Landmarks of airmail history: who's on first?

Feb 10, 2003, 10 AM

By Rick Miller

Most collectors are aware that 2003 marks the 100th anniversary of the first powered flight by a manned heavier-than-air aircraft.

Probably fewer people realize that this month also marks the 92nd anniversary of the first official airmail flight by a powered heavier-than-air aircraft.

Both anniversaries make this an auspicious moment for reviewing the firsts of airmail history.

Four countries, India, Italy, Austria and the United States, lay claim to the most significant firsts in airmail history.

The first official airmail flight by a heavier-than-air craft was a truly international affair. Authorized by the Indian government, the flight was carried out in a British-built and British-owned aircraft flown by a French pilot.

In 1910 the Humber Motor Co. of Coventry, England, sent a five-man team and eight dismantled airplanes to India aboard the SS Persia at the invitation of the United Provinces government.

Humber had begun manufacture of airplanes that year, and the company was invited to exhibit its products at the Industrial and Agricultural Exhibition being held in Allahabad, U.P., India.

The ship docked in Bombay, and the team dismantled the aircraft and traveled to Allahabad by rail, arriving on Dec. 5.

The Anglo-French team was led by Walter George Windham, and it included two pilots and two mechanics. Windham was an aviation visionary who founded the first aero club in Great Britain.

The pilots were 23-year-old Frenchman Henri Pequet and Englishman Keith Davies.

The disassembled planes that they brought with them in the hold of the SS Persiawere two Roger Sommer biplanes and six Bleriot monoplanes.

Humber built the Bleriot planes under license from that French aircraft designer.

The Roger Sommer aircraft built by Humber was the design of an exhibition pilot of the same name, whose plane was a modification of an earlier Henri Farman design.

It was powered by a 50-horsepower, seven-cylinder Gnome rotary engine. The rear-mounted engine and propeller pushed the plane through the air, unlike most modern turbo-prop aircraft in which the front-mounted propeller pulls the plane forward.

By Dec. 10 the planes were reassembled and operating from a polo field adjacent to the exhibition grounds.

The Vicar of Holy Trinity Church in Allahabad approached Windham about using the aircraft to raise money for a student hostel.

Windham hit upon the idea of carrying mail with a special postmark by air across the Ganges River to Naini. A surcharge of 6 annas would be levied, with the proceeds going to the benefit of the Oxford and Cambridge Hostel for Indian students.

Both the director general of the post office in India and Sir Geoffrey Clarke, postmaster general of the United Provinces, officially approved the collection, cancellation and transport of mail aboard one of Windham's planes.

The flight was widely advertised and more than 6,100 pieces of mail arrived for the flight from throughout India.

The Indian government produced the special cancellation for the flight based on a design by Windham showing a side-view outline of the Sommers biplane. The cancel bore the inscription, "FIRST AERIAL POST U.P. EXHIBITION ALLAHABAD."

A cover from the flight bearing three strikes of the special cancel is shown in Figure 1.

The postcards and envelopes to be carried on the flight were canceled with the special postmark and backstamped Allahabad.

Although originally scheduled for Feb. 20, 1911, the flight was actually made two days earlier on Feb. 18. One of the Sommer biplanes was chosen for the flight because it carried a heavier payload and because the underpowered Bleriot monoplanes had not performed well in the heavy, humid Indian climate.

The Frenchman, Pequet, was chosen as the pilot for the flight, earning him aviation immortality and relegating Davies to a footnote.

In addition to the other mail, Pequet autographed and carried 400 picture postcards showing himself and the biplane. They were sold for

1 rupee each, with proceeds going to the student hostel.

Because instrument panels had yet to be invented, Pequet took off on the morning of Feb. 18 with only a watch on his right wrist and an altimeter strapped to his left knee.

Pequet flew the five miles between Allahabad and Naini at an average height of 130 feet and a cruising speed of between 40 mph and 50 mph.

The flight happened to coincide with the Hindu festival of Purna Kumbha, which occurs once every 12 years. During the festival, all Hindus make a pilgrimage to the Ganges and bathe in it to wash away their sins.

As Pequet's plane lumbered above the Ganges, it was viewed by at least 1 million bathing Hindu pilgrims.

Upon landing in Naini, Pequet turned the mail over to the local postmaster, and it was routed by surface transportation to destinations all over the world.

In 1961 India issued a three-stamp set to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the flight, Scott 336-38. The 1-rupee high-value stamp in the set depicting the Roger Sommer biplane and special cancel is shown in Figure 2.

While the first official airmail flight in India produced a special cancellation, the covers flown by Pequet were franked with regular Indian postage stamps.

The honor of producing the world's first official airmail postage stamp goes to the Kingdom of Italy. With World War I raging, the year 1917 did not seem a particularly good time for the Italians to begin experimentation with delivery of the mail by air.

The Italian Front had degraded to a mindless war of attrition with a series of pointless attacks against virtually impregnable static defenses.

The first nine Battles of the Isonzo in 1916 had taken a terrific toll, with about 70,000 Italian soldiers killed for virtually no gain of territory. Another 76,000 would die in the spring and summer offensives of 1917.

The Italian government was worried that German and Austro-Hungarian submarines would cut off contact with Sicily and Sardinia by sea. It decided to try an experimental airmail flight over land between Rome and Turin to test the feasibility of maintaining contact with the islands by air.

While there had been a number of other experimental airmail flights since Pequet's in India in 1911, none had used official airmail stamps to pay for the service.

The world's first airmail stamp, Italy Scott C1, shown in Figure 3, was created by overprinting "ESPERIMENTO POSTA AEREA MAGGIO 1917 TORINO-ROMA · ROMA-TORINO" on the 25-centesimo rose-red King Victor Emmanuel III special delivery stamp. The overprint was applied to 200,000 stamps.

The overprinted airmail stamps went on sale in Rome and Turin on May 16, with a limit of three to a customer.

Italian Air Force pilot Tenente Mario de Bernardi was assigned to make the flight. Originally scheduled for May 19, it was postponed because of bad weather. The first leg, Rome to Turin, took place May 22, with the return flight on May 27.

The plane, an Italian Air Force Pomilio PC-1 reconnaissance aircraft, carried 480 pounds of mail, mostly specially prepared commemorative cards and 200 newspapers. Most of the mail was postmarked May 20.

Obviously only a tiny fraction of the 200,000 airmail stamps were used for this first flight. The stamps remained on sale from the post office until just before WWII.

In 1967 Italy issued a 40-lira Pomilio PC-1 Biplane and 1917 Airmail Postmark stamp to commemorate the flight, Scott 968, shown in Figure 4.

While a host of airmail flights were made prior to 1918, they were all experimental flights.

The first regularly scheduled airmail service was initiated by Austria on March 31, 1918. Operated by the Austro-Hungarian Air Service in the midst of WWI, it provided airmail service between Vienna and Cracow (now Krakow, Poland) and Vienna and Lemberg (now Lvov, Ukraine).

The Vienna-Lemberg route was often extended to Kiev, Ukraine, the administrative center of occupation on the former Eastern Front.

Austria overprinted three definitive stamps "FLUGPOST" for franking the airmail. Two of the stamps were also surcharged.

While the overprinted stamps had the same design and values as Austrian Coat of Arms definitive stamps issued in 1916-18, they were printed in different colors than the regular stamps, in addition to being overprinted and surcharged.

The middle value stamp from the set of three, the 2.50-krone-on-3k ocher airmail stamp, Scott C2, is shown in Figure 5.

The Vienna-Cracow service carried only military dispatches and official mail, while the Vienna-Lemberg-Kiev flights carried both military and civilian mail. The route to Kiev took 13 hours to complete when flown as scheduled.

The service was in regular operation from March 31 until the last flight on Oct. 15, 1918. During this period only two loads of mail were lost.

The success of the first regularly scheduled airmail service carried out while Austro-Hungary was still at war on the Italian and Balkan fronts, demonstrated the feasibility of regular delivery of the mail by air.

In 1993, Ukraine issued the 35-karbovanets stamp, Scott 167, shown in Figure 6, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the first Vienna-Lemberg-Kiev flight.

Discounting local and semi-official stamps, the United States was the first country to issue a stamp that showed an airplane. The 20¢ Airplane Carrying the Mail parcel post stamp, Scott Q8, issued in 1913, is shown in Figure 7.

U.S. airmail service was authorized and the rate was set at 24¢ per ounce by the Act of May 6, 1918.

The U.S. Post Office Department created a stamp with distinctive colors and design to pay for the new service. The Curtiss Jenny, a frequent carrier of U.S. airmails, was chosen for the design.

The world's first purpose-designed airmail stamp, the 24¢ carmine-rose and blue Curtiss Jenny, Scott C3, is shown in Figure 8.