Robbery in the Sky

On May 15, 1918, the U.S. Post Office Department introduced air mail as the fastest, safest, and most secure form of mail delivery. However, it wasn’t long before crooks began targeting mail transported on planes.

Air Mail Robberies Imagined

Prior to the introduction of air mail, people were certain that high-value packages would attract thieves in the skies, but their idea of those robberies was imaginative. Images of high-altitude robbers jumping from one plane to the other, or snipers ambushing mail plane along their routes, were everywhere, from newspapers to the big screen.

A 1920 newspaper article stated "United States westbound air mail plane was shot down and robbed in the Sierras at day break today... This hasn't happened yet but is being contemplated as a possibility by air mail authorities in charge of new transcontinental service." Realistically, air mail robberies looked drastically different than what was envisioned.

Air Mail Robberies in Reality

Robbers of air mail relied on safer and less theatrical methods than previously imagined opting to merely hold up mail trucks before they could reach the airport.

In 1925, a band of robbers near San Francisco, California, hijacked a truck on its way from a nearby U.S. Army airfield. Six armed men drove into the path of a mail truck, forcing it to stop. They then jumped out with pistols, unloaded eight pouches of mail, and sped away into traffic.

According to news sources, this was believed to be one of the first robberies of air mail since the transportation of mail by plane was introduced.

Modern Air Mail Robberies

Air mail robberies continued after 1925 but followed in a similar pattern of armed truck robberies. In 1980, Postal Inspectors investigated the mysterious in-flight disappearances of registered mail from commercial aircraft. The case was cracked on May 14 at the Atlanta airport when a huge trunk marked "MUSICAL INSTRUMENT" accidentally opened as it was unloaded. Inside the crate was 35-year=old William DeLucia, along with foam padding, food, water, and a canister of oxygen.

The "jack-in-the-box theif" would emerge from his trunk mid-flight to steal mail. DeLucia claimed he was acting on a dare to see if he could ship himself, but Postal Inspectors discovered several pieces of mail missing over a $350,000 worth of registered mail in passenger suitcases belonging to DeLucia's two friends and accomplices.

DeLucia and his accomplices were found guilty of mail theft and were sentenced to seven years in prison and an additional fives years of probation.


Explore the history of the United States Postal Inspection Service.