Wood Sisters

LaVernia Wood's Great Aviation Adventure

Florence LaVernia Wood about 1900

Florence LaVernia Wood about 1905

The 1920’s were an exciting time in aviation, especially with Charles Lindberg on May 20-21, 1927 successfully flying nonstop from Roosevelt Field in Garden City, Long Island, New York to Le Bourget Field in Paris, France in his Spirit of St. Louis. The following two magazine covers came from LaVernia’s scrapbook.

Jan 21, 1928 Saturday Evening Post

Saturday Evening Post , January 21, 1928, "Flying Uncle Sam" by Norman Rockwell

May 12, 1928 Saturday Evening Post

Saturday Evening Post , May 12, 1928, "Spirit of America" by Edgar Franklin Wittmack

The U.S. Post Office Department began Air Mail service in 1918 and expanded its service throughout the 1920’s including Commercial Air Mail (CAM) route 18 between San Francisco and Chicago on July 1, 1927.

Boeing Emblem Air Mail Envelope
Air Mail Plane Speed

In this timeframe LaVernia was living at 863 South Tenth Street, San Jose, California. In early 1928 she began making plans to visit relatives in Alden, Iowa and wanted to shorten the travel time that it took by train. At 39 years old she decided to be a bit of an adventurist by booking a one way airplane trip with Boeing Air Transport (Mail Plane) leaving May 10, 1928 out of Oakland, California. This mail route had only started 10 months prior to her flight. She also booked a train ride (Southern Pacific Railroad) back through Innisfail, Alberta, Canada so she could see her aunt Clara Caroline Alden (Wood). This flight definitely was somewhat of a risk since they needed to fly over the Sierras and Rocky Mountains and it was not uncommon for problems to occur during a flight (Charles Lindberg actually bailed out of his Air Mail plane two different times on the St. Louis-Chicago CAM 2 route in 1926!).

The following is a compilation of her journey based on her typewritten journal and mementos that she saved in a scrapbook. This scrapbook was passed on to Leonard and Mervel Wood. I have also included a number of details about the route, biplane, and pilots.

The Route

CAM 18 Air Mail Route

CAM 18 Air Mail Route San Francisco to Chicago
U.S. Department of Commerce, Aeronautics Branch, Airway Bulletin No.1, General Airway Information, September 1, 1931

The official route was: Leave at 7:00am Oakland-San Francisco to Sacramento to Reno to Elko to Salt Lake City to Rock Springs to Cheyenne to North Platte to Omaha to Des Moines (arrive at 1:30am) to Chicago. A total of 1648 miles to Des Moines and 17 ½ hours elapsed time – assuming no complications (delays, head winds, storms, fuel, mechanical problems, etc.)

The entire route was plotted out with light beacons (for night flying), and a large cement directional arrow at the base, about every 10-15 miles. The arrow would point towards the next numbered beacon (#1A being near Oakland and #42 just outside Chicago) and at night the pilot was usually able to see it. The arrows were about fifty feet in length and easily spotted from the air. An example is the Thayer Junction, Wyoming #17 arrow located near I-80 on the Rock Springs to Medicine Bow Airway section.

Route Map

Airway Section map from General Airway Information, Airway Bulletin #1, September 31, 1931, U.S. Department of Commerce, Aeronautics Branch; University of Michigan Library (Google)

Thayer Junction Arrow

Thayer Junction, Wyoming Beacon/Arrow #17
Google Earth view near I-80
gps coordinates: 41.671638,-108.941306

Thayer Junction Arrow

Thayer Junction, Wyoming Arrow
Photo Courtesy of Brian and Charlotte Smith

Medicine Bow Beacon

Medicine Bow, WY #32 (original tower, beacon, arrow, and generator shed)
Photo Courtesy of Brian and Charlotte Smith

You can see the full airway route from San Francisco to Chicago at Brian and Charlotte Smith’s website that has numerous photos and details of CAM 18 and other Air Mail routes Arrows Across America. A truly cool website!

It is amazing that all of these beacons were turned on every night at each one of these locations – especially the ones way out in the desolate country. It is gratifying to see that special interest has been focused on the light beacon on Mount Diablo outside of Danville, California known as the “Eye of Diablo”. This beacon was constructed by Standard Oil and turned on by Charles Lindbergh (throwing a switch in Denver) on April 15, 1928 (a month before LaVernia’s flight).

Mount Diablo Beacon 1928

Mount Diablo Beacon under construction in 1928
Courtesy of mtdiablocam

The beacon was turned on every night until December 8, 1941 (the day after Pearl Harbor attack) and remained off until being turned on for the night of December 7, 1964. The beacon shines one night on December 7th every year in commemoration of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The beacon was taken down, restored, and remounted on Oct 22, 2013.

Mt Diablo Beacon Restored

Mt Diablo Beacon fully restored Oct 22, 2013
Courtesy of mtdiablocam

In 1926 Boeing won the government Air Mail contract for carrying US Postal mail between San Francisco and Chicago (CAM18, which stood for Contract Air Mail route 18). The following is from the United Airlines Historical Foundation website.

In the Fall of 1926, Claire Egtvedt (VP of Boeing) was thinking of starting an airline passenger service connecting Seattle, Vancouver and Victoria when Eddie Hubbard (pilot for the Seattle-Victoria Air Mail Line) told him some exciting news.
The Post Office Department, which had awarded CAM “feeder-contracts” during the previous year, was about to let private contractors bid on the Transcontinental Trunk Route!
The route was to be divided into two legs - San Francisco to Chicago and Chicago to New York. The stipulation for winning a leg was that the successful bidder must furnish 25 planes and begin service by July 1, 1927.

Model 40B2

Boeing Model 40B2 used on the CAM 18 Route

Hubbard believed that Boeing could win the CAM 18 San Francisco - Chicago contract and successfully fly the leg with the Model 40 (above photo). Substantially underbidding Western Air Express, Boeing won the contract on January 15, 1927. The design of the Model 40 was changed to allow 2 passengers in an enclosed cabin and the new air-cooled 410 hp Pratt & Whitney “Wasp” engine replaced the water-cooled Liberty engine.
In anticipation of winning the CAM 18 contract, Wm. Boeing organized the Boeing Air Transport company (BAT) with offices in Salt Lake City. After winning the contract, the 25 Model 40As were built, pilots were hired and flights began on July 1, 1927.

The Biplane

Model 40B2 Replica

Replica of Model 40B-2 completed in 2007
Courtesy of Museum of Flight website

Model 40B2 Replica on display Model 40B2 Replica on display

Model 40B-2 Replica on display at Museum of Flight in Seattle, Washington
Courtesy of Museum of Flight website

There were 25 Model 40A planes built and positioned along the route from San Francisco to Chicago by July 1, 1927. The wing span was 44ft and 2in, overall length was 33ft 2in, total weight was 6000lbs and had a top speed of 128 mph. The plane had a mail storage compartment behind the engine and another one behind the two passenger compartment (it could carry a total of 1200lbs of mail).

It’s most likely that LaVernia flew in the Model 40B-2 since starting in early 1928 the 40A’s were upgraded by replacing the Pratt & Whitney 410 hp Wasp radial engine with the newer 525 hp Hornet engine and were recertified to Model 40B-2’s.

For an excellent detailed history on the Model 40 Mail Plane see The History of the Boeing Model 40 by Mike Lavelle.

The Pilots

Most of the first pilots came from the Post Office Department's existing crew and some were former Army Air Corps pilots with WWI experience. For LaVernia’s flight, she started with Claire Vance at the controls in Oakland, California. LaVernia’s brother, Fred in San Francisco, sent this clipping about Claire Vance.

Claire Vance article Claire Vance article

Article from The San Francisco Examiner, May 10, 1928

Claire Vance

Claire Vance with Model 40B-2 Biplane
Courtesy of Truckee Donner Historical Society's website

Unfortunately Claire Vance was killed in a crash on Rocky Ridge near Danville, CA on Dec 17, 1932 on the Oakland to Reno route.

Claire Vance crash article

Article from Oakland Tribune, Dec 19, 1932
Ancestry.com. Oakland Tribune (Oakland, California) [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2006

Article Picture

You can read much more about Claire Vance and his storied career as a pilot at the Truckee Donner Historical Society's website.

Flight Arrangements

LaVernia received this letter and schedule pamphlet in response to her request for information on flying from Oakland to Des Moines. The Boeing Air Transport company had been in business for less than a year.

Letter from Boeing Air Transport

Letter from Boeing Air Transport

Rate and Schedule Rate and Schedule

Rate and Time Table pamphlet

Her flight would leave Oakland at 7:00 am and arrive in Des Moines at 1:30 am the following day. The total cost was $181 which in today’s cost (2015) would be about $2,500! This was a considerable sum for LaVernia but she was determined to follow through on her plans.

Cancelled check Cancelled check

Cancelled checks

Her schedule was set,


and having paid for her flight, she went to the Alum Rock Airport in San Jose on May 9th to have her picture taken and be interviewed by the San Jose Mercury Herald. She was ready to begin her adventure the next morning, bright and early!

SanJose article

The Flight

The following is a transcription of LaVernia’s typewritten journal that she wrote, probably in the year 1929, and was included in her scrapbook.

May 1928
A Californian flies "Home" to Iowa

“ In the years gone by, as a youngster at home on the farm in Iowa, I often lay awake of a night after hearing the through train on the Illinois Central go clickety-clicketing past, and wove many a night “day-dream” around the lives of the passengers lying snug in their berths aboard that train. How I wished I were being carried along to thrilling scenes and adventures which might be at the end of the rails.

Last May, as I flew back home into Iowa aboard the mail plane from the west, I looked down on the farm homes and wondered if the youngsters there were weaving day dreams around the passengers aboard the mail planes as they heard and saw them wing their way back and forth across the country. And it came to me that as yet the passenger service by plane is so new that probably there were many in those homes who had never made any through trips by air and that they might like to know enough of the details of such a journey to at least give their day dreams the semblance of reality.

Since leaving my home state, I have made several journeys back to visit around the vicinity of my childhood and always as the train, or motor if we were going back that way, crossed the Missouri River, my heart thrilled to know I was “home”, but never have I gotten the wonderful reaction that I did when the mail plane on which I was the only passenger soared superbly across the river and on over the “hills of home”. Green were the hills that morning and pink were the blossoms of the wild crab apple trees that nestled cozily in every little hollow where the hills ran down to the river. My heart was near to bursting with joy as I leaned to the window and watched the familiar sights unfold.

Yes, there was an apple orchard coming into bloom, there were a few plum trees around a farm house all white and lacy, yes, and there was a lilac bush just showing the first clear tinge of color. Yes, and there were pigs – honest to goodness pigs, fat and calm as they walked about the pen. There was a field where the men had gotten an early start and the man at the disk rested his team for a moment while he gazed up at the plane overhead. Then more teams at work in the fields and very soon we were passing over the western section of Des Moines; then the Capitol dome came into sight – then we pass on by and feel that something should be done to get word to the pilot – “Please, this is where I get off”. But there is no means of signaling and I decide if he carries me on to Chicago it will just mean that much more fun. However, in a moment we are circling over the airport and in another instant have landed. The wind is blowing a gale from the Southwest – a regular spring wind. The man in charge of the port offers to take me into town as soon as he gets the plane off on the next lap of its journey and I watch from the office window with a mixture of relief and disappointment as the pilot gets in and quickly makes his departure. Yes, I’ll admit there was a certain amount of relief that the journey of some sixteen hundred miles by air was over, for, like motoring or train travel, it does become physically tiring when taken in too long “doses”. But the mental exhilaration of flying is so great that one is loath to “call it a day”.

I left Oakland one May morning at seven o’clock. Unfortunately, rather a dismal foggy morning with more than a threat of rain to take the place of fog. That is the only disadvantage – one buys his ticket and reservation (with no more effort than one buys a railroad ticket) for a certain day and naturally cannot back out just because he doesn’t like the looks of the weather and thinks he might prefer his first trip to be on a sunny spring day. We reach the airport just at the hour set for departure and tickets were punched and suitcases stowed away so quickly that we had no time to inspect our own little compartment so, after the first excitement is over, and we realize we are in the air, we settle back to make ourselves perfectly comfortable and look around a bit.

Ticket front Ticket back

Actual punched ticket: notice that LaVernia’s brother, Fred Burpee Wood, signed for her. Most likely Fred picked up the ticket at the Boeing office in San Francisco since he and his wife lived there. The route map is also on the back of the ticket.

Passenger Cabin

(Model 40A Passenger Compartment – doors and windows on both sides) Courtesy of American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, The History of the Boeing Model 40, 2008, Mike Lavelle, Museum of Flight

In the Boeing planes in use then, the passenger compartment was much the same as the inside of a small automobile of the coupe type, the seat softly cushioned in leather, plenty of room for two people of slender build (and fortunately my traveling companion was about my own size and we were perfectly comfortable). The robe was sufficiently large to wrap us up snugly, so we opened both windows, one in either door of the plane, and proceeded to enjoy ourselves.

Model 40B-2 over Mountains

Boeing 40B-2 over Ruby Mountains in Nevada

The roar of the motor was such that we could not carry on any conversation but that was no hardship. At first there was a little feeling of disappointment that it was all so “tame” – just like sitting in a comfortable armchair somewhere up in the sky, far from all the confusion of everyday living. The fog failed to lift and we were forced to turn back out of the Sierras and wait in Sacramento until the fog broke enough for the pilot to be sure of getting a “hole through”. Then we started off again and climbed directly up and went in over the fog and clouds. For some forty-five minutes we sailed along in the brilliant sunshine while under us and as far in any direction as one could see was this delightfully soft looking “feather bed”. We left the fog in time however to get a little of the beauties of the Sierras just before we reached Reno. How puny and futile the trains looked as they laboriously puffed and struggled to reach the summit!

Poverty Point Arrow

Poverty Point, Utah Arrow #59 outside Salt Lake City
Courtesy of Brian and Charlotte Smith

Reno meant a change of planes and pilots and a little lunch. We were some three hours late out of Reno however as the wait in Sacramento had spoiled our schedule completely. From Reno, it was not so interesting as the country is more or less barren and much alkali was in sight. A quick stop at Elko, Nevada for mail and we were off again for Salt Lake. We skim along over the end of Salt Lake along the line of the line the railroad takes as it cuts across the lake and, to the right, watch the motor road along which we motored in 1915 on our way “out west in an automobile”, which procedure was considered then even more of an adventure than my present trip back by air.

An hour or more was spent at the Salt Lake airport waiting for the mail planes on the converging routes and getting the mail we had brought in changed over into the fresh plane. This delay added to our first, kept us from leaving Salt Lake until six o’clock. The first half hour was charming as we flew up and up, over the city where we could pick out the familiar landmarks Temple, Tabernacle, Capitol, etc. Then out over the Wasatch Mountains just as the sun was setting – and such an angry looking sunset, for storm clouds began to gather around the mountain peaks and soon the black rain clouds were scudding before the wind and it looked anything but a calm and peaceful moonlit night. Every once in a while, we would run through a rain cloud and then the rain drops would sluice down the struts and onto the lower wings but the passenger cabin was so protected, placed as it is in between the wings, that no rain came in even though the windows remained open.

Medicine Bow Beacon

Medicine Bow, Wyoming #32 Beacon
Courtesy of Brian and Charlotte Smith

The young woman who had been my fellow passenger had left at Salt Lake, so from there in I was all alone. There was no means of communication with the pilot and I’ll admit that for a few hours that evening I did not wax enthusiastic over the joys of air travel! However, after it became really dark and the beacon lights came on, I felt better about it. What a friendly feeling it gave to see those lights, sometimes blinkers and sometimes search lights, beaming through the darkness, and then every once in a while would appear a lighted airport and the sight of those gave a double sense of security.

North Platte Beacon

Laramie Airport, Wyoming, Airway Bulletin No. 566, February 27, 1929, U.S. Department of Commerce, Aeronautics Branch; University of California Library (digitized by Google)

On and on we flew, the clouds gradually being left behind and soon one lone star appeared. The wind was still blowing a gale and it was a head wind of course, so we had to land at Laramie for gas before attempting the necessary altitude to take us over the divide and into Cheyenne.

It is a wonderful sensation to land in a plane at night at a well lighted airport. At Laramie, we circled the field two or three times before the pilot found just the landing point he wanted, then taxied in between the ground flares. It was bitterly cold by then and I took the opportunity to bundle the robe around me more snugly.

Cheyenne Airport

Cheyenne Airport, Wyoming, Airway Bulletin No. 140, July 25, 1927, U.S. Department of Commerce, Aeronautics Branch; University of California Library (digitized by Google)

The gas taken on, we were up and off, gaining some eleven thousand feet elevation when we crossed the divide, then quickly down to Cheyenne. Another wait in the warm and pleasant office while the mail was changed from the incoming plane to the outgoing and off once more. We have left the mountains now and as they had put the heater on in this plane, it was warm and comfortable so I curled up in the seat and slept peacefully, if not entirely comfortably, as we sailed smoothly along over Wyoming and Nebraska.

North Platte Beacon

North Platte, Nebraska Beacon, mid 1920's

This year, I am hoping to make the trip again, this time as far as Chicago, but it will not have quite the pioneering flavor as the one of 1928 when it was something of a novelty for a young woman to make such a trip. This year’s trip will be more comfortable not doubt, for the Boeing people have larger planes in operation, carrying several passengers but a first experience is always the most thrilling.”

Actual Route

The actual route taken by LaVernia from Oakland to Des Moines included several unplanned delays and stops (quite common during these early days):
   Plane 1 / Pilot 1(Claire Vance): Oakland (7:00am on May 10) to Sacramento – Returned to Sacramento (fog) then left (10:00am) for Reno
   Plane 2 / Pilot 2: Reno to Salt Lake City
   Plane 3 / Pilot 3: Salt Lake City to Laramie (more gas) then to Cheyenne
   Plane 4 / Pilot 4: Cheyenne to North Platte (more gas) then to Omaha
   Plane 5 / Pilot 5: Omaha to Des Moines (10:15 am on May 11)

Total travel time was a little over 27 hours and a total distance of 1648 miles.

Visit in Iowa

Having arrived at the Des Moines airport, La Vernia then checked into the Hotel Fort Des Moines - based on a letter she had written on Hotel Fort Des Moines letterhead and intended to mail to Fred, her brother, but was not able to send it.

Letter from Des Moines Letter from Des Moines

Letter written to LaVernia's brother from Des Moines, Iowa

Friday morn May 11

My dear Fred & Marie:
Well here I am – as you probably know by the telegram this morning – didn’t aim to send it collect, but there was no telegraph office at the Omaha airport & that was the only way they would accept it. Got in here at 10:15 and the man at the port brought me in here where I took a room, have had a bath, will have some lunch sent up, & then leave for Iowa Falls on the 1:30 bus. No other train until later tonight.

Perhaps you know we had to turn back when about half way between Sacramento & Reno & wait in Sacramento for the fog to lift – that explains our first two hour delay as it was 10 am before we left Sacramento the second time.

It was perfectly delightful all the way to Reno & neither one of us felt the least bit sick. Then at Reno I drank a little coffee & ate a half orange & as it was rather “rough” in the afternoon managed to lose that & haven’t eaten anything since except a few bites of a sandwich in Cheyenne last night. However that is a small matter. Was the only passenger out of Salt Lake – terribly strong wind coming from Salt Lake to Cheyenne & it took us six hours instead of the ordinary three. It was lovely this morning from North Platte in, only still very rough.

More later –
Much love
From LaVernia

The lilacs and wild crab apple are in blossom along here.

LaVernia’s uncle Arthur picked her up after she took the afternoon bus to Iowa City. On Sunday afternoon, May 13, Mother’s Day, a large picnic was held at “Uncle Arthur’s” with all the local Woods attending. Everyone was dressed in their “Sunday best”. I have not been able to identify everyone in these pictures just yet.

Family Reunion

LaVernia is in the center with the hat with a dark band. On her right is her grandmother, Effie Mae, and on her left shoulder is Uncle Arthur. Front left is Keith and Mervel (sons of Leonard “Chess” Wood).

Family Reunion

LaVernia is in the back row

Family Reunion

Chess is back left with Arthur next to him and LaVernia is in the middle

On to Canada

On May 16, LaVernia left Alden and took the train(s) to Innisfail, Alberta, Canada to visit with her aunt Clara Caroline Alden and her family. Clara and her husband, William, with their three children had homesteaded in Canada in 1902.

LaVernia in Canada

La Vernia in Innisfail, Alberta, Canada

Fred, LaVernia’s brother, sent this letter to her while she was in Innisfail. It’s interesting to see how they wrote their letters almost a hundred years ago.

Fred Letter Fred Letter Fred Letter Fred Letter

Notice where Fred mentions that he delivered mail by dogsled from Seward to Iditarod, Alaska! Sounds like another “Mail Delivery” story!!!!

Finally Home

LaVernia had taken the train from Iowa Falls to St Paul, Minnesota to Innisfail, Alberta, Canada and the final leg of her trip from Innisfail to Spokane, Washington, then to Portland, Oregon and finally to Oakland, California.

Ticket Ticket

Iowa Falls to St Paul, Minnesota to Calgary, Alberta, Canada

Ticket Ticket Ticket

Calgary to Spokane, Washington to Portland, Oregon to Oakland California


Dining Car Pamphlet

LaVernia arrived home on the evening of May 23 in San Jose. A final note on her adventure appeared in the San Jose Mercury Herald on June 3, 1928.

Return article

LaVernia Wood had a truly adventurous journey with her flight in the Mail Plane on May 10 – 11, 1928!

Model 40 B-2

Courtesy of Museum of Flight website