Last week, Royal Mail launched an online gallery to mark the first airmail flight in 1911.
One-hundred-and-six years ago—on Sept. 9, 1911—British aviation pioneer Gustav Hamel successfully piloted the inaugural flight of the world’s first scheduled airmail service. The month-long service included a total of 16 flights, which carried mail between Hendon, London and the Postmaster General’s office in Windsor. Hamel flew in his Bleriot airplane, covering around 32 kilometres in only 18 minutes. He even managed to write a postcard of his own mid-flight.
“Airmail in the U.K. has a long history of world firsts. Gustav Hamel was only 21 when he completed the first ever scheduled airmail delivery and is remembered as an exceptionally brave and talented young man,” said Royal Mail spokesperson David Gold.
“His legacy continues today with Royal Mail’s international and domestic operations. Our incredible team work every day and night to ensure that mail gets where it’s going quickly and safely—no matter how far.”
Sir Walter Windham, an early supporter of air transport, devised a plan for scheduled airmail service to commemorate the coronation of King George V. He tested the concept in February 1911—six months before Gustav’s flight—at an exhibition in the United Provinces of Agra and Oubh, British India (as it was known at the time).
Following the end of the First World War, the Royal Air Force (RAF) and Royal Engineers ran the first scheduled international airmail from December 1918, initially to provide troops stationed in Germany with a fast and secure mail service.
This was quickly followed in 1919 by the U.K.’s first commercial cross-channel route. Chief pilot of Aircraft Transport and Travel (a forerunner of British Airways), Lieutenant Henry “Jerry” Shaw was the first to fly a mail-carrying commercial flight across the English Channel in his Havilland DH.9 biplane. The aircraft took off at RAF Hendon to land in Paris-Le Bourget in a journey that took 2 hours and 30 minutes. Last year, Royal Mail recreated Lieutenant Shaw’s proving flight for this new service as part of its 500 years celebration.
UPU AIRMAIL RULES
In 1929, the Universal Postal Union agreed on comprehensive rules for airmail at its annual conference in London. Over the next 30 years, Britain became the world’s largest airmail carrier. As volumes of letters and interest in sending international airmail grew, the postal service launched blue airmail post-boxes with higher postage charges and later final collection times.
Today, Royal Mail exports to more than 250 destinations using scheduled flights of 55 airlines from London Heathrow and London Gatwick airports. Royal Mail dispatches about 700,000 items every night. Royal Mail’s Heathrow Worldwide Distribution Centre has a floor area of 51,000 metres—about the size of six football pitches. This fully-automated facility has more than 11 kilometres of conveyor systems to help sort international items swiftly and efficiently.
Domestic mail now also regularly travels by plane. Airports used for internal mail include Exeter, Stanstead, Edinburgh and Belfast. You might even catch a glimpse of the Boeing 737 that flies in full Royal Mail livery.
HOT AIR BALLOONS
Before the introduction of the airplane, the first airborne vehicle to carry mail came in 1785, when a hot air balloon flew from Dover to Calais. Balloon pilots Jean Pierre Blanchard and John Jefferies delivered a letter written in the U.K. by William Franklin, son of U.S. founding father Benjamin Franklin, to his son, who was serving as a diplomat in Paris.
Balloons continued to transport mail throughout the 19th century. Both pigeon post and balloon mail proved invaluable during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-71. They allowed important mail to travel in and out of Paris while the city was besieged by Prussian forces.
To view the Royal Mail gallery exploring how airmail has evolved over the years, visit gallery.royalmailgroup.com/airmail.