Last month, the annual Reno Air Races once again thrilled thousands of aviation enthusiasts and speed freaks as six classes of aircraft hit speeds in excess of 500 mph. Billed as the “most unique air racing event and aviation experience in the world,” Reno’s Stead Field annually hosts this competition where people come to admire military and historic aircraft, as well as jaw-dropping aerobatic exhibitions. While watching these fine-tuned planes pivot and zoom through their paces, it is easy to forget that less than 100 years ago, no one had ever seen a plane in Nevada.
Truckee’s first airfield | Courtesy Truckee Donner Historical Society
The first effort to develop a reliable system of timely communication between the eastern United States and the Pacific Coast came when two promoters thought of using young men and fast horses to deliver letters and documents to California and Nevada communities. The Pony Express was in business for less than 19 months, but those brave men who delivered the U.S. mail over rugged mountains and waterless deserts made history. Starting in 1860, riders relayed their satchel of letters nearly 2,000 miles in just 10 days. When the transcontinental telegraph was completed in October 1861, the Pony Express was finished.
The telegraph sent messages through wires in the blink of an eye, but for the average person it was expensive and letters were still the standard method for communicating over distance. The next breakthrough came less than a decade later when Central Pacific and Union Pacific completed the first transcontinental railroad across the country. These two railroad companies raced each other to lay as much track as possible to earn lucrative government payments and federal land grants. Central Pacific worked east from California and Union Pacific pushed west: they finally met in Utah in May 1869.
“Pilots relayed the 400 pounds of mail to each other much like
a hi-tech version of the earlier Pony Express mail delivery system.”
Imagine the difference the transcontinental railroad made for people at that time. Before the railroad, American families traveled west in covered wagons. It was a long journey of 2,000 miles that could take four to five months, replete with multiple dangers that included accidents, disease, Indian attacks and equipment breakdown. Once the railroad was completed, however, in early December people in New York City could decide at the last minute that they wanted to spend Christmas in San Francisco. They could board a train and ride in safety and relative luxury through stormy weather, enjoying food and wine while gazing at the passing scenery. The transcontinental railroad was a real game changer when it came to cross-country transportation in the United States.
The invention of the airplane was also one of those benchmark advances in transportation technology that dramatically improved the lives of those living in the wide-open spaces of the American West. In December 1903, the Wright brothers made the first successful flight in a powered airplane at Kitty Hawk, N.C. The news was broadcast around the country, but years would go by before anyone in Truckee or rural Nevada would see a plane. Despite a few attempts, early airplanes were incapable of flying over the ridgeline of the Sierra.
In April 1916, a New York millionaire attempted a transcontinental flight from San Diego to New York, transiting through Las Vegas. He crashed 125 miles into his flight, but the effort was front-page news in Nevada. Initially, air travel was too expensive and complex for individual entrepreneurs. As with railroad and highway transportation, it would take the power and resources of the federal government to develop the aviation industry.
During World War I, the Army Air Service established 69 airfields across the U.S., but none in Nevada. These bases became part of a nationwide network of airways and landing fields that permitted rapid deployment of military units across the country. During the war, primitive biplanes made of wood and canvas with top speeds of 100 mph were outfitted with machine guns and converted into offensive weapons. This adaptation of the airplane for warfare rapidly accelerated its technological development. After the war, the Army Air Service worked with civilian leaders to develop municipal airports.
Soon after, the military pioneered air routes throughout the West. In 1919, for the first time, three U.S. Army planes successfully crossed the Sierra from Sacramento to Reno. Once the air route between Reno and San Francisco was established, flights over the Sierra became routine, except during a risk of dangerous weather, especially in winter.
The first successful flight over Donner Pass opened the door to aviation’s first practical use of coast-to-coast airmail. The year before, the U.S. Postal Service had started air service between New York City and Washington, D.C., western bankers and other business leaders wanted the eastern network linked to the western states, in part to help reduce the float time of checks moving across the country. Postal officials laid out a transcontinental airmail route between San Francisco and New York via Reno, Nev.; Elko, Nev.; Salt Lake City, Utah; Cheyenne, Wyo.; Omaha, Neb.; Chicago, Ill. and Pittsburgh, Penn.
On Sept. 8, 1920, a West Coast-bound airmail plane took off from New Jersey on the first leg of the new transcontinental route. Pilots relayed the 400 pounds of mail to each other much like a hi-tech version of the earlier Pony Express mail delivery system. Planes could not fly at night, but the mail still arrived in San Francisco in four days. The coast-to-coast delivery took nearly 83 hours, more than the projected 54 hours, but the media loved it. An editorial in the aviation magazine, Aerial Age Weekly, swooned at the accomplishment: “September 8 will go down in history as the great day when the epoch making event, the first trip of the transcontinental aerial mail, took place.”
Flying over the Great Basin was one of the most treacherous portions of the journey, with serious issues related to climate, geography and weather. Vast expanses of alkali desert and only isolated, remote settlements made the flight over Utah and Nevada exceedingly daunting. Without location transmitters or radios, it was nearly impossible to find a pilot who crashed landed in the vast expanse of Nevada. To give themselves a chance, pilots followed the tracks of the transcontinental railroad and the Lincoln Highway. Despite the obstacles, airmail pilots in the West developed a fairly safe operation and during the first three years only seven pilots died in the western sector, a rate comparable to other parts of the country.
Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at thestormking.com. You may reach him at [email protected] Check out his blog at tahoenuggets.com or read more at TheTahoeWeekly.com.