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NC-4735: A Bob Fogg U.S. Air Mail Mystery

The Laker - April 12, 2017

Story and photo by Barbara Neville Wilson

For years we displayed the wooden, silver-painted plane atop a wardrobe in our bedroom. I rarely thought about it, really only when dust bunnies dripped from its wings. Since we’ve moved, though, it’s on a corner shelf I pass daily. It plagues me every time I see it.

Someone spent careful hours building this plane, using what was handy to make it look real. Soon after we bought the plane, dried-up rubber wire wound around the landing gear fell off in my hand. The whole thing is primitive: the rounded wings a little rough, the carved propeller a little jagged.

But when we won it on a five-dollar bid 12 or more years ago, the auctioneer approved. “Good deal!” he commended.

This isn’t just a generic plane, it’s not just rough cut wood thrown together. Its maker took pains to carve “U.S. Mail” on the body and “NC-4735” atop the wing. It appears to be a model of a specific plane. What is its significance? Why was it built?

A few weeks ago, I thought I’d found some answers. I picked up Jane Rice’s book, Bob Fogg and New Hampshire’s Golden Age of Aviation: Flying Over Winnipesaukee and Beyond and opened to Chapter 4: “Air Mail on the Big Lake.”

Did you know the nation’s first mail route via seaplane was issued right here on Lake Winnipesaukee as an emergency contract for August 1 to September 8, 1925? According to Rice, the “emergency” was the result of “businessmen and stockbrokers summering at the lake” who complained of late delivery of newspapers and first class mail.

With a dearth of landing fields in rocky, hilly New Hampshire, early pilots found the state’s lakes suitable airports. Veteran pilot Bob Fogg had been running recreational excursions out of the Weirs on Winnipesaukee since 1923 and got the contract for the Winnipesaukee “aero-marine route.”

Rice reports, “The Air Mail route started at the Weirs with the arrival of the Boston mail train at 5:55 a.m. Bob took the mailbags, approximately two hundred to four hundred pounds of mail, on board and flew first to Wolfeboro, followed by stops at Camp Wyanoke and Camp Ossipee on Wolfeboro Neck, Philip Smith’s Landing on Tuftonboro Neck, Camp Belknap and the Wawbeek Hotel in Tuftonboro, Camp Winaukee on Moultonborough Neck, the Long Island Inn on Long Island, the Boston YMCA camp on Sandy Island, Camp Idlewild on Cow Island and back to the Weirs by 7:20 a.m. in plenty of time for the outgoing mail to catch the 8:05 a.m. train back to Boston.”

My heart beat a little faster. Was this plane, “our” plane? Did someone decide to commemorate the Air Mail route by building a model? Albeit with readily available wheels instead of hard-to-carve pontoons? I examined the photos in Rice’s book. If the maker meant to recreate the seaplane, it was not an exacting replica. Fogg’s plane was a Curtiss MF (Modified Flying) Boat, a bi-plane with pairs of wings on either side of the fuselage. Our plane has a single set of wings. I look again at the photos. I see no “NC” number on Fogg’s plane’s wings. Rice reports that planes were not yet inspected or pilots licensed at the time of the first mail route. Perhaps the NC numbers were added later? Although our plane has “U.S. Mail” carved into its side, perhaps it was not a model of the plane that flew the 1925 Air Mail route. I read on.

Ahh…here’s another possibility. Although the Winnipesaukee aero-marine mail route ran only one summer, in 1925, Fogg recreated his role as flying postman in Vermont in the fall of 1927 when “between November 3 and 7 two slow-moving storms coalesced over the state and dumped eight inches of rain…1,258 bridges washed out, eighty-four people were killed and major damage to the railroads totaled nearly four million 1928 dollars.” The destruction of rail routes led postal authorities to realize the need for air support to keep the mail lines flowing, and who better to ask for help than Bob Fogg, with his stellar record of air mail delivery on Winnipesaukee?

For the last month and a half of 1927, Bob Fogg spent 52 hours a week in sub-freezing temperatures, switching landing wheels out for skis to deliver nearly eight tons of mail to the marooned residents of Vermont. For his efforts, Rice tells “The Vermont House and Senate cited Fogg for ‘his unprecedented service in the face of hazardous conditions.’”

Is this our plane? I read closely. Alas, the plane Fogg flew was The New Hampshire, a Waco biplane with NC-1148 emblazoned on its tail. The search continues.

Oh! What about this? On May 19, 1938 a special celebration of the 1925 aero-marine Air Mail delivery was held on Winnipesaukee.

Early that morning, local and federal governmental luminaries, the postmasters of Laconia and the Weirs, a WLNH radio rep, a small business owner, the headmaster of New Hampton School, and Jim Irwin of the Lakes Region Associates climbed aboard a Sikorsky S-38 amphibian airplane in the Weirs so pilot Bob Fogg could fly them across Winnipesaukee to land on Wolfeboro Bay.

At that town’s docks, they were greeted by an equally weighty coterie of Wolfeboro officials and leading citizens. Seven hundred pieces of specially cancelled letters were loaded into the plane as students from Carpenter School looked on. Did one of those students build our model as a commemoration of the day? Or perhaps it was built by one of the Girl or Boy Scouts who later greeted the mail at Laconia Airport on the other side of the lake? My hopes rise.

And fall just as fast when I examine Rice’s photos. The Sikorsky S-38 amphibian carried the wrong number, NC74K.

The mystery lives on. Plane NC-4735: who are you?

(Jane Rice’s book, Bob Fogg and New Hampshire’s Golden Age of Aviation: Flying Over Winnipesaukee and Beyond, is a deeply-researched, lavishly-illustrated history of early flight in New Hampshire.) 

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