By Cheryl R. Ganz, Chief Curator of Philately with assistance from Pradip Jain
Although airborne mail transport had occurred during the nineteenth century, the first official airmail flown by airplane took place in India in 1911.
During the 1800s, balloons and gliders carried the first flown mail. The first official U.S. airmail delivery took place on August 17, 1859. On that day, veteran balloonist John Wise (1808-1879) carried 123 letters and twenty-three circulars from Lafayette to Crawfordsville, Indiana, a distance of thirty miles, in his balloon Jupiter.
On December 17, 1903, Orville (1871-1948) and Wilbur (1867-1912) Wright made the first sustained, powered airplane flight at Kitty Hawk in North Carolina. Orville flew 120 feet for twelve seconds. No mail was carried. During the following decade, pilots around the world barnstormed the countryside, holding aerial demonstration meets, creating postcards and souvenir labels. Many pioneer pilots carried unofficial mail on their short flights. “Unofficial mail” refers to mail carried privately and postmarked before or after the flight, while the post office authorized and serviced “official mail.”
On February 18, 1911, French pilot Henri Pequet (1888-1974) carried the first official mail flown by airplane. The flight occurred in India. Pequet carried a sack with about 6,000 cards and letters on his Humber biplane. The plane flew a distance of five miles, from an Allahabad polo field, over the Yamuna River, to Naini. All mail received a special cancel depicting an airplane, mountains, and “First Aerial Post, 1911, U. P. Exhibition Allahabad.”
Pequet was in India flying demonstration flights for the United Provinces Exhibition in Allahabad. Walter Windham (1868-1942), a British aviation pioneer, organized the aerial demonstrations. The event marked the first time airplanes flew in India. An appeal from Rev. W.E.S. Holland, a chaplain of the Holy Trinity Church, Allahabad, spurred the event. He had appealed to Windham for help in fundraising for a new youth hostel. Windham conceived the aerial post and obtained approval from the post office for officially sanctioned mail. Postal officials asked Windham to design the cancel. Most mail has a magenta cancellation, but a few examples exist with black ink. The regular postage rate required an additional surcharge as a donation for the Church Hostel Building.
To tell the story of airmail’s development and expansion, aerophilatelists avidly collect worldwide airmail stamps and mail flown by a variety of aircraft. Airmail redefined global postal communications in the twentieth century.
Jain, Pradip. Indian Airmails: Develpment and Operations (1911-1942) (India: Philatelia, 2002).