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Monument to first air mail flight.
Monument to first air mail flight.

First Air Mail Flight Monument

Field review by the editors.

Petaluma, California

From this northern California town in 1911, pilot Fred J. Wiseman embarked on a historic flight in his spindly biplane: delivering mail and newspapers from Petaluma to Santa Rosa, about 15 miles to the north. It has been declared as the world's earliest "air mail" flight, and according to the monument plaque it was the "first recorded airplane flight sanctioned by a local post office and available to the public."

Bas relief of pilot Fred J. Wiseman.
Bas relief of pilot Fred J. Wiseman.

Wiseman took off from Petaluma's Kenilworth Park after noon on February 17, 1911. He headed north at an altitude of about 100 feet, piloting a biplane he'd designed himself and built in a tent. Wiseman planned to fly non-stop, which would only take 20 minutes, but even such a short hop was fraught with mishap for early aviation. After about 4.5 miles Wiseman was forced to land due to engine trouble. He was driven back to Petaluma to sleep, leaving his plane guarded by two men.

The next day, he took off again in the repaired plane, and a crowd in Santa Rosa gathered for the momentous arrival. The plane broke again after a wire snapped and tangled in the propeller, and it glided into a muddy field short of the landing area. Fred, uninjured, secured a lift into town with some fans to make his delivery. The items: 50 copies of the local newspaper, three letters, and a bag of groceries including a sack of coffee.

Wiseman-Cooke biplane in a 1911 air show, Olympia, WA.
Wiseman-Cooke biplane in a 1911 air show, Olympia, WA.

The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum has the Wiseman-Cooke biplane in their permanent collection, on loan to the National Postal Museum, where it hangs in the atrium. Wiseman, who had been a cycling champion and race car driver, was not a postal employee, and didn't continue a career as a pilot, air mail deliverer or otherwise.

Six months after his flight, another pilot -- Earle Ovington -- shoved an official bag full of mail out over a Long Island site where the local postmaster picked it up, an event often proclaimed as the birth of air mail service.

In a case of eerie timing, there's another "first air mail" claimant -- French pilot Henri Pequet, who flew a sack of mail in India one day after Wiseman began his flight -- February 18, 1911. India is in a time zone 12.5 hrs ahead of California, and Wiseman didn't complete his delivery flight until the next day. However, on the first day, the 17th, he tossed a newspaper from the air to a woman waving an apron from the ground -- arguably an extremely customer-focused and responsive form of "air mail."

Confused? Set down in that field below and get a good night's sleep somewhere.

The air mail monument, a bas relief attached to a stack of rocks and concrete, was original located at Kenilworth Park and the county fairgrounds, and was more recently moved to this park named after the aviation pioneer. The marker is on a grassy rise between a residential neighborhood and a small airfield. Occasional take-offs and landings by private prop planes provide an appropriate seat-of-the-pants aviation setting.

The wacky Wiseman air mail flight was reenacted in 2011 on the 100th anniversary.

First Air Mail Flight Monument

Wiseman Park

2117-2135 St Augustine Circle, Petaluma, CA
Hwy 101 Exit 474, head NE on E Washington St. toward the airport. Right on Garfield Dr. then left on St. Augustine Dr. Monument is somewhere in the park on the left.
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