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Laura Seitz, Deseret News
A 1927 Stearman C3B biplane stops at an airport in West Jordan on Wednesday while retracing the original 15-stop transcontinental airmail route.

Flying in three open-cockpit 1920s biplanes, a group of aviation enthusiasts landed in Utah to commemorate the 90th anniversary of U.S. airmail.

They are flying from New York to California, retracing the original 15-stop transcontinental airmail route.

Addison Pemberton, flight coordinator for the trip, said when they flew by New York City, air traffic controllers held air traffic for them, had them fly close to the tower so controllers could see the planes, and allowed them to fly close to the Statue of Liberty, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Had anyone else done that, "they would spend the rest of their lives in jail," he said.

In the Midwest, remnants of Hurricane Ike hurled rain, blew gale-force winds and threw fog at the planes, grounding them for four days and five nights in Nebraska.

"It was rain of biblical proportions," Pemberton said.

When the storms cleared, the trip resumed in weather he said was akin to flying in a vacuum. "The air was still and smooth," he said.

The planes arrived at Salt Lake City Municipal 2 Airport in West Jordan to a cheering crowd about 11 a.m. Wednesday. The pilots removed the mail bags and turned them over to United States Postal Service representatives.

The bags held actual mail, according to Pania Heimuli of the Postal Service in Salt lake City. She said the service gathered about 600 pieces of mail from a nationwide advertising campaign for the anniversary. At each stop, officials added a city-specific postmark using a hand stamp. Pemberton said it will be delivered to customers after the last stop in San Francisco.

The pilots of old navigated by landmarks such as roads, railways, and eventually concrete arrows and light beacons to get mail to its destination.

Pemberton said his group navigates in a modern way.

"We cheat," he said. "We use GPS."

However, they still have to keep the ground in sight, so the planes usually fly at 1,000 feet. Any higher poses a problem.

"You go into the clouds, you die," Pemberton said.

Many early pilots did die delivering airmail. After a while, the Postal Service got out of the flying business and began contracting out airmail delivery, which Pemberton said gave rise to commercial aviation in the U.S.

Pemberton enjoys flying the 1928 Boeing 40C, a plane he said was state of the art at the time. It's the oldest Boeing still flying in the country. Being at the controls transports him back in time.

"When you are away from the cities, you are in 1928," he said, because between cities the land is often untouched.

After a Texaco fuel truck filled the tanks located in the biplanes' wings, the pilots began preflight inspections for the trip to their next stop in Elko, Nev.

Propellers spinning, the planes taxied down the runway and took off, leaving behind a cheering crowd and feelings of nostalgia.


E-mail: lwilde@desnews.com