The U.S. Post Office Department authorized the first experimental mail flight in 1911 at an aviation meet on Long Island, New York. By 1912 it had authorized 52 flights at fairs, carnivals and air meets in more than 25 states. From 1912 to 1916 they urged Congress to appropriate money to launch airmail service and in 1916, $50,000 was authorized but no aircraft were received due to the absence of suitable planes. In 1918 Congress appropriated $100,000 to establish experimental airmail routes and the Post Office encouraged the Army Signal Corps to lend its planes and pilots to start the service. They argued that this cross-country flying would provide invaluable experience to student flyers and the Secretary of War agreed. In the fall of 1918 the Post Office purchased six specially-built mail planes and hired civilian pilots. Early airplanes has no radios, instruments or other navigational aids and pilots flew by dead reckoning Few facilities existed and pilots were often forced to land due to bad weather; however, fatalities were rare.
General William "Billy" Mitchell, a staunch advocate of aviation, put together a U.S. Air Service transcontinental air race in October 1919. Although a number of aviators had flown across the United States since Cal Rodgers first accomplished the feat in 1911, there was no organized route and landing
areas were few and far between, especially in the western U.S. The route used was later adopted by the Post Office as the most practical. Of the original 48 aircraft that would depart New York and 15 that departed San Francisco, only 33 would complete the one-way crossing and only eight would make the full round trip. Seven lives were lost.
Although at first the routes were short (e.g. New York to Washington) the Post Office envisioned a transcontinental airmail route from New York to San Francisco to better its time on long hauls and to lure more people to use airmail. The first leg of the transcontinental route was from New York to Cleveland in 1918; the Cleveland to Chicago leg was established in 1919; Chicago to Omaha in 1920; and the last segment from Omaha to San Francisco was opened on September 8, 1920. This last leg included stops in North Platte, Cheyenne, Rock Springs, Salt Lake City, Elko and Reno.
In May 1920, Post Office superintendent of airfield construction John A. Jordan arrived in Cheyenne to begin planning for an airmail station. He believed Cheyenne to be perfectly suited as a major division point along the transcontinental airmail route due to the fact that it was almost exactly in the middle of the direct flight route between Chicago and San Francisco, the city lay at the foot of the lowest crossing point of the treacherous Rocky Mountains,
and the Union Pacific Railroad ran through the city which meant easy re-supply of the airmail station. The railroad line itself had significance, serving as a landmark pilots could easily follow across the continent during the daytime.
Initial plans called for the first airport at Cheyenne to be co-located at the landing field for Fort D.A. Russell; however, the city along with Laramie County secured the current airport site and started construction of a hangar to hold up to six mail planes. On September 8, 1920, the U.S. Air Mail Service began operations in Cheyenne when pilot Buck Heffron left town with 400 pounds of mail destined for the West Coast. The next day, James "Jimmy" Murray landed with the first load of mail from the east. Murray returned with the first east bound mail on September 13, thus helping complete the inaugural circuit of the first transcontinental air service in history.
The first mail was flown by day and loaded onto trains for night travel, then reloaded and flown the next day. This method bettered the all rail service by 22 hours. By August 1920, the Post Office had begun installing radio stations at each flying field. Radios replaced the telegraph. By November 1921, the mail was flown both day and night for the first time. Congress was impressed and appropriated $1.25 million dollars for expansion of the airmail service. In addition to adding
other landing fields, the money was used to equip existing fields with towers, beckons, search lights and boundary markers. Also planes were equipped with luminescent instruments, navigation lights and parachute flares.
The first commercial airline air mail flight occurred in February 1926, and soon after the Post Office transferred all of its facilities to the Department of Commerce. The transfer included 17 fully-equipped stations, 89 emergency landing fields, and 405 beacons. Terminal airports were transferred to the municipalities in which they were located.
* Information from a history of the U.S. Postal Service.