Monday, May 12, 2008

From earliest times man dreamt of imitating birds and soaring aloft. Ancient Greece gives us the legend of Deedalus & Icarus who flew from Ninos to Crete with wings made of feathers and wax. But it is only from the l5th Century that man’s dream has slowly progressed to reality in our Century. On 17th December, 1903 Orville Wright made the historic 12 secs flight in the “Flyer” marking the advent of the era of the “heavier than air” machine flight built by him and his brother Wilbur. The early airplanes appear to us to be crude, rather frail; and the adventurous spirit of man is apparent in the fact that men risked their lives to fly in them.

The early days of aviation was the ‘Stick-and-string’ era when men literally took their lives in their hands to fly contraptions made of wood and canvas to prove that the age of the aeroplane had dawned. Early machines were built for one person or at the most for two, so at first it did not appear that aeroplanes could be used for regularly transporting people. In 1909 the Daily Mail of London offered a prize of 1000 pounds for a successful flight across the English Channel. A Frenchman attempted the flight in a monoplane of his own design and flew across the Channel on 25th July, 1909 in 37 minutes. Thus gaining him instant fame.

The new machines could be advantageously used for speedy transit of mail. But before mail could be transported regularly by air the system of airmail had to prove its worth.

Though some mail was unofficially carried earlier – the world’s first official airmail was flown in India on 18th February,1911 from Allahabad to Naini by an aeroplane piloted by Mr.Pequet. After that many mail carrying flights were made. In Britain the first official airmail was flown on the occasion of the Coronation of King George V on 9.9.1911 from London to Windsor and back. But no regular airmail service was started. The aeroplane had yet to prove itself a reliable medium for regular dispatch of mail.

World War I, gave the impetus the aeroplane industry required. European countries used aircraft first for transmission of official dispatches and later as weapons of war. As the war progressed so did the quality of aircraft improve considerably. Britain emerged from the war with a fine aeroplane industry, which could now be used for peacetime activities. With the return of peace Britain with her colonies scattered all over the world realized that the aeroplane was ideal for speedy links and better administration.

All over the world experimental flights were being undertaken to explore the feasibility of regular airmails. In December,1918 Handley-Page aircraft was flown from Cairo to Delhi by Capt. Ross Smith carrying Gen. Salmond and three others in an attempt to blaze the air trail to the East. They carried 45 letters with them. Prizes were offered for successful long distance flights. On 15th June,1919 the World was thrilled to hear that Capt. John Alcock and Lieut. A .Whitten Brown had traversed the Atlantic by air. They flew from New Foundland to Ireland in a converted Vickers Vimy biplane bomber in 16 hours. On 25th August,1919 the first regular passenger service was started. This was between London and Paris. In November,1919 Ross and Keith Smith flew from England to Australia. They too carried mail on their flight.

Airmail developments were also taking place in U.S.A., France, Germany and other countries. An airmail service linking Bombay and Karachi was started in January,1920 but abandoned 6 weeks later due to lack of public support. The airmail surcharge of 8as was too much at that time; it was too early for India. Several pioneer airmen flew through India, which was called the “halfway house of world fliers” on their way to the eastern colonies of European Nations. They often carried mail with them for India or from India. Few letters were carried mostly less than a hundred. They can be distinguished by postal markings, pilot’s signatures or official or semi-official hand-stamps or etiquettes.

The England-India route, vital to British Communication as it passed through Suez, was surveyed by Sir Alan Cobham, who carried mail on this flight in 1925. Regular Air Services, however, were only started from 1929 due to certain difficulties. Imperial Airways, first started a regular air service to Karachi with the flight leaving London on 30.3.1929. In 1930, the service was extended to Delhi and Calcutta air linked in 1933. By December,1933 the service was extended to Rangoon and in 1934 the all air London – Australia Service was started.

There were days when experimental flights were being made all over the world. Almost all countries had some sort of air service experiments during the 20s and even in the 30s. The experimental airmails soon progressed to regular airmails. During the 1920s many airline companies were formed, and by the 30s almost all countries could boast of an airline company and some sort of regular air service.

World War II brought even more development and by the end of the War the Industry had developed to a very great extent. Larger aircraft with bigger capacity and range were being built. The jet was the next development bringing Countries closer and now we are in the era of Supersonic travel. Soon, interplanetary travel will be an everyday affair.

At all stages mail has been carried which are souvenirs not only of flights but also of the adventurous spirit of man. Flight covers are a piece of history – aviation as well as postal. These covers are records of an historical period. They tell the story of the development of aviation and airmail from the early days of adventure and romance of flying to the safe, comfortable, almost plebian air travel of today. Their appeal is certainly far more than a stamp that may not have seen any postal service as in the case of a mint stamp. The First Flight Cover has a story to tell unlike an ordinary used cover with a stamp. It was actually flown in a plane, on a first flight or a special flight, on a route never before flown by an aircraft. Today we take airmail for granted. But the pioneer or first flight covers are the true forerunners of today’s most used postal service.

After World War II, Airline Companies realizing the interest of collector’s, prepared first flight covers in attractive designs with cachets. Air India First Flight covers are very attractive as are those of most airlines today. Though these covers are souvenirs prepared for collectors their appeal remains. Certainly they have much more to say than the specially prepared First Day Covers. They are souvenirs of a new route by an Airline or of a new plane. When the Boeing 747 ‘Jumbo’ was introduced all airlines carried mails on the inaugural flights though on old routes. But the covers are pieces of historical interest – the history of a new aeroplane service.

Today the accent is on collecting postal history items and its popularity is growing. What branch of postal history could be more fascinating than the story of man’s conquest of the air and the speedy delivery of mails to hours or day instead of weeks or months?

Flight covers can add flavor to a country stamp collection. Flown covers representative of the airmails of your country can enrich and make your collection postally and historically complete.

The investment potential of flight covers is very great. The Pioneer airmen carried few pieces of mail on early flights. Even later the number of covers carried by airlines are very much smaller compared to the number of First Day Covers sold on the first day of issue of a new stamp. As more and more people turn to postal history the prices of early and scarcer airmail covers are bound to go up. Why not start now before its too late.

In future post I'll deal with various topics relating to aero-philately. Keep checking

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