be eliminated, and mailing costs would reflect only the weight of a letter. So, now the 10¢ stamp (#C7) would cover the cost of any letter weighing up to a half-ounce, regardless of the distance it was traveling. But, because many airmail letters weighed more than one-half ounce, it was necessary to prepare a new 20¢ stamp for those letters weighing up to one ounce.
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(S-0035) This stamp marked the very first time that a living person was honored on a U.S. postage stamp. It was issued in response to thousands of urgent requests from people who wrote to Washington asking for such a commemorative stamp. There is little doubt that the trans-Atlantic flight of Colonel Charles A. Lindbergh (from New York to Paris) contributed more to the increased use of air transport than any event in history.
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(S-0036) In an all-out effort to increase the use of airmail service, the Post Office Department reduced the rate to 5¢ per ounce. Beginning with this issue, airmail service revolutionized the way U.S. mail was delivered. The design features the beacon light that is atop Sherman Hill in the Rocky Mountains.
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(S-0037) This stamp pictures a pilot’s wing insignia and the globe in honor of their bravery and spirit of adventure. 

February 1, 1927: A Day to Remember in Iowa City Aviation History.

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(C-0083) Air Mail Flight Cover postmarked in Iowa City  Iowa City to Cleveland to Buffalo Air Route.

July 1, 1927: A Day to Remember in Iowa City Aviation History.

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(C-0084)  Air Mail Flight Cover postmarked in Iowa City  Chicago to San Francisco Air Route – CAM 18 – Boeing Air Transport. In the earliest days of air transportation, Iowa City was the only fuel stop between Chicago and Omaha for all U.S. Air Mail flights. By the late 1920’s, as airmail was becoming more common, other cities were added into the stops along the way, and July 1, 1927 was certainly a memorable day in Iowa City aviation history.

First of all, July 1, 1927 was the first day when Boeing Air Transport took over the San Francisco to Chicago airmail route (CAM 18 – Contact Air Mail Route 18) for the U.S. Post Office. Under the terms of this agreement, Boeing assumed the responsibility not only to deliver the airmail, but to run the Iowa City airport as well, which meant both maintaining and improving the airport facility.

Secondly, July 1, 1927 marked the date of the first commercial passenger flight into Iowa City. The event was covered “from inside the plane” by Jane Eads, a reporter (and the sole passenger) from the Chicago Herald newspaper. The flight from Maywood, Illinois was uneventful, although the reporter confessed that during the Boeing biplane’s landing in Iowa City she actually thought the plane was crashing!

This rare cover (sent by Bill Schneider Jr. of Rahway, New Jersey on the Des Moines to Iowa City leg of the July 1st flights) features the new US#C10 10-cent Charles Lindbergh stamp and was signed by Pilot Ira O. Biffle, himself!

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Pilot Ira O. Biffle. The plane that flew into and out of Iowa City on July 1, 1927 was piloted by Ira O. Biffle of Lincoln, Nebraska — Charles Lindbergh’s first flight instructor!

ICairport-1927charleslindbergh Charles Lindbergh, student of Ira O. Biffle.

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Ira Biffle flew for different organizations, including the Nebraska Aircraft Corporation in Lincoln, Nebraska. While serving as a flying instructor there in April 1922, Biffle taught flying to a lanky young man named Charles Lindbergh. In “We,” written by Lindbergh in 1928, he noted that Biffle’s reputation as “the most ‘hard boiled’ instructor the army ever had during [World War I]” was still well known among the aviation students. Ira Biffle returned to flying for the Air Mail Service on August 6, 1923 and stayed on as a pilot until the service was turned over to commercial companies. In 1930, he was forced to retire as a pilot due to his failing eyesight. Biffle passed away on April 7, 1934 in Chicago at the age of 44 of heart disease.

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(C-0085) Air Mail Flight Cover postmarked in Iowa City  Chicago to San Francisco Air Route CAM 18 & CAM 17 – Boeing Air & National Air Transport.  Cover has the July 1, 1927 cachet.

(C-0086C-0087) Air Mail Flight Covers postmarked in Iowa City  Chicago to San Francisco Air Route – CAM 18 – Boeing Air Transport.  Covers have the July 1, 1927 cachet and features the new 10-cent Charles Lindbergh stamp.


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Will Rogers comes to Iowa City in June 1928.

August 1, 1928: A Day to Remember in Iowa City Aviation History.

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(C-0090) Air Mail Flight Cover postmarked in Iowa City  From Iowa City to Detroit – CAM 18 & CAM 27 – Boeing Air Transport & Trans-American.  Cover has the August 1, 1928 “Fly Your Mail – Iowa City” cachet and features the new 5-cent Beacon on the Rocky Mountains (C11) stamp. Beginning with this new 5-cent issue (C#11), airmail stamps were restricted to exclusive use on mail carried by air and could no longer be used as a substitute for ordinary postage.

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(C-0088) Air Mail Flight Cover postmarked in Iowa City  From Iowa City to San Francisco – CAM 18 – Boeing Air Transport.
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(C-0089) Air Mail Flight Post Card postmarked in Iowa City from Iowa City to San Francisco – CAM 18 – Boeing Air Transport. 

Cedar Rapids – July 10, 1928.

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(C-0093) Air Mail Flight Postcard postmarked in Cedar Rapids  Chicago to San Francisco Air Route – CAM 18 – Boeing Air Transport.  By 1928, airmail is becoming more popular. Rates will be reduced to five cents per ounce on August 1. This cover is postmarked on July 10, 1928, celebrate the first airmail flight into Cedar Rapids, and carries the 10-cent per ounce rate.
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(C-0093) The back of this postcard features a map of the expanding US airmail system. Notice that Iowa City and Des Moines are on the map, but the new site of Cedar Rapids does not yet appear.
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(C-0092)
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(C-0094) The International Civil Aeronautics Conference (ICAC) – December 1928. 25th Anniversary (Dec.17, 1903) of Wright Brothers flight cachet – Postmarked in Kitty Hawk, NC (5 days after the Civil Aeronautics Conference welcomed Orville Wright and Lindbergh).
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Between December 12 and 15, 1928, some of the most important figures in the new field of aviation gathered to exchange information and honor aeronautical achievements, especially those of the guest of honor, Orville Wright (Wilbur had died in 1912). Following the conference, the delegates even traveled to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, to attend ceremonies on the site exactly twenty-five years after the Wrights’ historic flight.

Since Orville and Wilbur Wright‘s historic flight a quarter century earlier, powered flight had come a long way. Airplanes were now accepted as part of the fabric of modern life. They had proved their military value in the recent World War and were increasingly finding roles in the civilian world, such as air mail service.

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(C-0095) National Air Mail Week – May 15-21, 1938  Postmarked in Iowa City: May 16, 1938. This bi-colored 6¢ airmail stamp was issued in celebration of National Airmail Week, which commemorated the 20th anniversary of the first government airmail flight (1918). President Franklin Roosevelt, a stamp enthusiast, was presented with some possible designs for the new stamp, but sketched his own idea instead. His flying eagle became the picture on the new airmail stamp.

The 6¢ Eagle first went on sale in Dayton, OH, the home of the Wright brothers, and St. Petersburg, FL, where the first passenger flight was made. A temporary post office was established, because the American Air Mail Society was holding its annual convention in St. Petersburg. To celebrate the anniversary, towns all over the U.S. prepared individual First Day Covers. Most covers were mailed on Thursday, May 19 to take part in special one-day-only flights. Towns with no airport cleared fields and closed roads so the planes could land and take-off with the special envelopes. The special purple postmark on this cover celebrates the first air mail service through Iowa City (Chicago to Omaha) on January 8, 1920.

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(C-0096) Air Mail Flight Cover Celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the First Trans-Continental Air Mail Route – September 8, 1920. The first full-transcontinental air mail flights began on September 8, 1920, with Iowa City being the one stop for fuel between Chicago and Omaha. These flights were only attempted in daylight hours, however, and provided little advantage over the train-delivered mail. Still, the concept of delivering mail by air was proven by these early flights. Five months later, in February 1921, Smith Field (Iowa City airport) was designated as a fuel stop on the first transcontinental day/night air mail attempt. This flight tested the feasibility of flying the mail around the clock, in all weather conditions.

This airmail cover, postmarked in 1945, celebrates the 25th anniversary of that first full-transcontinental air mail flight that came through Iowa City in September 1920. The cover features US #C26, the 8-cent issue in a new set of airmail stamps of the twin-motored transport plane which made their appearance from 1941 to 1946. These stamps were intended to cover the various rates in effect for both domestic and overseas airmail service, and the 8¢ issue was required when postage rates were increased to help finance WW II.

(P-0199) Circa 1940’s – Traveling in Style! Back in the day, the Skyway Cabins were the place to stay. “Strictly Modern – Hot Showers – Kitchens – Automatic Heat – Insulated – Shaded – Quiet” (except for the planes overhead!) What more could one ask? 

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(C-0097) Air Mail First-Day Cover Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of U.S. Air Mail (1918). A 10¢ Airmail stamp commemorating the 50th anniversary of regularly scheduled Air Mail was issued in Washington, DC, on May 15, 1968.  The horizontal stamp pictures a Curtiss Jenny, the 90-horsepower biplane that carried mail on the Washington-New York City run when Air Mail was first established on May 15, 1918.
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(C-0098)  Air Mail Cover Celebrating the 90th Anniversary of U.S. Air Mail Route #1 (1918).
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(C-0099)  Air Mail First-Day Cover Celebrating the 100th Anniversary of U.S. Air Mail (1918).
Iowa City from the air – Circa 1922.
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Iowa City from the air (circa 1930) – Airport to the south on the horizon.
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The Pentacrest from the air via the camera of Fred Kent.
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(P-0256) Iowa City from the air (circa 1965) – looking to the east.

Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

Iowa City’s First Flight, Iowa City Chronology, February 17, 1987, p 26

On the Trail of the Air Mail, Lieutenant J.Parker Van Zandt, National Geographic Magazine, Volume LXIX – Number One – January 1926, pp 1-61

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