Published on February 18, 2013
On this date in aviation history, on February 18, 1911, a very unlikely event took place — the first air mail flown by a fixed-wing, heavy than air aircraft was flown. The event was unlikely not because it was particularly difficult, but rather because unknown to one another, there were two simultaneous air mail flights in two different parts of the world. Who was first? It is a matter of judgment, but in any case, the long tradition of flying the mail has been in nearly continuous practice ever since.
Henri Péquet in India
Henri Péquet was an Argentinian-born Frenchman who learned to fly with the Voisin Company in Mourmelon during 1908. He was soon licensed in France and traveling on behalf of the Voisin Company undertaking flying exhibitions. Over the three years that followed, he grew to be an excellent pilot and had slowly advanced in his skills in parallel with the developments in French aviation at the time.
Finally, in early 1911, he traveled to British administered India for a series of exhibition flights. The aircraft he was flying at the time was a Sommer “Humbert” with a 50 hp engine. Down in Allahabad, local sponsors thought it a good idea to fly a special air mail as a matter of promotion. Thus, on February 18, 1911, he took a flight that carried 6,500 letters from Allahabad across a river to the town of Naini.
In all, it was a distance of just 10 kilometers. The entire flight lasted just 13 minutes and he set down without mishap, delivering the bag of mail with some fanfare. Each letter was postmarked with the terms, “First Aerial Post, U.P. Exhibition Allahabad 1911”.
Fred Wiseman in California
Meanwhile, half a world away, a young aviator in California undertook a far longer flight (at least in time), this being in his own home-built Wiseman-Peters biplane. Departing on February 17, 1911, for a 15 mile trip from Petaluma to Santa Rosa, California, he ran into a few problems and suffered a delay en route. Ultimately, he would arrive on February 18, 1911, thus tying Henri Péquet’s date for the first delivery of air mail by heavier-than-air flight!
As it happened, Fred Wiseman’s total flight time was 15 minutes, plus the unexpected stop en route. Unlike the Frenchman’s Indian air mail flight, in the case of Fred Wiseman, the air mail delivered was rather an incidental thing and constituted three letters as well as a bundle of Santa Rosa Press Democrat newspapers and — of all things! — a bag of groceries. The groceries, for the record, were from the Hickey and Vonsen’s store in Petaluma, though we have no record as to who had asked for them to be flown up.
Flying the Air Mail
In the weeks and months that followed, more air mail flights were made at dozens of sites worldwide ranging from England to France, Germany, Italy, and even Australia! Soon, flying the mail was synonymous with the vision of progress that aviation embodied in the public’s mind. Nowhere would the great venture of flying the air mail rise to the height of honor that it would in France. There, great men like Jean Mermoz and Antoine de Saint Exupéry, among many others, flew the mail from France to Morocco and beyond, linking France with its far flung colonies. These men ventured over trackless deserts that were peopled by hostile tribesmen. Carrying arms, they would sometimes have to land in the desert and fend off attacks from the marauding bands.
To them, the honor of getting through with the air mail was a sacred duty — and many sacrificed their lives in the process of proving the routes and flying the mail with punctual regularity, despite the weather, the conditions, and the bandits. Such traditions may seem outmoded in today’s jaded era when jet aircraft can easily surmount almost any obstacle, but in the day, such were the tales of the greatness in the skies.
From the distance of time and experience, we can only bow to the great men who took the chances, flew the mail and pioneered a new world.
Today’s Aviation Trivia Question
The first mail flown in England linked what two towns/cities and on what date? By whom was it flown and in what kind of aircraft?