Early airmail stamps trigger tales of adventure

I have to admit to a fondness for early airmail stamps, specifically those of famous flights that used airmail as a form of fundraising. For obvious reasons, these flights date before the Second World War, to a time when air travel was both rare and dangerous. It was really a period of just a few years, and when viewed objectively, not that long ago. In my case the golden age of airmail is within the lives of my parents, just one generation ago, with a bit of stretch. Today, more than 40 years after man first walked on the moon, and when transatlantic flights are taken with a grain of salt, we have to strain to think about what it must have been like for those early adventurers.

First off, they didn’t have autopilot, GPS, satellites, radar, and constant radio contact with the ground. They had compasses, clocks, basic instruments, and if they wanted to know exactly where they were, the navigator used a sextant. The engines were often unreliable and unproven, and even aircraft design was still partly an element of guesswork. While Charles Lindberg flew alone, most flights were done by crews. It made sense; it took a long time by modern standards, and the aircraft were hard to handle. Lindberg made his flight in May 1927. For the record, prior to making his famous flight, Lindy was carrying airmail around the United States. Even then, air travel remained incredibly dangerous. That same year there was a major bid to be the first to make a flight to a major centre.

While the first transatlantic flight had been completed in 1919, it had not yet been repeated. Among those in contention, the crew of the Sir John Carling left Harbour Grace Newfoundland in September of that year, as part of a race to fly from London, Ont. to London, England. The aircraft was a proven Stinson design and the two men on board were both seasoned aviators. After conducting some minor repairs, the two crewmen, Terrence Tully and James Medcalf, took off and just disappeared. They were just one of three flights to disappear in a single week. The concern was so great that Prime Minister Mackenzie King even contemplated banning all attempts at transatlantic flight leaving from Canada. In the year 1927 alone, it is estimated that 40 pilots attempted to fly across the ocean from various locations. Very few were successful, and more than half died making the effort.

Tully and Medcalf, while seeking fame and some prize money, mostly funded their venture in two ways. First off Sir John Carling himself, the London, Ont., brewery owner, was a major sponsor. Secondly the pilots carried mail; in this case they even sold special stamps of their own making to be carried on the mail. While the mail perished with the pilots, some proofs surfaced a few years ago. I remember writing about the story at that time. John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown, in 1919, were proud to have made the flight in less than 72 hours. The first crossing by the Graf Zeppelin took four days. The North Atlantic was considered so treacherous that even into the mid-1930s, most scheduled flights were routed through Bermuda and the Azores.

It can honestly be said that while airmail was faster, it was only a little bit faster than a surface crossing, and a heck of a lot more dangerous. Even so, the public loved the glamour and much of the mail went not to serious stamp collectors, but to regular citizens who wanted a piece of aviation history. It was also a simpler time. Post offices and flight organizers, who today would have tons of red tape to deal with, freely and enthusiastically co-operated with these ventures. Postal authorities, aware to the appeal of faster mail, were also encouraging and supportive. So I admit that I am attracted to some of that romance. I also like the fact that in the early days these flights were so uncommon that each one seemed an adventure and became a news phenomenon. The fact that stamps were used is just frosting on the cake.

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