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FreightWaves Classics/Fallen Flags: Varney Air Lines delivers the mail

On this date in 1926, Varney Air Lines officially began service as an airmail carrier. The company made history with a U.S. airmail flight that began in Pasco, Washington. The April 6, 1926 edition of the Salt Lake Tribune reported “America’s most modern and rapid transportation of mail was brought to the Northwest today.”

The backstory

Congress passed HR 7064 (“An Act to encourage commercial aviation and to authorize the Postmaster General to contract for Air Mail Service”). Also known as “The Kelly Act” for its primary sponsor, it directed the U.S. Post Office Department (USPO) to contract with private airlines to carry mail over designated routes, many of which were to connect with the government-operated Transcontinental Air Mail route between New York and San Francisco. 

Walter T. Varney. (Photo: nvahof.org)
Walter T. Varney. (Photo: nvahof.org)

During World War I, Walter T. Varney had been a pilot in the aviation section of the U.S. Signal Corps. After the war he founded Varney Air Lines in Boise, Idaho. Following passage of the Kelly Act, Varney won the contract to haul mail for USPO from Pasco to Elko, Nevada with an intermediate stop in Boise. That contract was one of the first “to be awarded to a private airline by the U.S. Post Office Department for designated mail-delivery routes.” By the way, Varney was the only bidder. 

Boise Postmaster L.W. Thrailkill brought the city into the aerial age. He heard about the proposed Northwest postal air route and quickly wrote a petition and got signatures from three dozen postmasters from the towns surrounding Boise. 

At that time, Pasco was a rail center, more or less midway between Portland, Seattle and Spokane. Mail trains that left those cities in the evening arrived in Pasco early the next morning. Mail could then be transferred to and from airplanes, which would cut coast-to-coast delivery by days. This was the logic for basing the service in Pasco.

The first day – Cuddeback

Chief pilot Leon Dewey “Lee” Cuddeback took flight at 6:20 a.m. (Pacific Time) on April 6 in a Laird Swallow biplane with a top speed of about 90 miles per hour. The 207 pounds of mail he carried had been delivered to the airport less than an hour earlier by a six-horse stagecoach! 

The first load of airmail is delivered to Varney Air Lines by stagecoach! (Photo: United Airlines Historical Foundation)
The first load of airmail is delivered to Varney Air Lines by stagecoach! (Photo: United Airlines Historical Foundation)

Nearly 2,500 people were at the Pasco airport that morning to cheer on Cuddeback as he took to the skies for the first leg of his southbound journey to Boise, Idaho.

Cuddeback reached Boise at 10:10 a.m. (Mountain Time) without incident, and was greeted by a similarly large and enthusiastic crowd. He was given two more sacks of mail to transport and departed Boise at 10:58 a.m. en route to Elko, Nevada. 

He reached Elko at 12:38 p.m. (Pacific Time) and was once again welcomed with fanfare. Cuddeback’s flying time of four hours and 28 minutes was a significant improvement over the 49 hours it would have taken a train to deliver mail from Pasco to Elko. More importantly, his flight marked the first scheduled delivery of airmail by a civilian in the United States.

The first day – Rose 

Another of Varney Air Lines’ pilots, Franklin Rose, took the controls of the Laird Swallow, flying the refueled biplane and a new load of mail on its trip from Elko to Pasco via Boise. However, Rose’s return flight that afternoon was much less successful and much more dramatic. He did not arrive in Boise by 6:00 p.m., so the Varney Air Lines staff began to frantically try to find the missing pilot and airplane. 

Rose and his Laird Swallow had been pushed 75 miles off course by a storm before he made a forced landing in a field near Jordan Valley, Oregon. The Laird was undamaged, but was stuck in the field’s deep mud and Rose could not move it.

Rose and the mail plane remained missing for two days until he managed to reach a telephone on April 8. He had carried the 98 pounds of mail for miles by foot and later on a horse borrowed from a farmer. The mail arrived at the post office in Pasco late on the morning of April 9, three days after leaving Elko.

A Varney Air LInes tag. (Image: National Air and Space Museum/Smithsonian Institution)
A Varney Air LInes tag.
(Image: National Air and Space Museum/Smithsonian Institution)

United Airlines 

Over the next several years Varney upgraded his fleet, adding a Breese-Wilde Model 5 and replacing his original Swallows with the C-3, built by Stearman. Thereafter, he upgraded as new equipment came on the market, including the larger M-2 “Bull” Stearman and the Boeing 40 dedicated mail plane. 

Varney Air Lines added Salt Lake City, Portland and Seattle to its routes. The airline also began to carry passengers. In 1930, Varney Air Lines was acquired by United Aircraft and Transport Corporation, which had been formed by the earlier merger of Boeing and Pratt & Whitney Aircraft. Varney Air Lines was folded into United Aircraft and Transport’s airlines group along with Pacific Air Transport, Boeing Air Transport and National Air Transport, which were also acquired.

In 1934, a scandal involving airmail contracts resulted in the passage of the Air Mail Act, which prohibited aircraft manufacturers from operating airlines. This resulted in the break-up of United Aircraft and Transport Corporation. The company’s airlines group became United Airlines. Because Varney Air Lines was part of United, the airline uses Varney’s founding year of 1926 as its founding year. This makes United Airlines the oldest commercial airline in the United States.

An early advertising poster for United Air Lines. (Image: SFO Museum)
An early advertising poster for United Air Lines. (Image: SFO Museum)

Continental Airlines

Walter Varney and Louis Mueller founded Varney Speed Lines in 1934. Robert F. Six became aware of an opportunity to buy into the Southwest Division of Varney Speed Lines, which needed funds for its newly acquired route between Pueblo and El Paso. Six was introduced to Mueller, and bought into the airline with $90,000, becoming the airline’s general manager on July 5, 1936. Six was instrumental in renaming the carrier Continental Air Lines (later modified to “Airlines”) on July 8, 1937. Six sought the change to “Continental” because that name reflected his goal to have the airline fly all directions throughout the United States. 

A Continental Airlines Corvair 240. (Photo: yesterdaysairlines.com)
A Continental Airlines Convair 240. (Photo: yesterdaysairlines.com)

Legacy

UAL Corporation, the parent company of United Airlines (the direct successor of Varney Air Lines), acquired Continental Airlines in an all-stock transaction on October 1, 2010.

Walter T. Varney’s 1926 air freight contract grew into one of the world’s largest airlines.