February 17, 2011
The things he carried: A sack of coffee. Fifty copies of the local newspaper, the Press Democrat. Three letters.
Those letters are what put Fred Wiseman into the history books. On February 17, 1911, Wiseman—authorized by the Santa Rosa, California, postmaster—carried the first mail by airplane.
To celebrate this milestone, Tom Crouch, senior curator in the Aeronautics division at the National Air and Space Museum, and Nancy Pope, a curator and historian at the National Postal Museum, will participate in a one-hour live Webcast on Saturday, February 19, 2011, at 2 p.m. EST (11 a.m. PST). The Webcast has been organized by the Sonoma County Museum (a Smithsonian affiliate in Santa Rosa, California), along with the National Air and Space Museum and the National Postal Museum; curators will speak for about 20 minutes each, then take questions from the audience.
“I think this event,” says Crouch, “being able to link our museum and visitors with the Sonoma County Museum and their visitors—I think that’s as neat a story as the story of the postal flight. It’s a way in which the Smithsonian truly can reach out in new ways.”
The National Air and Space Museum’s database notes that Wiseman’s February 17 flight was delayed by several days due to heavy rains. Almost immediately after takeoff, his home-built craft developed magneto trouble; he set down in a field (barely missing a windmill), where the thick mud broke his landing skid. Wiseman took off again the following morning, completing the remaining 14 miles of his flight while “delivering” the newspapers from the air.
Petaluma postmaster J.E. Olmsted’s enthusiastic note to H.L. Tripp, postmaster of Santa Rosa, was one of the three letters carried that day:
“Dear Sir and Friend:
Petaluma sends, via air route, congratulations and felicitations upon the successful mastery of the air by a Sonoma county boy in an airplane conceived by Sonoma county brains and erected by Sonoma county workmen.
Speed the day when the United States mail between our sister cities, of which this letter is the pioneer, may all leave by the air route with speed and safety.”
The Website airmailpioneers.org reports that Wiseman didn’t pursue a flying career. When asked why, he replied, “I didn’t see any future in it.”