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Saturday, July 18, 2009


By:- F. Aleem Sundal

The sending of letters by airmail is not by any means a modern innovation. As far back as 2,000 years ago, the Egyptians and Romans were using carrier pigeons for the transmission of official messages.

Sultan Noureddin Mahmood, who died in 1174 A.D., had set up a successful pigeon post in Baghdad which functioned from 1150 A.D., till the city fell to the Mongols in 1258 A.D. Genghis Khan himself operated such a system during his conquests. Wars and emergencies popularized the pigeon post in China, Persia and India. Later, the practice spread to Europe.

There were pigeon posts in existence during the Dutch war in the 16Th century. Besieged Haarlem used pigeons to convey messages in 1573 A.D., and Leyden in 1574 A.D. The Mughal emperor Babar inherited this mail carrying method from his forefathers and the pigeon post was in use throughout the Mughal period.

In more modern times, Ceylon was the scene of a pigeon post service in 1850 when an “express” service was instituted on September 24 by the Ceylon Observer newspaper. The birds flew between Gale and Colombo, a distance of 72 miles. They carried selected commercial and political news items, which had been extracted from London newspaper and printed on special flimsies.

Far better known to the philatelists are the pigeon gram services, which operated in New Zealand in 1898 A.D. The Great Barrier Pigeon gram Service was established in 1897 A.D. to forward flimsies through pigeons from the islands to Auckland. By that time postage stamps had already been introduced and were in use on mail. The pigeon grams, which were, of course, stamp less in the past, were now required to have postage stamps at the rate of a shilling and six pence affixed on them.

France introduced another type of airmail service, sending letters by balloons. Sixty or more balloons, between them, carried 11,000 kilogram’s of mail along with some passengers and a number of pigeons out of Paris during the siege of 1870-71. The birds were to be used for the pigeon post, which was the only successful method of getting news into the city from unoccupied France. The mail carried by French balloons had to be hand stamped with the French inscription “Balloon Monte” if an aeronaut manned the mail-carrying balloon. “Balloon Non-Monte” meant the mail had gone by an unmanned balloon.

Airmail got a tremendous boost with the introduction of the pioneer airships of Graf Ferdinand von Zeppelin of Germany between the two world wars. Because of their better speed and huge capacity, airships proved useful mail carriers in the world wars these airships met with some great disasters.

The first attempt to carry mail by aeroplane was made in England. Special cards were issued for an aeroplane flight from Blackpoll to Southport on August 10, 1910, but, due to bad weather, the pilot, C. Grahame White, could cover a distance of only seven miles and the mail had to complete its Journey through regular channels.

A successful regular airmail service, the first in the world, was set up in India. The service was domestic and carried mail between Allahabad and Naini. It was inaugurated in 1911 and later extended to other cities of the country.

Although Graf Zeppelin’s airship had carried mail across the Atlantic, the story of mail transfers by air across the Atlantic began with rather unfortunate accidents. Because of its geographical position it is no surprise that Newfoundland figured largely in the first attempts to cross the Atlantic by air. The London Daily Mail had offered a cash of 100,000 pounds for the first successful flight and a number of competitors entered the field in 1919.

First away did H.G. Hawker pilot a plane and K.M. Grieves on April 18, Some 1,100 miles away, engine trouble forced them into the sea. Pilots and mail were rescued by a steamer and landed in Scotland. The mail had been franked by a Newfoundland 3 cents stamp overprinted “First Transatlantic Air Post” April 1919.

On April 19, another attempt was made to carry a small packet of about 60 letters. The plane crashed while taking off.

Pilots Alcock and Brown who flew the first successful flight across the Atlantic on June 14 won the competition. The flying machine took off from Newfoundland and landed safely in Ireland. The letters carried on this flight were franked with Newfoundland 15 cents stamps surcharged “Trans-Atlantic Air Post 1919. One Dollar”. All stamps overprinted for these flights are rare especially if found on the cover actually flown on their maiden flights.

Soon after, the airmail services were regulated and many countries issued special airmail stamps, which were used only on items sent by air. Australia’s first air stamps are connected with the great trailblazing flight by the two brothers Rose and Keith Smith, who left England in a Vickers-Vimy plane on November 12, 1919 and arrived at Melbourne on February 26, 1920. They carried mail which, upon arrival at Melbourne had special commemorative pictorial labels put on them.

But a regular air link between England and Australia was not set up until 1931. This flight also connected many Middle Eastern countries with India and used to have stops over Jodhpur, Delhi, Allahabad and Calcutta en route to Australia via Rangoon and Tavoy. In India itself Tata Sons Ltd inaugurated the first flight between Madras and Karachi on October 15, 1932. A network of regular flights was designed by the same sponsor all over the country starting from Karachi, Delhi and Calcutta and going to all principal cities in India.

During 1925-27, Alan J. Cobham was engaged in survey flight in the Sudan and down the eastern coast of Africa on behalf of Imperial Airways. His flights became the forerunners of the regular East African Mail Service, which began in February 1931 by extending the London-Cairo service to Tanganyika.

By now airmail service had graduated from biplanes to jet airliners. Yet there were many areas in the world where such efficient services were still not available. After Pakistan came into existence, Pakistan International Airlines established a helicopter network, the largest of its kind in the world, to facilitate mail services in East Pakistan.

The helicopter service started form November 25, 1963. Its air schedule explored 20 destinations, reduced traveling time in many cases from 20 hours by surface transportation to less than 40 minutes of flight, and covered remote islands and the farthest borders of the then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh)

Pigeons, balloons, air ships, biplanes and jets alone have not been the carriers of airmail. Cuba had a glider mail service in 1935. Parachute mail conveyed letters from Australia to Mornington Island. The French Post Office introduced catapult mail. Called “Ship to Shore”, this service was designed to speed up the delivery of trans-Atlantic mail which was conveyed by aeroplanes catapulted from the desks of ships about 600 miles away from land. The German later adopted this system.

Britain’s first airmail services were of a very different type. It dates back to 1558 A.D., to the siege of Calais. English troops, trying to relieve the city, were close to the walls, but closer still were the enemy troops and it was impossible to force a way through. The English commander thought up a way of communicating with the beleaguered garrison and sought permission from the Privy Council before implementing his plan. The Privy Council minutes, dated January 7,1558, read; “A letter to be sent to the Lord Wardon signifying unto him that the device of shooting of letters with crossbows into Calais is well liked, and because they might light on the tops of houses or other places where they may not be come by he is willed to cause divers doubles of the same letters to be made and shot.”

Philatelists have also recorded mail sent by rockets, missiles and spacecraft. So far stamps are prepared only for rocket mail, but whenever missile or space or space machines send mail, special covers are issued for the purpose or special hatchets are applied to the items sent. Missile post is employed mostly for military uses and space mail is sent to astronauts already orbiting in space. A few covers, however, were sent to the Moon on the Apollo missions, but to whom?