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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Pegasus Express

The first day of air mail service linking Wisconsin to New York was marked by violent weather that not only stopped the mail but claimed the life of a veteran pilot.

On June 6-7, 1926, planes were supposed to leave New York at 8:00p.m., Chicago at 5:50a.m. and Milwaukee at 6:50a.m. to arrive in Minneapolis at 10:40a.m. Different pilots flew each leg of the journey, transfering the mail bags from plane to plane in an airborne equivalent of the Pony Express. The lead pilot turned around in Minneapolis and started the cycle over again, flying east, so mail would get back to New York less than 24 hours after the first plane had left. Crowds turned out that morning in Milwaukee to cheer on the pilots.

The inaugural run, however, was interrupted when fierce winds buffeted the fragile biplanes. "In the higher altitudes," one pilot told the press, "a gale of 50 miles an hour was blowing. It was worst over Madison when I stood still for a few seconds. At this time the wind must have been blowing almost 80 miles an hour."

The tiny planes could not withstand the blast of gale force winds, rain, and hail. "The control wires on the plane I was flying stretched three or four inches from the wind strain," reported pilot Dan Kiser of Milwaukee, "and the struts stretched, too. When the linen of one wing began to rip, I decided it was time to land while I still could fly the plane."

Kiser put his plane down near Rio, in Columbia Co., losing part of a wing in the process. The relief pilot who picked up his load was forced down at Bangor, near La Crosse. Two other pilots made it to Minneapolis, but after taking off on the return trip to Chicago one of them was slammed into the ground at Mendota, Minn, and killed.

Newspaper editorials were quick to praise the courage of the pilots and to insist that, despite its rocky start, air mail service was here to stay.

View pictures of early aviation in Wisconsin in "Sky High," a photo gallery at Wisconsin Historical Images. These two articles in the Wisconsin Magazine of History tell the stories of early Wisconsin pilots and airplane manufacturers.

:: Posted in Curiosities on April 6, 2008

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