Notes from the Past

Pioneer Airmail Flights - Part I

Added Notes on the World's First Official Airmail Flight

Surprisingly, India was the site for the World's First Official Airmail Flight.  This flight came after Louis Blériot had crossed the English Channel on July 25, 1909, to win the £1,000 prize offered by the London Daily Mail.  The crossing made Blériot famous and increased interest in practical applications of aviation.

Walter Windham, a motor-car producer and racer, was one of those who had taken aviation quite seriously.  He built a biplane of his own design and founded the first airplane club in Great Britain.  In France, Windham observed the preparations of both Blériot and Hubert Latham, another competitor for the prize.

Toward the end of 1910, Windham was invited by the government of the United Provinces of India to participate the annual commercial and cultural exhibition at Allahabad in February, 1911.  India desired Windham to bring airplanes and pilots for demonstration flights during the exhibition.  Windham gave up his business and booked passage to India along with two flyers, Messieurs Pequet, a Frenchman and Mr. Keith Davies, an Englishman.  He also took 8 airplanes for display and demonstration.

Henri Pequet actually made the first flight in India during a test flight of one of the planes in Allahabad in December, 1911.  Several flights were made during the exhibition.  The biplanes did well but the monoplanes were adversely affected by the ground turbulence in the moist air.  In addition, sharp thorns in the landing field required repairs to tires after nearly every flight.

During his stay in Allahabad, Windham was approached by the chaplain of the Holy Trinity Church who asked for help in raising funds.  Windham suggested that an aerial post could raise some money.  The Postmaster-General of the United Provinces and the director-general of the post office in India gave approval to receive the mail and permit a special cancel.  Stamped and addressed mail with a 6 pence or 6 anna donation was delivered to the chaplain of the church or handed to a postal official at the tent hangar on the parade ground.  The letters were prepared for a flight scheduled for February 20; however, the flight was actually made on the February 18.

Henri Pequet made history when he took off on that day flying one of the Sommer-type biplanes from the parade ground with approximately 6,500 letters and cards aboard.  The flight was short, traveling only 5 miles and ending near the jail at Naini on the outskirts of Allahabad.  Postal officials took charge of the mail and forwarded it to destinations all over the world.

The special postmark was designed by Windham with a silhouette of a biplane over the mountains of Asia.  The die was cut at the postal works in Aligarh and destroyed after Pequet completed his flight.  The organizing committee of the United Provinces Exhibition took the occasion to send letters to European royalty and other notables.  Walter Windham sent a souvenir cover to King George V which was acknowledged by the King's staff and added to the Royal Collection.

An interesting sidelight is that Windham received a congratulatory message on the day of the flight on the stationery of an Allhabad hotel from Alexander Graham Bell.

To Be Continued

Posted September 10, 2000

Editor's Note:  This series will draw on Donald B. Holmes' Air Mail -- an illustrated history 1793-1981 which is an exceptional piece of philatelic literature and The American Air Mail Catalogue Vol. 1 published by the American Air Mail Society.

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