I'm a big fan of mail. Airmail stamps are always fun to find/receive/collect for me. My USPS stamp collector email alerted me that this day in history the first US airmail took place 1911. But when was the first ever airmail?
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.
In America the first Airmail was carried by Earle Ovington on Septmeber 23, that same year, 1911. Born on December 20, 1879, in Chicago, Illinois, Earle Ovington loved to experiment with electricity from a young age. At 16, he went to work for the Edison Electric Illuminating Company. But he soon realized that he’d need a formal education if he wanted to succeed. So he went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There, Ovington’s frequent electrical experiments earned him the nickname “Volts.” After graduating, he formed the Ovington Motor Company to bring European motorcycles to the US.
Then in 1910 Ovington saw planes in the air for the first time and was fascinated by the physics. He immediately set out for France to attend flight school. Ovington completed eight flights before earning his pilot’s license in January 1911. He then returned to America with his own Bleriot monoplane sporting his lucky number “13” on the tail. That spring Ovington began flying at aviation meets. He was the first person to fly in Connecticut and over Boston. Spectators said his plane resembled a dragonfly so he had the word painted on the underside of the wings.
That summer, Ovington was among several pilots preparing for the first tournament of the fall season, the International Aviation Meet hosted by the Aero Club of New York. But pilots weren’t the only ones looking forward to the tournament. Postmaster General Frank Hitchcock had long supported the idea of delivering mail by airplane. He’d even made previous attempts at such flights, but they were unsuccessful. With the popular event coming up, he saw his opportunity to make his dream a reality. Working with the event’s planners, he arranged to have airmail deliveries made throughout the tournament, which ran from September 23 to October 1.
Hitchcock contacted a few different pilots before Ovington was given the honor. Some turned it down for lack of pay. One accepted but had mechanical issues the day of the flight. So they found Ovington and asked him. He responded with his own question – was this to be the first airmail flight in the US? When he was told that it was, he agreed.
Leading up to the tournament, the Post Office Department went through extensive preparations. They handed out fliers informing the public of the historic first flight and set up mailboxes all around the grounds as well as Aeroplane Station No.1, where they’d sort the mail for the flight.
Ovington was handed a mailbag containing 640 letters and 1,280 postcards. With nowhere else to set the bag, he balanced it on his knees during the short flight. Unable to land the plane while holding the mail, he dropped the bag from the plane. The bag burst open when it hit the ground, sending the mail all over the field. The letters were then retrieved and taken to the Mineola post office. Ovington returned to the tournament within 10 minutes of his initial takeoff. He went on to do this mail delivery for the rest of the event, delivering a total of 43,247 letters.
At approximately 11:30 a.m. on May 15, 1918, the U.S. Post Office inaugurated regular airmail service, using Curtiss JN-4H biplanes to fly between Washington, D.C. and New York City, with a stop in Philadelphia. It took two more years of dogged effort and experimentation for the service to fly the mail all the way across the country.