Everyone knows the United States Postal Service is in trouble. Indeed, the USPS had a total of 787,538 workers back in 2000. Yet as of the last official count in 2010, the figure dropped to 583,908. Amid all the reductions and reorganizations, however, 76-year old Ray Arnold soldiers on as the last wilderness air-mail courier delivering mail in the continental United States.
For 38 years, Arnold has flown the mail route through the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness in central Idaho, the nearly 3-million-acre area that is the second largest wilderness expanse in the continental United States. (The largest wilderness area outside of Alaska is Death Valley, Calif.) And so every Wednesday for nearly four decades Arnold has dropped off postal shipments to 22 regional airports in a region that is roughly the size of Kentucky. He flies a Cessna 185, a single-engine aircraft that seats six and reaches an altitude of 9,000 feet, he said. He first landed the gig 51 years ago when he moved to the area from Minnesota to teach high school math and the hard sciences. "Flying was much more exciting to me," he told AOL Jobs.
More Than Just a Dog on the Mail Route
"The Frank," as the wilderness region is popularly known, overlaps the northern section of the Rocky Mountains and is populated by large evergreens along the Snake River. As a result, Arnold often has to contend with visibility problems on his route. To further complicate matters, he said, birds sometimes slam into his plane while bears and deer run through his line of sight.
He's said that he's never experienced a major injury while flying his route, but he conceded that he's had some close calls. He preferred, however, not to go into great detail about them -- he "doesn't dwell on them," he said. In fact, he brushed off any suggestion that anything about his route or longevity on the job was noteworthy. "We're just like any rural carriers who make their postal deliveries by car, except we fly," he said.
'Everyone Knows Ray'
Arnold did say the job of delivering mail to people living in "the Frank" has led him to strike up friendships along his route that other postal workers may not be as likely to enjoy. "We're the only contact many of these people have," he said, referring to a group of Idaho residents that includes lodge owners, U.S. Forest Service employees, and academic researchers studying wilderness areas, according to Arnold's tally. He even just attended a 50th birthday party for one the area residents.
And while many in the region don't even own a telephone, "everyone in the area knows about Ray," according to Joe Sturla, a 66-year-old insurance consultant who owns a summer home in McCall, Idaho, which is located five miles outside the entrance to wilderness area. Sturla, whose permanent residence is in Petaluma, Calif., is currently working on a documentary about Arnold. "One day this job won't exist. So it's nice to commemorate his job, which if you think about it is quite romantic -- weaving through the mountains to deliver mail," he said.
Arnold is technically not an employee of the United States Postal Service, and works instead as a contract employee. That means he's never been entitled to health insurance benefits or any of the retirement plans that come along with being a full-time USPS worker. Rather, he along with his wife Carol own Arnold Aviation, which conducts deliveries for the USPS in addition to its business of carrying passengers and delivering fuel. In total, the outfit has 10 workers and is based about 80 miles north of Boise in Cascade, Idaho.
Ten Times the Cost
As it turns out, Arnold's route on its own is a money-loser for both himself and the USPS. He said that he makes about $50,000 a year from his contract with the USPS. But when asked his expenses, he knew it to the cent: $59,554.87 per year. However, he said that he doesn't mind the nearly $10,000 annual loss, and not just for altruistic reasons. Thanks to the mail route, he's able to take advantage of the flights to make other drop-offs, which can include groceries in addition to other business deliveries.
For its part, the USPS has publicly said that the average cost of delivery for the Frank Church region is about 10 times as much as elsewhere in the country and the Postal Service came close to not extending the contract with Arnold Aviation back in 2009. But the postmaster general decided to continue the contract after pleas from Idaho's congressional delegation. "The Postal Service provides mail service to all Americans," Katina Fields, a communications representative for the USPS, told AOL Jobs.
With three years left on his current contract, Arnold said that he has no plans to retire anytime soon. "My local postmaster says I can't retire for at least another seven years, when she'll be retiring," he said. "She doesn't want to train someone else, or really having another person doing it."