The Great Jack Knight - Terrible Night in the Sky
January 1962 American Modeler Article
learning to fly, students are introduced to a consequence of Einstein's
General Relatively theory - albeit not called by that name. According
to Albert, there is no way to experimentally determine the difference
between a force caused by positional acceleration and a force caused
by gravity. That is, if you did not know better, you could not tell
whether the downward force on your body (weight) was due to the
acceleration of gravity or whether you were standing in a rocket
ship that was accelerating through space at a rate of 32.2 ft/sec2.
The phenomenon is responsible for many pilots crashing their airplanes
under low or zero visibility condition when, believing they are
right-side-up and flying straight and level, they are actually in
a coordinated turn or even flying inverted in an arc that generates
the same acceleration as gravity. Early fliers, like pioneer airmail
pilot Jack Knight had to contend with such dangers not because he
was negligent in not outfitting his airplane, but because the instruments
had not yet been invented. We all owe our cushy existence to people
like Jack who risked their lives to push back the frontiers of ignorance.
The Great Jack Knight
By Doug Ingells
the tin-roofed hangar and "Operations Shack" at the North Platte,
Nebraska air field, a small group of men stood in the chilly, wintry
air. Anxiously, they scanned the western sky. Trained ears listened
for the roar of a motor. The eastbound mailplane was due at any
moment. Pilot Frank Yager had left Cheyenne, Wyoming at 4:59 P.M.
They hoped he would be on the ground before darkness completely
enveloped the field. Night was closing in fast.
So much depended
on the hours between now and dawn. The whole future of the Air Mail
Service could hang in the balance. This was a crucial test.
It was February 22, 1921. That morning, four planes took off
at opposite ends of the continent in a race against time and the
elements. Their mission: To prove the feasibility of a transcontinental
Air Mail Service flying in the face of wintry gales and - for the
first time - operating at night over certain segments of the New
York-to-San Francisco run only 5 months old.
Two of the planes
left Hazelhurst Field, Long Island in the pre-dawn hours, westbound
for Chicago. With the first light in the eastern sky, the other
two planes left from the Marina at San Francisco, eastbound for
Salt Lake City. The whole venture was headlined as a bold and desperate
move by the out-going Wilson Administration to prove its Air Mail
experiment was not a reckless waste of taxpayers' money. Wilson's
"Folly" some critics called it.
Things had not been going
too favorably for the fledging Air Mail, started on May 18, 1918
with army pilots and World War One trainers flying the New York-Philadelphia-Washington
inaugural route. Even after the Post Office Department had taken
over the operation and extended it coast-to-coast (September 8,
1920) with planes carrying the mail during the daylight hours and
the sacks moving on fast trains at night, the service was far below
expectations. Wings did not speed the mail much faster than when
it moved all the way by rail. In a last minute gamble, the Post
Office decided on night flying.
It was a day of wooden propellers,
strut-and-wire braced, fabric-covered, open-cockpit planes. Pilots
flew by-guess and by-God, with a minimum of instruments and gadgets
as helpmates. Airborne radio communications were unheard of...a
pilot was up there all alone. The lighted airway was only a fanciful
flicker in some minds. There weren't any emergency landing fields
and airports themselves offered only meager facilities.
knew these circumstances better than the anxious group in North
Platte. It included the field manager, the postman who had brought
out a sack of mail from the local Post Office, and Captain Jack
Knight, veteran of the Cheyenne-Omaha Division, who was waiting
to take the mail eastward.
Already, there was bad news. The
postman had brought it from town. The first westbound plane had
developed engine trouble and was down only a short distance from
its starting point. Its sister ship was "grounded" at Chicago waiting
for the weather to clear. Pilot Lewis, in one of the eastbound ships,
had crashed to his death in the high Sierras of Nevada. Yager's
ship was the only one left in the sky. And he was running late.
Knight went inside the shack and called the local Weather Bureau.
When he came out again he was shaking his head. "Weather's getting
worse ahead. Snow clouds all along the route. Temperature's dropping..."
The roar of a motor interrupted him. Yager! The next moment
they saw his wartime deHaviland (DH-4) one of the famous "Flaming
Coffins," converted into a mailplane. Yager had the new landing
lights - automobile-type headlights mounted in big cones on the
outer struts of the biplane - turned on, their beams pierced the
semi-darkness that was settling. He circled the field once, then
landed. It was a rough landing which snapped the tail skid. It would
have to be repaired.
Yager climbed out of the cockpit, looked
at Knight with a grin - "You're in luck, son. There's a moon up
there above those clouds!"
"...and snowstorms over the plains,"
continued Jack Knight as they went into the shack for hot coffee.
It was 10:44 P.M. before Knight got away with the moon. He climbed
the ship to 2200 feet and pointed its nose eastward.
through the night sky, ominous, grotesque-shaped clouds swallowed
up man and machine - only to release them silently at mysterious
intervals for glimpses of the Platte River, a winding, silvery thread
below in the moonlight. The river was his friend, Nature's navigator
to show him the way. He had other friends, too. At Lexington, Kearney,
Grand Island, Columbus and Fremont, public-spirited citizens who
knew he was up there, had built bonfires, bon voyage beacons to
The clouds vanished almost entirely. Over Wahoo,
Nebraska at midnight, the sky was so clear he could see the lights
of Omaha - 40 miles away. Ten miles out, he sighted the field itself,
ringed with brightly illuminated red lights marking the landing
area. Some 2,000 persons were on hand to cheer the "flying mail-man"
as the ship's wheels touched down at 1:10 A.M. Jack Knight's day
was done. He had brought the mail through at night. Another pilot
would take over.
Then, Bob Votaw, field manager at Omaha
told him. There was no plane in from Chicago. The flight had been
cancelled. No other pilot was available. If the mail went through,
Knight would have to fly it.
Jack Knight was one of those
who had helped pioneer the Air Mail. The 29 year-old Kansas-born
flyer, had enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Service in 1917, learned
to fly at Ellington Field, Texas, where he became a flight instructor.
The war over, he took an engineering job in Chicago, but he couldn't
stay out of the sky. His was an airman's world. When the Post Office
Department had asked for Air Mail volunteers, Knight joined up.
He had started flying the Graveyard Run over the "Hell Stretch"
of the Alleghenies, New York-to-Chicago, the first leg of the trans-continental.
Then, they transferred him to the Omaha-Cheyenne Division. The North
Platte to Omaha segment was his regular run, the main reason they
had selected him to take the mail through at night. He knew the
route better than anyone else.
But the 435 miles to Chicago,
across Iowa and parts of Illinois was strange country and darkness
would blot out any landmarks. Moreover, he was tired. That same
day he had ferried a ship from North Platte to Cheyenne and return.
Then he had brought the mail on to Omaha blazing a new trail in
the night sky.
There was no argument. The honor of the service
he loved was at stake. He didn't have to go on. It was his own decision
He looked at the sky. The moon was gone. No stars
were visible, just the blackness of night. A biting wind whipped
him in the face. There was snow ahead. He didn't doubt that for
he said to Votaw, "I'll take a crack at it."
They went inside
the shack. For a time Knight studied the automobile road maps, the
only charts available. It wasn't much to go by. He drank several
cups of coffee to help him stay awake. Then, he walked out to the
plane. One of the roadmaps he tacked onto the instrument board in
front of him.
"Leave your lights on for an hour," he told
Votaw. "If I get lost, I'll come back."
With a roar, the
plane took off and disappeared into the blackness. It was 1:59 A.M.
His first check-point was Des Moines. He had it circled on the
map. A cross-wind blowing didn't help matters. He had to continuously
compensate for drift. There was only the compass needle to rely
on. He couldn't see anything below.
An hour and thirty minutes
passed. Then, he saw the lights of a city, a kaleidoscopic glow
of colors reflecting on the clouds. He had hit Des Moines "right
on the nose." The next point was Iowa City where he'd have to land
and take on fuel.
His luck was holding, but there was a silent
enemy attacking - sleep. He couldn't stay awake. The steady drone
of the faithful Liberty motor was like a song of the sky, lulling
him into drowsiness. His eyelids closed and it was hard to force
them open. Sleep was winning.
He clamped the stick between
his knees and slapped his face with his hands. He stuck his head
far out over the rim of the cockpit letting the chilly blasts of
air hit him. Anything to keep his senses. He even prayed for trouble:
something to snap him to alertness. If he crashed because something
went wrong, or because of the weather - that was one thing - with
honor. But if it happened because he fell asleep - that was total
His prayers were answered. Fog, thick and heavy,
grey and coldly deathlike rolled in. Minutes later, it turned to
snow. Blinding, stinging, swirling snow; a white dizzy, spinning
world all around him.
He was wide awake now, fighting the
controls to maintain equilibrium. The ship was spinning. Or was
it? He couldn't tell whether he was flying right-side-up or upside-down.
Suddenly, a terrifying black mass loomed up straight ahead.
He was diving. The ground was coming up to smack him out of the
sky. He yanked back on the stick, jammed the throttle handle forward.
The wheels brushed the tree tops. The ship roared on.
was a new danger. The needle on the gasoline gauge quivered on empty.
There was only a few minutes' fuel left. He had already turned on
He checked the map. He looked at his watch.
If the storm hadn't messed him up too badly, Iowa City should be
directly below. But he couldn't see anything. The snow was letting
up some, but there was black nothingness everywhere. The motor began
to sputter and cough. He girded himself for a crash landing. He
checked his parachute, just in case...
Then, he saw something.
A brilliant red glare, like a starburst in the night. A signal?
It must be the field. He had to gamble that it was. He pointed the
ship's nose downward toward the light still glowing.
plane was in a long, flat glide. He saw some trees, then a clear
spot ahead. The next instant the wheels touched the ground and the
plane rolled to a stop.
Knight cut the motor. He heard a
shout and there was a man with a lantern running toward him. It
was the night watchman at the air field. Knight had landed in the
very center of the field. The night watchman explained that he had
heard the plane's motor overhead and had lighted a railroad signal
flare. Everyone else had gone home!
Together, in the snow
and cold, they refueled the ship. The snow got worse. Then it stopped
almost altogether. Knight got off the ground at 6:30 A.M.
There was more fog as he passed over the Mississippi River.
But the fog disappeared and there was daylight to help him. The
territory below began to look familiar. He didn't even care when
the motor started sputtering and coughing again. The terrain was
friendly now. He could pick out landmarks he knew from the days
when he flew the New York to Chicago run. They were nearing the
field at Maywood, Illinois - the Chicago terminus.
plane landed at 8:40 A.M., completing the first night flight of
the Air Mail. Minutes later, pilot J.O. Webster in another plane
was speeding eastward to Cleveland. There, pilot E.M. Allison took
over and flew the last leg via Bellefonte, Pa., to New York arriving
at 4:50 P.M. - 33 hours and 20 minutes after the mail had left San
It was a new record for carrying the mail, coast-to-coast.
The Post Office had proved its point. Less than a week later Congress
appropriated $1,250,000 for continuing the service and also set
aside more monies for building of a lighted airway across America.
Completed in 1925, it gave birth to continuous day-and-night, regularly
scheduled transcontinental Air Mail Service.
flying the mail with the Post Office fliers helping to establish
the lighted airway and later with Boeing Air Transport, one of the
first of the private air carriers to be granted government mail
contracts under the Kelly Act of 1925. When Boeing Air Transport
and National Air Transport merged to become United Air Lines in
1927, Captain Jack Knight came along. He didn't quit flying until
ten years later, having flown more than 2,400,000 miles and logged
18,000 hours aloft!
Still he stayed on with United as Director
of Public Education, spreading the cause of aviation, here and there
and everywhere, until he died in 1945.
His last flight with
United, incidentally, took him over a familiar route - North Platte-Omaha-Des
Moines-Chicago. Only this time "voices" on the ground were in constant
contact by radio, feeding him frequent weather reports and flight
instructions. A co-pilot was at his side in the lighted cockpit
with its galaxy of instruments. He didn't even have to touch the
controls part of the time. The automatic pilot was turned on. There
were 21 passengers, some reading, some smoking, others asleep, back
in the roomy, warm, sound-proofed, comfortably-furnished cabin of
the twin-engine all-metal DC-3 Mainliner.
In the cargo compartment
was more than a half ton of mail being sped through the night skies
at 200 mph. Below, along Jack's route were flashing beacons and
brightly illuminated airports. The mail had left San Francisco the
night before. The letters would be in New York before noon.
But the flight that made Jack Knight immortal in the annals
of aviation was the one he made that night of February 23, 1921.
The then Second Assistant Postmaster General, Otto Praeger (generally
considered the "Father of the Air Mail") termed it - "the most momentous
step in the development of civil aviation."
Posted June 8, 2013