Semper letteris mandate
Answer: Brian Peck in 1918.
Question: What was the name of the pilot who delivered Canada’s first airmail, and in what year did this event take place?
Okay, so maybe it’s not a likely candidate for a game show, but there are a few stalwart souls with an interest in aviation history, postal history, or some other god-forsaken history that’s never going to increase their popularity at parties, who know that Brian Peck was the first pilot to deliver air-mail in Canada.
And among them are fewer who know what captain Peck was actually up to when he was inadvertently railroaded into becoming an historical footnote.
Brian Peck, like many youths of his day, was as excited and obsessed with the idea of flight as the youths of the fifties and sixties were with the idea of space travel — except, for Peck’s generation, such dreams were more easily realized. Although it was still an infant technology, thousands of ambitious, adventurous, and mechanically inclined young men (and no few women) industriously carved out careers for themselves doing what they most loved. Some joined traveling carnivals and roamed the countryside giving rides to the local rubes. Others hired themselves out to farmers as crop-dusters. And a few entrepreneurs, with more hope than sense, even offered crude passenger service routes.
Peck was just one of many. Starting with his own plane in Calgary, he traveled to the States where he became a member of the Early Birds of America, and when WWI broke out he served overseas with the Royal Air Force. But come the summer of 1918, Peck was posted with the 89th Training Squad in Leaside, a suburb just north of Toronto – perhaps notthe most exciting post for someone whose first love is flying. When the air force launched a recruiting drive it was perfectly natural for Peck to enthusiastically suggest that he be allowed to fly to Montreal, perform some aerobatics over the centre of the city, and as a finale drop thousands of recruiting leaflets.
The brass saw the stunt as an excellent recruitment tactic and gave permission. On June 20, with Corporal Mathers as his passenger, Peck flew out of Leaside in a two-seater biplane (a Curtis JN4). In a few hours they arrived at Montreal where, for the next few days they engaged in aerial acrobatics, much to the satisfaction of the citizens below.
At the local chapter of The Aerial League of the British Empire, several of the executives recognized this as an opportunity to promote the airplane as something more useful than a mere circus stunt. To this end, George Lighthall and Edmund Greenwood approached Peck with the idea of delivering some mail bound for Toronto, thereby establishing the feasibility of “air-mail.” Peck and Mathers agreed. Their aircraft was hastily drafted as an official postal conveyance, and on June 24 they set off to return to Toronto.
Corporal Mathers held the bag of letters on his lap in the passenger seat for the trip home, which wasn’t nearly as smooth as the trip out. To begin with there was an altitude problem and Peck had to actually fly under many telegraph wires because he couldn’t get the height necessary to clear them. Furthermore it seemed to be taking a lot longer, and by the time they reached Kingston they were rapidly running out of gas. Setting down in Kingston they procured some regular gasoline. This served to put them in the air again, but made their engine splutter alarmingly. In Deseronto, however, they found a supply of aviation fuel and finally completed their trip, arriving in Leaside at 4:55 pm, 6 hours and 25 minutes after their departure from Montreal.
With a little official fanfare, Peck delivered the bag of letters, which Corporal Mathers must have been heartily sick of by then, and the whole affair was essentially forgotten.
As many observers noted, considering the length of time it took to bring the letters back to Toronto, and the remarkably low altitude of the craft, airmail could hardly be considered as a serious contender to the train.
Of course, as we know now, airmail eventually become a major player in the fast, efficient delivery of mail over long distances. And as we also know now, Peck’s craft wasn’t struggling because of the added weight of the mail. Days before arriving Montreal, Peck had arranged with a contact there to have a case of Old Mulls scotch available and ready for smuggling to Toronto. Between the weight of the scotch, and the weight of the letters, the flimsy craft had been lucky to make it home at all.