In retrospect, passenger air travel may seem like a natural result of the birth of aviation. However, in the earliest days of powered flight, airplanes were seen by many as a novelty. Looking at the Wright Flyer and its early successors, aircraft were unlikely candidates for transporting people on a regular basis. Information, though, was another matter.

Businesses were interested in moving information quickly, over long distances and the prospect of “air mail” was very attractive. Over a period of just a few years, from 1918 until the mid-1920s, the United States Post Office, entrepreneurs, and airplane designers created a system to rapidly move mail throughout the nation. The resulting developments in aviation made it feasible and practical for the newly formed commercial airlines to transition from hauling sacks of mail to carrying cabins full of passengers.

The First Airmail

The concept of airmail was nothing new—homing pigeons had been used for centuries all over the world, balloons transported French mail during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), and in the 1910s the Germans were using Zeppelin airships to carry passengers and mail between German cities. Although the United States and Europe were at the forefront of airplane development, the first officially flown mail in a heavier-than-air machine occurred in the United Provinces of India.

On February 18, 1911, French pilot Henri Pequet flew more than 6,000 pieces of mail for five miles from Allahabad to Naini as part of a commercial and cultural exposition. The United Kingdom was next to experiment with official airmail, and flew more than 100,000 pieces of mail from London to Windsor between September 9 and September 26, 1911.

This exhibit is located in the Great Gallery, surrounding the Boeing Model 40-B. Model 40-Bs were used extensively for airmail, as were the Ryan M-1 and the Swallow Commercial aircraft hanging overhead.