Hundreds of interested spectators gathered at the Latrobe Airport on May 12, 1939, to witness aviation history. The first non-stop airmail pickup between Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Huntingdon, West Virginia, took place just outside Latrobe on that Friday morning.
Although the United States Postal Service had been using airmail since 1918, it was available only to large cities. The problem with airmail delivery to small towns was the long delay occasioned by take-offs and landings.
By the 1930s a private company, All American Aviation, was experimenting with a unique system of airmail pickup and delivery invented by Dr. Lytle S. Adams a dentist from Irwin. It was this system that was employed in Latrobe. He invented a system like that used by trains to pick up mail on the run.
The Latrobe Bulletin reported the event in that evening’s paper:
“At 9:40 this morning the planes left Pittsburgh, arriving at the local airport shortly before 10. Circling the airport, [with a] grappling hook dangling about 50 feet beneath, the first plane finally got into position and was piloted between the poles, set 60 feet apart, on which the mail sack is suspended."
“The grappling hook, once contacting the rope stretched between the poles, picked up the entire assembly, simultaneously dropping off the mail intended for Latrobe. An assistant then drew the mail into the plane where it is sorted and arranged en route. Included with the [incoming] mail was a complete assembly to be set up for the pick-up this afternoon.”
This system was so successful it was widely used in the tri-state area and became a common practice at hundreds of small town airports. This system was used for ten years, a period during which mail volume boomed due to World War II correspondence.
Airmail as a separate class of domestic mail officially ended on May 1, 1977, although in practice it ended in October 1975, when the Postal Service announced that First-Class postage — which was three cents cheaper — would buy the same or better level of service.