The First and Only Airmail Gets Through
By Gabriel Levenson, 1990

A memorable historical event took place on Fire Island 76 years ago, when the first airmail delivery was made.

The time was 10:25 a.m.; the date was Thursday, July 4, 1929; two mail sacks were dispatched, each containing 1,750 pieces; the drop-off was completed on the dock of Cherry Grove; and the whole affair was the climax of a race from the mainland between a hare and a tortoise. The “hare” was a Brunner-Winkle, an open cockpit biplane; the “tortoise” was a state-of-the-art Hacker speedboat—26 feet long (almost twice that of the little plane) and generating 200 horsepower.

The “Jen,” as the boat was named, was known as the unbeatable “Queen of the Bay.” It had even defeated the boat of bandleader Guy Lombardo (who combined wielding his baton with racing his powerboat) in a special run at Point Lookout; and it had a speed of 45 miles per hour. So, if it was the “tortoise” in a contest with a “hare” (the biplane could go up to 120 miles per hour), the Jen was a very speedy tortoise, indeed.

Hare Beats Tortoise

Contrary to the old story, however, this was one contest in which the hare was the winner, defeating the tortoise in the seven-mile course by a matter of 10 or 50 seconds—depending on which ancient bystander reported the occasion.

Whatever the difference of opinion on elapsed time, the basic facts of the race are indisputable.

Fremont Abrams, who owned and piloted the Jen, operated a greenhouse at Blue Point, on the north shore of the Great South Bay. From his private dock there, he would cruise proudly into the bay and take on all comers in the big races that were generally held on July 4 and Labor Day weekends. He was looking forward, in June of 1929, to continued victories on the holidays ahead.

But this year he had not reckoned with the adventurous pioneers in lighter-than-air flying. Just two years earlier, Charles Lindbergh made his great solo flight, in the open cockpit of the Spirit of St. Louis, from a Long Island airfield to Le Bourget in France. The song “Lucky Lindy” had been written about his extraordinary exploit. Young men everywhere, and particularly on Long Island, were out to emulate Lindbergh’s feat.

A group of them in Patchogue organized the local wing of the Suffolk Flyers and pooled their resources—$50 per member—to buy a $3,500 airplane. They made a down payment on the Brunner-Winkle “Bird” model, which would be assembled at the company’s Brooklyn plant, and eagerly awaited delivery, as promised, on June 25 of that year.

Boat Vs. Biplane

Meanwhile, a friendly confrontation ensued between Abrams, the proud owner of the Jen, and Herbert Austin, president of the newly established Suffolk Flyers. The two men, with their families and friends, were sunning themselves on the beach at Fire Island one warm Sunday in early June, when Abrams started to boast (as was his wont) of the speed with which the Jen could make the trip from the mainland to the beach.

Austin, brimming with enthusiasm over the imminent delivery of the Suffolk Flyers’ biplane, was foolhardy enough to declare that it could beat the Jen hands down in a dash across the bay. Before the sun had waned that day, he and Abrams had agreed on plans to stage a race between their respective craft on the upcoming July 4 weekend—on Thursday, the 4th, to be exact. And somehow, in the course of their discussion, they agreed that each would carry sacks of mail aboard.

The Patchogue postmaster, Harry T. Weeks, endorsed the idea and got permission from the office of the U.S. Postmaster General in Washington for an official delivery of mail; there was even a special rubber-stamp design created, so that letter writers could have a lasting record of the dispatch by air.

Four-Minute Delay

Local newspaper reporters had no doubts about the outcome of the forthcoming race, as interest in it mounted among their readers. The race was to begin at 10 in the morning, with the Patchogue post office its starting point. Austin would be driving from there to a small field at Bayport, where his pilot, William Hunt, would be waiting for their takeoff. Abrams, in the meantime, would drive down Ocean Avenue to the bayside dock, where the Jen, its motor running, would be poised for the quick dash to Cherry Grove. And this is how the Suffolk Citizen analyzed the race and predicted its finish:

“While Austin is still on his way to Bayport, Abrams plans to have his speedboat cutting through the water straight for Cherry Grove…while Austin circles and climbs for altitude …Abrams hopes to be drawing near his goal…Abrams has but to flash by …and toss his mail onto the dock… Austin must fly over and drop his mail south of the post office… Abrams needs at most only seven minutes…needless to say, he will do everything but get out and push… Austin must reach Bayport, climb for altitude…an air pocket may throw the plane off course and delay the dropping of the mail a few seconds and lose the race to Abrams.”

As the newspaper had expected, the plane got into the air late—four minutes after Abrams had moved out with his speedboat. Thousands of spectators had lined the mainland shore to watch Abrams’s inevitable victory, and a goodly crowd had also assembled at the Cherry Grove dock.

It was there, anywhere, on the dock that the Jen was to make its drop, while the plane would have to make it somewhere near the post office itself. People aboard the Jen were confident of victory as their boat neared the dock, but the plane, taking off into a northwest wind and having to bank sharply in the direction of the Grove, managed, nonetheless, to catch up—its 120 mph against the 45 mph of the speedboat.

But how to manage a well-targeted drop (this was 15 years before the development of the bombsight)? Twice, the plane circled the post office by a wide margin—as the Jen approached the dock. On his third pass, on his last chance to beat the boat, pilot Hunt managed to score a bull’s-eye, landing his mail sack on a sand dune just next to the post office.

He had conquered—by a nose, in 10 to 50 seconds, or by several boat lengths.

The exact time did not matter, after all. But a principle had been declared and proven; that airmail could get through. That was the one and only such delivery to Fire Island. High-tech had prevailed on that single occasion, but reality has won out in the end. Mail is dispatched, prosaically, to the island post offices these days—by boat.

There’s not much romance to it anymore; and one can only hope that some new contest can be arranged—between a Hovercraft and a helicopter, perhaps. Maybe the Island’s chambers of commerce could sponsor a race, with the prize a season pass to the beach at Point O’ Woods or Ocean Beach.

The author makes acknowledgement to the Long Island Forum (September 1972 Issue) for the basic facts and reportage on the airmail delivery. And, for the photos, thanks also to Titus Kana of www.fireislandvision.com.