History buffs take flight for celebration of century

People gathered at the former Bustleton Field to celebrate
the first airmail delivery, which landed in Northeast Philly.

Flyer fans: A historical marker is unveiled Saturday marking the first airmail delivery. JOHN COLE / TIMES PHOTO

Long before the Flyers called Philadelphia home, aviation history was made in Northeast Philadelphia. Last Saturday, lovers of history and the Northeast congregated at Red Lion Road and Haldeman Avenue to commemorate the centennial celebration of the United States’ first regularly scheduled airmail flight.

In May 1918, the United States had recently entered World War I and aviation was still in its infancy. The several years leading up to U.S. involvement in WWI included plenty of experimental airmail events, making deliveries authorized and processed by the U.S. Post Office Department.

The years of experimental airmail deliveries were ultimately leading up to the moment of having regularly scheduled permanent airmail services. The airmail route decided for the first regularly scheduled delivery would be between New York City and Washington D.C., with a stop in Philadelphia. That stop in Philadelphia would be Bustleton Field.

JOHN COLE / TIMES PHOTO

“It is a fascinating story,” said Fred Moore, one of the members of the board for the Friends of Northeast Philadelphia History. “Those early pilots,…the jenny biplane,… this is considered to be the beginning of commercial aviation in the United States and really in the world.”

The Bustleton Field was at the intersection of Red Lion Road and the old Bensalem & Byberry Turnpike, which at the time recently became part of Lincoln Highway.

The inaugural flight for this airmail delivery was to be carried out by several U.S. Army pilots in “Curtis JN-4H” biplanes, known as a “Jenny.”

On May 15, 1918, Army Lt. Torrey Webb departed in his “Jenny” from New York at 11:45 a.m. to land in Bustleton Field at 1 p.m.. The mail was transferred to Lt. James Edgerton’s plane, which took off from Bustleton Field at 1:15 p.m. to land in Washington at 2:50.

Fast forward 100 years to a rainy day Saturday in Bustleton, a historical marker was officially placed at the intersection of Red Lion and Haldeman.

JOHN COLE / TIMES PHOTO

“(It’s) not everyday that we get to honor and remember Northeast Philadelphia in a historical perspective,” said state Sen. John Sabatina. “When people think of Philadelphia history, you think of the Liberty Bell and Betsy Ross House and places in Old City and elsewhere. You don’t typically think of Northeast Philadelphia, but that’s where today is so important.”

Local elected officials and members of the Northeast Philadelphia History Network and the Northeast Philadelphia Radio Control Club delivered remarks to the sizable crowd about the significance of the day in the history of the U.S. and Northeast.

“This groundbreaking service is credited with establishing the foundation of America’s modern-day aviation industry,” said Philadelphia Postmaster Michael Hernandez, in his first dedication appearance in his new role. “Airmail service has been one of our organization’s most significant contributions to America’s growth.”

The day included live music, a scale model of a replica of the “Jenny” trainer plane made by the Northeast Philadelphia Radio Control Club and food provided by several local businesses. The number of people present with the inclement weather really impressed Moore.

“I think it shows you how much people are brought together by history,” he said. “It is really our common thread. There are many things tearing us apart in the world these days, but history we can pretty much all agree on.”

The U.S. Postal Service also honored the occasion with two Air Mail Forever stamps. For more information on these stamps, click here.••