Winged Messenger: Airmail in the Heroic Era, 1918-1939

Airmail and the Postal Village

The First World War pushed aviation to the forefront of transport technology. With the exception of one flight in 1911, between Allãhãbãd and Naini, India, as well as a few other examples, the earliest recorded airmail flights formed an integral part of the war effort, on both sides of the trenches. It was during the immediate post-war period that airmail truly came into its own.

The cardinal geographic feature of airmail was its simultaneous respect and disregard for national boundaries. Airmail services were set up to accelerate postal communication within a country, indeed, the routes invariably encompassed the capital city of a particular nation state. The spring of 1919 saw airmail routes opened up between Berlin and Hamburg, and Berlin and Frankfurt in Germany. In 1918, Washington, D.C. became the southern terminal of the first American airmail, which also ran through Philadelphia and New York City. Ten years later, Mexico City was linked to Tampico and Tuxpan via a regular air service that also provided for mail transport.

Just as it contributed to the integration of national airspace, the growth of airmail also encouraged the development of international routes and points of contact. London and Paris were joined by an airmail route in August 1919. In September, the route became a daily one, following the onset of a strike of the British railway system. Spain's first airmail system, established in 1921, operated between Seville and Larache, a town situated in the colony of Spanish Morocco. That same year, Britain's Royal Air Force (RAF) set up an airmail service between Cairo and Baghdad, thus ensuring communication between two territories that indirectly formed a part of the British Empire. The Desert Airmail featured a network of emergency-landing surfaces, with giant circles painted at their epicentre, a string of refuelling depots, and a curious but effective artificial landmark running for roughly half the distance of the 1,300-kilometre route. This landmark consisted of a pair of car tracks, sometimes complemented by a track made with a plough. Military and civilian vehicles were made to run over this surface to prevent the wind and rain from carrying away the track. The RAF operated the system until it was taken over by Imperial Airways in 1926.

France was also active in developing an airmail system to its African colonies. In 1919, a small company, headed by Pierre-Georges Latécoère, obtained a contract from the French government to fly the mail from Toulouse in the south of France to Rabat, Morocco. The route was extended to Casablanca in 1920 and as far south as Dakar (Senegal) five years later. Thus was laid the groundwork for an ambitious scheme intended to link the mail stream of Western Europe with that of South America via the westernmost tip of North Africa, which happened to be a French colony.

The Latécoère air line (LAL), was bought out in 1927 by Marcel Bouilloux-Lafont a French businessman with large investments in South America. His successor airline, the Compagnie générale aéropostale, or Aéropostale, was managed by Didier Daurat, a man of rock-solid discipline and esprit de corps. The company, or "la Ligne" as it was sometimes called, set up branches throughout South America, investigating and opening up routes from Rio to Buenos Aires, through the Andes to Santiago, and up and down the lonely coast of Patagonia. Pilots had to pick their way carefully through the second-highest range of mountains in the world, and were faced with unannounced and invisible cyclones sending gusts of wind that could play with an aircraft much as a child bounces a ball. Pilots began to fly at night; in Night Flight, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry has left us a vivid portrait of how it felt to be up alone in the night sky flying the mail. Perhaps the most spectacular achievement of Aéropostale was Jean Mermoz's non-stop flight across the South Atlantic aboard a Latécoère 28 from Senegal to Brazil in 1930. He was carrying 120 kilos of mail.

Between 1919 and 1939, from one end of the planet to the other, the number of airmail routes multiplied. Forty years before the idea of the global village, the world was rapidly becoming an integrated postal village. Indeed, the volume of airborne mail pointed to the need to bring some order onto the international scene. During the 1920s and 1930s, the Universal Postal Union organized six conferences to address, among other topics, the expanding airmail system. While postal administrations from across the world met with a view to cooperating with one another, the competition between the various national airlines for the traffic in international airmail became intense.

The German airline Lufthansa was close behind the French Aéropostale in the drive to secure the South American airmail business. Float planes operating in tandem with supply ships, catapult planes and dirigibles were used to take the mail across the South Atlantic. The Germans also spread their wings towards China and the Orient as did, for their part, the French and the Soviets.
Here, in the Far East, the Netherlands' airline KLM was already in a race with Britain's Imperial Airways. Fortnightly passenger and mail service to the (Dutch) East Indies was introduced in 1929. That same year, Imperial Airways extended the British airmail route to India, via Basra on the Persian Gulf. By the year 1931, Imperial reached out to South Africa and by 1934 to Singapore, then to Hong Kong and Australia before the outbreak of the Second World War.

Coming at the Orient from the opposite direction was the American carrier Pan American Airways (Pan Am), which obtained the mail contract for the San Francisco to China route in 1935. Pan Am was already active in South America, the Caribbean and Mexico. In the north, the company was awarded a contract for the Alaskan airmail service in 1938, and the following year it began flying mail and passengers out of New York across the Atlantic. But in terms of aviation history, the Pacific route was a greater achievement. The China contract was awarded in the same year that Amelia Earhart had made her solo flight from Honolulu to Oakland, California. Flying the Pacific was, at this time, no easy task, as Earhart's disappearance made plain two years later in 1937. The transpacific route was an exercise in island hopping, including Honolulu, Midway, Wake, Guam and finally Manila in the Philippines. The fare was steep: according to one historian, it represented the equivalent of six months' wages for the average (American) working man 1.

The success of Pan Am was the fruit of a policy of corporate midwifery on the part of the U.S. government. The strategy was to award airmail contracts to a reduced number of air carriers as a means of fostering the emergence of stronger aviation concerns. Initiated in 1926 and 1929, the strategy almost backfired in 1934, when, because of political turbulence, contracts with all private companies were cancelled and the U.S. Army Air Corps was brought in to run the airmail service. The army's temporary service was reminiscent of the early days of U.S. airmail in 1918, when the entire service was operated using army pilots and aircraft.

By the late 1920s and the 1930s, North American airspace was increasingly dominated by a small number of U.S. air carriers. The Manifest Destiny of the American Republic was airborne. Canadian skies lay several hundred kilometres to the north, like so many pieces of fruit waiting to be plucked. In other words, by 1928 the Americans were knocking at our door. Here was one more poignant reminder that a modern nation could not remain aloof from the progress of airmail, as it wound itself around the globe.

1 R.E.G. Davies, Fallacies and Fantasies of Air Transport History, McLean, Va, Paladwr Press, 1994: p. 89. All of these islands belonged to the U.S. at the time so that landing rights, short of China itself, were not an issue.

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