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From The Archives: DC’s Botched Air Mail Attempt

Susannah Broun
Susannah Broun
Posted on November 21
The First Air Mail Marker at West Potomac Park.

The First Air Mail Marker at West Potomac Park (Photo by NPS / Kelsey Graczyk)

This small rock by the Tidal Basin might be D.C.’s most unassuming monument, but it has a great story.

It commemorates the first time mail was ever delivered by aircraft in the U.S. – kind of.

On May 15th, 1918 a pilot took off from the polo grounds near the Potomac River for the first-ever attempt to deliver mail by air. He planned to fly from D.C. to Philadelphia. After some dramatic circling to entertain the gathered audience, the plane headed southeast.

Plane takes off from the polo grounds near the Potomac River.

The plane carried mail for Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, takes off from the polo grounds near the Potomac River. (photo from Library of Congress)

As you smart readers know, this is decidedly not the direction of Philly. After flying in circles for a while, the plane had to emergency land just 25 miles from where the journey began. To continue the series of unfortunate events, the field where the plane landed was very soft and so it flipped over.

Luckily, the pilot was okay. Believe it or not, he was given another chance to make the journey a couple of days later, and he went the wrong way again, ending up in Virginia.

The plaque on the First Air Mail Marker does not mention this rather embarrassing moment. However, it’s still a great reminder of the technological feat, even if there were some hurdles along the way. After the failed attempt, the mail was trucked back to D.C. and was flown to Philly the following day.

What's your favorite obscure D.C. monument? Let us know!

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