September 23, 1911. Garden City Estates, Long Island. Under the authority of U.S. Postmaster General Frank H. Hitchcock, a canvas tent is erected on the grounds of the Nassau Boulevard International Aviation Meet, officially “Aeroplane Station No. 1” of the U.S. Post Office. Fifteen pounds of posted letters and cards are put into a sack that is handed to independent aviator Earle Ovington, sworn by Hitchcock “to defend the mails” as the country’s first Aeroplane Mail Carrier. On several previous occasions, individual notes and letters have been carried by aviators, but today Ovington completes the country’s first scheduled air mail delivery. He flies three miles across Long Island, balancing the sack on his knees before dropping it to the ground, where it bursts open. The postmaster of Mineola, New York, collects the scattered mail and brings it to his post office for processing. One of the air mail letters is addressed to Ovington himself. It provides his written authorization to make the delivery.
Earle Lewis Ovington, born in 1879 in Chicago, showed a keen interest in electricity as a young boy. He was sixteen when his father, a dealer in china and bronze, died. Ovington left school and moved to New York, where he took a job as an engineering assistant to Thomas Edison. An inveterate tinkerer and inventor, he received a number of patents, most notably co-inventing a high-frequency coil based on the ideas of Nikola Tesla.
Wanting to complete his formal education, Ovington enrolled at Boston Tech (now MIT) at the age of twenty, competing on the track team as he pursued his engineering degree. He graduated in 1904 and formed a company that made medical devices, including x-ray machines. Later he formed the Ovington Motor Company, manufacturing engines for motorcycles. He was a founding member of the Federation of American Motorcyclists and became its president. In that capacity, he befriended Glenn Curtiss, a motorcycle engine manufacturer who would become interested in flight in 1907.
Ovington was self-employed as an electrical engineering consultant when he attended the Belmont International Aviation Tournament in October 1910 as a special correspondent for the New York Times. Glenn Curtiss was there, along with his exhibition team (including Eugene Ely), but the fastest flying machines at the competition were French-made Blériot monoplanes. Because no American flight schools existed, Ovington traveled to France in January 1911 and learned to fly at the Blériot school in Pau. Every morning he would sit in bed for fifteen minutes to practice, imagining that he was flying and teaching himself to recover from unexpected setbacks. He went aloft for the first time on January 20, by accident, and earned his brevet (license) after just eight lessons.
Ovington, like Hugh Robinson and Matilde Moisant, considered thirteen a lucky number. His Pau hotel room happened to be No. 13, as was the slip of paper on which he first registered for the Blériot school. He always flew with a good luck charm, a gendarme doll nicknamed “Treize” (thirteen), that dangled from the fuselage of Ovington’s machine.
Ovington returned to the United States in early April 1911 with a 70-hp Blériot. He proposed to give exhibitions, including a flight up Broadway. At the end of the month he made a successful sixty-mile flight over Long Island and somewhat impulsively married Adelaide Alexander, an American student in Paris whom he had met on the voyage from France. Children who attended one of his exhibitions called his Blériot a “dragonfly.” Ovington liked the name so much that he had it painted beneath the wings.
In July, Ovington proposed to sell Curtiss biplanes and to operate the new Curtiss Aviation School on Long Island, although he himself was only just learning to fly biplanes. He found the Curtiss control system “instinctive” and announced that he would fly a Curtiss machine at an international meet to be held in Chicago in August: “I feel as at home in it, or more so, than in my Blériot.” Ovington believed himself to be the only aviator in America to fly both the monoplane and the biplane. He crashed his new Curtiss in Chicago, however, and thereafter stuck to monoplanes.
During the following month, the marquee event of the 1911 Harvard-Boston meet was a 160-mile, three-state, diamond-shaped cross-country race with designated checkpoints: Boston-Nashua (NH)-Worcester (MA)-Providence (RI)-Boston. Four aviators started. Two finished. Ovington won the race in his Blériot.
The final international meet of 1911 was held September 23-30 at Nassau Boulevard Field on Long Island, which Ovington had made his headquarters for most of the summer. Eugene Ely was assigned aircraft identifier No. 13 in the printed program, but Ovington already bore that number, on his Blériot and on an American-made Blériot replica “Queen” monoplane he had purchased. Back at Blériot’s flight school, Ovington had painted the number on his new monoplane before its maiden flight, had used the number for Chicago and Harvard-Boston, and wanted to keep it for Nassau Boulevard. Ely had flown with No. 4 for the previous month, so he painted a “1” in front of the “4,” creating a “No. 14” that wasn’t listed in the program. Spectators were confused, and a baseless story circulated that Ely had refused to accept No. 13 out of superstition.
The Nassau Boulevard meet was billed as a “regular event” designed “to test the advantages of the aeroplane from a business standpoint”—notably, the delivery of mail and newspapers. The imaginative Ovington “looked ahead several years and could see aerial mail routes established all over the country.” He volunteered to make the pioneering flight.
Postmaster General Hitchcock supported the test, and there was excited talk of imminent Congressional appropriation for a regular “aero post” between New York and Philadelphia. During the Nassau Boulevard meet, Ovington made daily deliveries of mail sacks weighing up to seventy-five pounds. Although the sacks invariably burst when they hit the ground, he didn’t dare try to land with such a load balanced in his lap.
On the strength of his successful air mail deliveries, Ovington planned to fly from New York to Los Angeles via Chicago, attempting to win the $50,000 Hearst prize while carrying U.S. mail. Because he wouldn’t be able to get enough spare parts from France for his Blériot, he planned to fly the similarly constructed Queen monoplane.
During the Nassau Boulevard meet, Charles Clarke Bunting, a trick bicycle rider who performed as “Dr. Charles B. Clarke,” made an unauthorized ascent in the spare No. 13 machine while Ovington was off on a mail delivery. The woefully unqualified Bunting crashed shortly after takeoff and died of his injuries. Ovington returned minutes later to discover that nearly everyone present thought he had been killed at the controls of the crashed machine. (A few spectators, confused by the numbering in the printed program, believed it had been Ely.)
In October, Ovington turned his attention to the cross-country flight. No dedicated airports existed anywhere in the United States, so he planned simply to fly each day until his fuel ran out, and then to descend wherever he happened to be. His wife “was to follow Ovie’s airplane in our special train, with the manager, five mechanics, a moving-picture man, a post-card photographer, and several reporters.”
Ovington and the mechanics spent day after day preparing for the flight, making minute adjustments. The controls of the Queen didn’t respond properly, however, and Ovington never made it off Long Island. At his wife’s request, he gave up exhibition flying entirely around the end of 1912, following the birth of his first child.
After World War I ended, Ovington managed a “flying station” at Atlantic City, giving rides to paying passengers. As of 1920, according to his wife, he was the only American aviator still flying who had flown back in 1911; all the others were dead or retired. Ovington served as the second president of the Early Birds of Aviation, an association of those who first flew prior to the war.
Ovington moved to Santa Barbara and worked as an engineer, then a real estate developer. To mark the twentieth anniversary of his pioneering air mail flight, he took the controls of a tri-motor Fokker monoplane and flew a cargo of mail from Los Angeles to Tucson, Arizona. One of his passengers was former Postmaster General Frank Hitchcock, who had become a newspaper publisher in Tucson.
Earle Ovington died in 1936, following an “emergency operation,” at the age of 56. He was an avid stamp collector who devoted much time to autographing cachets memorializing his Nassau Boulevard flight. Regrettably, no stamp has ever been issued to honor the man who made the country’s very first air mail delivery.
The definitive biography of Ovington is Robert D. Campbell’s Reminiscences of a Birdman. Adelaide Ovington’s memoir, An Aviator’s Wife, was published in 1920 and can be viewed in its entirety online. The photograph of Postmaster General Hitchcock handing Ovington a sack of mail (above) is generally believed to have been taken some time after the pioneering flight.