Pilot Edward Gardner’s flight suit
Pilot Eddie Gardner wore this leather flight suit during his stint as an airmail pilot. The suit was manufactured by A.G. Spaulding and Brothers, originally located in Chicago, Illinois. Flight suits were essential gear for the early airmail pilots. The airplanes used for the service had open cockpits, which left pilots exposed to frigid temperatures. This suit included a diagonal pocket compartment on the pilot’s left front breast that could be used to carry items which the pilot might want to access quickly while in flight.
Before becoming a pilot, Eddie Gardner worked as a chauffeur and mechanic in Chicago. He loved auto racing, and in 1910 he purchased a sporty National Motor Vehicle Company racing car from Benjamin Lipsner. By the time Lipsner had been named the first superintendent of the Post Office Department’s airmail service, Gardner had logged over 1,400 hours of flight time and was a senior flight instructor for the U.S. Army. Lipsner selected Gardner to be one of the first four airmail pilots in August 1918. Fellow pilots nicknamed Gardner "turkey bird" because his wobbly takeoffs resembled a turkey trying to fly. Gardner insisted on shortening the name to "turk bird."
Superintendent Lipsner commandeered Gardner’s flight suit for actor Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. to wear in a promotional stunt in 1918. Fairbanks wore this suit and an aviation helmet covered with airmail stamps to complete a promotional stunt of being 'mailed' from Washington, D.C., to New York City. The actor was promoting Liberty Bonds, and a New York City brokerage firm pledged to purchase one million dollars worth of bonds if the actor made the trip in less than five hours. Fairbanks arrived in less than five hours, and the pledge was fulfilled.
Occasionally, early airmail pilots needed more than a good flight suit to protect them from bad weather. On November 18, 1918, Gardner drew the wrath of Second Assistant Postmaster General Otto Praeger when he refused to carry the mail in bad fog. Praeger insisted that Gardner fly anyway. Against his better judgment, Gardner attempted a trip that afternoon, but the weather was impossible. After Gardner and Robert Shank, the only other pilot available at the time, refused to fly, Praeger fired them both. James C. Edgerton rehired the pair a few months later when he was named Praeger’s chief of flying, but the animosity between the two and Praeger remained. Gardner and Shank left the service in April 1919.
Gardner found work flying for Nebraska Aircraft of Lincoln, Nebraska. He promoted the company by flying at air shows across the country and into Mexico. In early May 1921 Eddie was flying his airplane in the aerobatics competition during the Holdrege, Nebraska, aviation tournament. During the conclusion of the performance, Gardner’s plane went into a tailspin from which it did not recover. The airplane crashed to the ground. Gardner was pulled out seriously injured, but still alive. He was carried to a hospital, where he died on May 6, 1921.
National Archives and Reference Administration, record group 28
Bruns, James H. Turk Bird: The High-Flying Life and Times of Eddie Gardner, Washington, DC: National Postal Museum, 1998.