Jul 28, 2014
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Lambert: Turk Bird — The Tale of a Pioneering Pilot

The truth about Plainfield's ties to the beginnings of air mail service.

Lambert: Turk Bird — The Tale of a Pioneering Pilot Lambert: Turk Bird — The Tale of a Pioneering Pilot Lambert: Turk Bird — The Tale of a Pioneering Pilot

The Inquiry 

Is it true that the establishment of the United States Post office’s air mail service is tied to Illinois?

The Facts 

The Plainfield community has been associated with American aviation since the early days of the 20th Century. 

Many stories circulate about famed aviator Charles Lindbergh’s reported visits to Plainfield when he served as an early air mail pilot. However, pioneering pilot Eddie Gardner, a Plainfield-area resident until 1918, is Plainfield’s most famous connection to American aeronautical history.

Born on a farm northeast of the village of Plainfield in 1888, Eddie Gardner was the third generation of the Gardner family to live here.

The Gardner Family at Plainfield

The Gardner family was one of the many German families that settled the Midwest after 1850. 

Coming from Stark County, Ohio, Martin and Henrietta Gardner settled on a farm in northwestern Lockport Township between 1857 and 1860. (The site lies just east of the intersection of Budler and Taylor Roads in present-day Romeoville). The Gardner family included their five children: Jacob, Mary, Elizabeth, Henrietta and Martin.

On March 6, 1878, the younger Martin Gardner (b. May 1857) married Mary Augusta Obst (b. Feb 1859). The newlyweds continued to farm the family homestead through 1900.  During that time, two children were born: Nellie May (b. March 1880) and Edward Van Buren (b. April 1888). 

Nellie Gardner married George Spangler and settled in the village of Plainfield in 1898.

Around 1906, Martin and Mary Gardner along with their 18 year old son, Eddie, moved to a home on Center Street. Within a short time, Eddie Gardner found employment as the manager of the local billiards hall.

Eddie Gardner developed an interest in the new sport of automobile racing.  In 1910, Gardner purchased a National Motor Vehicle Company “Runabout” racing car from Benjamin B. Lipsner. The transaction would profoundly impact Eddie Gardner’s eternal legacy. 

To support his newfound interest, Eddie Gardner moved to Chicago where he worked as both a chauffeur and as an auto mechanic.

Within a few years, Eddie Gardner’s daredevil interests shifted from auto racing to aviation. Some accounts suggest that his new interest stemmed from his father’s untimely death in 1915 … attributed by some historians, ironically, as the result of an airplane crash. 

Eddie Gardner: U. S. Army Pilot

The United States Army established an aviation section within its Signal Corps division on July 18, 1914. Within two years, Eddie Gardner had become an accomplished pilot and was serving as a U.S. Army flight instructor. 

In 1917, the air division of the U. S. Army Air Service (USAAS) employed fewer than 1200 pilots flying just 250 planes.  As one of those first Army pilots, Eddie Gardner logged over 1,400 hours of flight time and had been appointed as a senior flight instructor.   

During that time, Gardner had been nicknamed "Turkey Bird" by fellow pilots who suggested that Gardner’s wobbly takeoffs resembled a turkey trying to fly. Slightly offended (but unable to shake off the nickname), Gardner shortened his colleague’s moniker to "Turk Bird," which Gardner considered more acceptable.

The Institution of Air Mail Service: A Turbulent Beginning

In mid-1916, the federal government initiated plans to implement the first, experimental air mail delivery route. The initial air mail service route was planned to cover a single route of 218 miles between Washington, D.C., and New York City. Flight plans included a scheduled stop at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where pilots would exchange planes and pick up more mail.

However, the federal government provided only minimal funding and support of the first experiments with air mail service.

In 1917, Otto Praeger, assistant U.S. postmaster general, hoped to have pilots employed by the U.S. Post Office Department. Under his plan, the pilots would fly one round trip six days every week. 

However, Army Colonel E. A. Deeds was selected to oversee the first air mail delivery service. Deeds believed those responsibilities would provide much-needed, cross-country flying experience for Army pilots. The U.S. Army Air Service (USAAS), which included Benjamin B. Lipsner, would provide the pilots and money to pay those pilots.

In early 1918, the U. S. Congress accepted a proposal from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics ( NACA) and appropriated $100,000 for the first regularly-scheduled airmail service in the country. Colonel Deeds selected Major Reuben H. Fleet to manage the first flights when regular airmail service was authorized on March 1, 1918. Major Fleet received orders to have pilots prepared to fly by May 15, 1918.

In less than three months, the Army Air Service (USAAS) made 270 flights and its pilots had carried 40,500 pounds of mail. Only 16 flights ended due to mechanical failure; 53 flights were grounded due to weather conditions. No army pilots had died and only a few had been injured.

The U.S. Army Air Service (USAAS) ended its air mail delivery operations on August 12th, when the U.S. Post Office Department began carrying the mail with their own pilots.

Eddie Gardner: Pioneering U.S. Post Office Department Pilot

Assistant U.S. Post Master General Otto Praeger believed that the Army had been reluctant to support air mail delivery and had not been committed to meeting a regular delivery schedule. Of course, the Army Air Service (USASS) pilots felt differently. Despite the difference of opinion, Praeger appointed Benjamin B. Lipsner, who left the USAAS, to head the civilian-operated Air Mail Service.

One of Lipsner's first acts was to hire four pilots, each with at least 1,000 hours flying experience, paying them an average of $4,000 per year. One of the first four pilots hired by Lipsner was his old auto-racing friend from Chicago and Plainfield native: Eddie Gardner.

Next Column: Turk Bird: The Tale of a Pioneering Pilot – Part Two

Have a question about Plainfield’s history? Send your inquiries to Michael Lambert via Plainfield Patch.

© 2012 Michael A. Lambert. All Rights Reserved

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