By M J Raju
To India belongs the honour of being the pioneer country in the world, (one hundred years ago on February 18, 1911) to carry officially by post, 6500 letters and 40 picture postcards bearing the special postal cancellation, showing an airplane over the mountains, surrounded by the script “First Aerial Post 1911 UP Exhibition Allahabad.”
But this fame was not easily won. Technically the first instance when letters were carried in air was, when during the German siege of Paris in 1870, the French Government used flying balloons to carry messages, letters from the besieged city. But it was not an official measure by any legally designed authority like the Post office.
In fact, we in India also just managed to stay ahead of the western world, as eight months later on September 18, 1911 in UK, a similar step to carry mail officially by aircraft between the towns of Hendon to Windsor (10 kilometres) was taken, enabling UK to claim the second place for official air mails in world history.
On September 13, 1911 France tested its own airmail system in its Moroccan colonial cities of Casablanca and Fez.
A week later, on September 19, 1911, the Italians began flying the mail by air and on its part Germany tested airmail in early 1912 with a flight from Darmstadt to Munich.
The Indian success was mainly due to the efforts of Commander (later Sir) Walter G Wyndham, who accepted a request from the organisers of a large exhibition in the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh (modern Uttar Pradesh) to display the newly invented aircrafts in their grounds.
Captain Windham shipped six aeroplanes to Bombay in large crates, and they were then sent by rail and in special trucks to Allahabad. He also brought to India two pilots Henry Pequet and Edward Keith Davies along with two aviation mechanics Billon.
During the course of his stay at Allahabad, Walter Wyndham was approached by the Rev W E S Holland, chaplain of the Holy Trinity Church in that he wanted Windham’s help in the raising of funds for the boys hostel he had planned.
It occurred to Windham that if he could combine the appeal for funds done by inaugurating an Aerial Postal system for India, it would be a good advertisement for the Allahabad exhibition. Thus the idea of the World’s first Official airplane mail was borne.
The Postmaster of the United Provinces, Sir Geoffrey Charles and the Director General of the Post Office in India, on request of Capt Wyndham granted approval for mail to be officially received and specially cancelled prior to transport by one of Wyndham’s planes.
The public was informed and people wishing to have items flown were asked to send them addressed and stamped at the appropriate rate to the chaplain of the Holy Trinity Church. In addition, a nominal sum of six annas (thirty seven paise) was asked for as a donation to the new Church hostel building.
Only letters or cards under one ounce in weight were accepted. In all, some 5,000 to 6,500 items were said to have been included in the mail, the total weight being 200 to 300 pounds. Many complimentary letters were sent to European monarchs, leading statesmen, and officials at Westminster and to people connected with aviation throughout the world.
The proposed hostel had benefited by about 2500 rupees! Remember that in 1911 the price of gold per gram was just one rupee and seventy paise, compared to 2000 rupees today. In terms of today’s rupees the hostel had made 30 lakhs of rupees.
Surprisingly the first day covers of this historic mail have not become very precious and in the year 2000 one of these covers changed hands for just 84 US dollars / 2500 rupees. Philatelists opine that it should be priced at least at 80 thousand rupees, when considering similar airmail covers of flights done by foreign countries, fetch much more in the open market.
One of the pilots Péquet flew the first official postal letters on Saturday February 18, 1911. The take-off was watched by the Lieutenant-Governor, Sir John Hewett and Lady Hewett, together with government staff and a large crowd.
The Humber biplane took off shortly after 5.30 p.m. from the exhibition grounds, circled around twice and then flew across the river Jumna south to Naini Junction, about two miles away, at a height of 130 feet. Naini had been chosen as the place to receive the mail as it was the nearest point on the main railway line from Calcutta to Bombay. A site enabling the plane to descend and take-off safely had been cleared at Naini by convicts from the nearby Central Jail.
When Péquet descended after a flight of about thirteen minutes, there were no crowds to meet him, a complete contrast to his departure from Allahabad. He recalled in an interview (in 1972) that there was only one postal official there to whom he handed his bag before returning to Allahabad. The aircraft’s speed was about 40 m.p.h. in the air and about 30 m.p.h. when landing. The entire round trip lasted 27 minutes and history was made.
The Indian Postal Department celebrates the Centenary of the first official Airmail Flight that took place in India on February 18, 2011.
A ceremonial flight would take place on February 12, 2011 from Allahabad to Naini commemorating the 100 years of the Airmail flight.
The flight would carry about 5000 First Day Special Covers with special postmark; a collector’s delight being limited editions. MF