Notes from the Past

Pioneer Airmail Flights - Part VII

Great Britain's First Airmail Flight

On September 9, 1911, the first United Kingdom aerial post was flown.  The flight was planned as part of the festivities surrounding the ascension of George V to the throne.  It is often called "The Coronation Air Post."

Walter Windham made the suggestion.  He had recently arranged the February, 1911, flights in India.  Windham was quite enthusiastic after these first airmail flights.  In his response to Windham the Postmaster General, the Right Honorable Herbert I. Samuel, noted the conflicting requirements that the receipts had to provide for expenses thus leading to a special charge and that an Act of Parliament forbade raising mail rates.

Windham solved this problem by having the Aerial Mail Committee preprint postal stationery, both envelopes and cards, with cachets in various colors for use on the flight.  The stationery would then be sold by various retail stores in London.  The mail was stamped with regular postage and deposited in a special box at the seller.  The fees would pay the costs and any excess would go to charity.  The Committee would arrange for pickup, flight costs, and deposit of the mail at the landing place.  The postal service only had to give the letters a special cancellation and deliver them to their destination.  The scheme was so successful that 23 bags of mail weighing over 600 pounds were ready for the first flight.

Early plans called for a terminus near the Crystal Palace in London where a coronation-related "Festival of Empire" was to take place during a number of weeks in the summer of 1911.  Delays in getting started resulted in moving the London terminus to the only airfield in London, the Aerodrome at Hendon.  Meanwhile, royal permission was granted to land the mail at Windsor Great Park in the shadow of Windsor Castle.  The Graham-White company which operated the Hendon airfield was given responsibility for the planes and pilots.  Four airplanes, two Blériot monoplanes and two Farnam-built biplanes, were acquired for the service.

After some wind delays, the first flight took off from Hendon at 4:58 pm on the 9th with one bag of mail designated "privileged" on the accompanying waybill.  The pilot, Gustav Hamel in a Blériot, made a short pass over the field and headed for Windsor.  A large crowd greeted its arrival there less than fifteen minutes later.  The pilot landed near the Royal Mausoleum.  A postman on a bicycle was ready to receive the mail and transport it to the Windsor Post Office for sorting and further dispatch.

At the same time a second flight was being attempted from Windsor to London.  This flight was aborted by the pilot, Charles Hubert in a Farman biplane.  He was unable to control the airplane in a freshened wind.

The covers on the first flight from London to Windsor had a violet cachet reserved for use by the organizing committee.  These covers were those addressed to royalty, ambassadors, and other notables.  All mail ready for the first flight was cancelled on September 9, although only the violet covers flew that day.  Fifteen more flights were completed by September 26 to carry all the mail that had been prepared.  It is estimated that 113,000 pieces of mail were flown.

Posted September 18, 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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