On this date in 1926, Varney Air Lines officially began service as an airmail carrier. The company made history with a US mail flight that began in Pasco, Washington. The April 6, 1926 edition of the Salt Lake Grandstand reported “America’s Most Modern and Fastest Mail Carrier Brought to the Northwest Today.”
Congress passed HR 7064 (“An Act to Encourage Commercial Aviation and to Authorize the Postmaster General to Make Contracts for Air Mail Service”). Also known as the “Kelly Act” for its main sponsor, it ordered the US Post Office Department (USPO) to contract with private airlines to carry mail on designated routes, many of which were to connect to the government-operated Transcontinental Air Mail route. between New York and San Francisco.
During World War I, Walter T. Varney had been a pilot in the aviation section of the US Signal Corps. After the war, he founded Varney Air Lines in Boise, Idaho. After the Kelly Act was passed, Varney won the contract to carry mail for the USPO from Pasco to Elko, Nevada with an intermediate stop in Boise. This contract was one of the first “to be awarded to a private airline by the U.S. Post Office Department for designated mail delivery routes.” By the way, Varney was the only bidder.
Boise Postmaster LW Thrailkill ushered the city into the air age. He heard of the proposed northwest air route and quickly wrote a petition and obtained the signatures of three dozen postmasters from towns surrounding Boise.
At that time, Pasco was a railroad center, more or less halfway between Portland, Seattle, and Spokane. Mail trains that left these towns in the evening arrived in Pasco early the next morning. Mail could then be transferred to and from planes, cutting coast-to-coast delivery by a few days. That was the logic for founding the service in Pasco.
First day – Cudeback
Chief Pilot Leon Dewey “Lee” Cuddeback took off at 6:20 a.m. PT on April 6 in a Laird Swallow biplane with a top speed of about 90 miles per hour. The 207 pounds of mail it was carrying had been delivered to the airport less than an hour earlier by a six-horse stagecoach!
Nearly 2,500 people were at the Pasco airport that morning cheering Cuddeback on as he took off on the first leg of his southbound journey to Boise, Idaho.
Cuddeback reached Boise at 10:10 a.m. MT without incident and was greeted by an equally large and enthusiastic crowd. He was given two more bags of mail to carry and left Boise at 10:58 a.m. en route to Elko, Nevada.
He reached Elko at 12:38 p.m. PT and was again greeted with fanfare. Cuddeback’s flight time of four hours and 28 minutes was a significant improvement over the 49 hours it would have taken a train to deliver mail from Pasco to Elko. More importantly, his flight marked the first scheduled airmail delivery by a civilian in the United States.
First day – Pink
Another of the Varney Air Lines pilots, Franklin Rose, took control of the Laird Swallow, piloting the refueled biplane and a fresh load of mail on its journey from Elko to Pasco via Boise. However, Rose’s return flight that afternoon was much less successful and much more dramatic. He did not arrive in Boise by 6:00 p.m., so Varney Air Lines personnel began frantically trying to locate the missing pilot and plane.
Rose and her Laird Swallow had been pushed 75 miles by a storm before he made a crash landing in a field near Jordan Valley, Oregon. The Laird was in good condition, but was stuck in the deep mud of the field and Rose couldn’t move it.
Rose and the mail plane went missing for two days until he managed to reach a telephone on April 8. He had transported the 98 pounds of mail for miles on foot and later on a horse borrowed from a farmer. The mail arrived at the Pasco post office in the late morning of April 9, three days after leaving Elko.
Over the next few years Varney upgraded his fleet, adding a Breese-Wilde Model 5 and replacing his original Swallows with the C-3, built by Stearman. Subsequently, it improved as new equipment came onto the market, including the larger M-2 “Bull” Stearman and dedicated Boeing 40 mail plane.
Varney Air Lines has added Salt Lake City, Portland and Seattle to its routes. The airline has also started carrying passengers. In 1930, Varney Air Lines was acquired by United Aircraft and Transport Corporation, which had been formed by the earlier merger of Boeing and Pratt & Whitney Aircraft. Varney Air Lines became part of the United Aircraft and Transport group of airlines along with Pacific Air Transport, Boeing Air Transport and National Air Transport, which were also acquired.
In 1934, a scandal involving airmail contracts resulted in the passage of the Airmail Act, which prohibited aircraft manufacturers from operating airlines. This resulted in the dissolution of United Aircraft and Transport Corporation. The company’s airline group became United Airlines. Because Varney Air Lines was part of United, the airline uses Varney’s founding year, 1926, as its founding year. This makes United Airlines the oldest commercial airline in the United States.
Walter Varney and Louis Mueller founded Varney Speed Lines in 1934. Robert F. Six learned of an opportunity to purchase the Southwest Division of Varney Speed Lines, which needed funds for its new route between Pueblo and El Paso. Six was introduced to Mueller and bought into the airline with $90,000, becoming the airline’s general manager on July 5, 1936. Six was instrumental in renaming the carrier Continental Air Lines (later changed to “Airlines”) on July 8, 1937. Six requested the change to “Continental” because that name reflected his goal of flying the airline in all directions across the United States.
UAL Corporation, the parent company of United Airlines (the direct successor to Varney Air Lines), acquired Continental Airlines in an all-stock transaction on October 1, 2010.
Walter T. Varney’s air cargo contract in 1926 became one of the largest airlines in the world.
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