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World’s First Air Letter

"firstBy P Soundararajan

President Trichy Philatelists’ Association

It was the British who conceived the postal service first in the world by coming out with the first stamp on May 06, 1840. And it was the Americans who flew in the air for the first time in the world (1906 / 1908 by Wright Brothers). But it was the Indians who transmitted letters by Air for the first time in the world and the historic event took place at Allahabad on February 18, 1911.The venue of agriculture and industries fair called U.P. Exhibition staged at the Polo grounds and the authorities in order to garner more gate collection displayed two flying machines at the exhibition grounds.

"firstU.P. was United Provinces as it was called in those days than the present Uttar Pradesh and some British officials imported aircraft through ship in knocked down condition and reassembled them at the exhibition grounds for the general public to have a look at it.

Walter G. Wyndham a Military Officer, the promoter of the specific event approached the postal authorities and with their consent arranged to transmit some mail bags in the flight when a Christian Mission (Trinity Church) came forward to sponsor the actual flying of the aircraft over the exhibition grounds. The objective was to construct a Hostel for Youth elsewhere in the city.

The Surveyor General who was also CEO of the postal readily obliged for the mail bags transmission and also made approval for the issuance of a special cachet to commemorate the occasion."first

The special cachet / post-mark were in a circular shape with inscriptions of “FIRST AERIAL POST” and “U.P. EXHIBITION ALLAHABAD”. The specially designed die also featured a line drawing of an Aircraft hovering above some mountains and for the uniqueness of the occasion the post marks were applied with Majenta ink instead of the conventional black colour.

The organizers were very keen on the light weight that could be carried by the Vintage Aircraft and with careful calculation only a limited number of letters namely 6500 were allowed inside the special mail bag loaded in the aircraft.On the historic day of February 18, 1911 as witnessed by thousands of people at the exhibition venue (since it is synchronized the Kumbh Mela year the crowd was said to be even one lakh plus) the special aircraft took off from the exhibition grounds at 17.30 hrs, crossed the river Jamuna and landed at a place called Naini Junction alongside the compound wall of the Central Prison in the outskirts of Allahabad.

It all took just 13 (thirteen) minutes for the journey of hardly 15Kms to and fro and the mails dumped at Naini Junctions were all transmitted to the respective destinations by surface mail (by road or by ship or by train) as it was in the normal practice. It was all made history that evening that letters were transmitted by Air for the first time in the world and to symbolize the rare event, the postal authorities destroyed the special circular dye produced for the occasion so that the sense of rarity and uniqueness were adhered to.

The aircraft was piloted by a French Aviator (Aviator was the word vogue in those days to denote aircraft pilots) called Monsieur Henri Piquet and he had to carry a compass instrument tied to his lap and the mail bag was accommodated just at the edge of his seat. Since the occasion was something special and as it was witnessed by elite of the region letters were addressed to people all over the globe. Some letters emanating from the senior British officials were also addressed to the monarch, George V and these are found even now at  the Buckingham Palace.Similarly, Shri .Motilal Nehru addressed a letter to beloved son Jawahar who was pursuing higher education at the Cambridge.

Letters in the Historic First Flight:Among the 6500 letters carried in the historic flight 40 precious letters were there which featured a photograph of the aircraft along with the aviator and also tagged with the autograph of Henri Piquet. Philatelists have break-up details of the ordinary letters, registered mails and as well the 40 post cards As recorded in the documents of the postal department.

The post card having withered the ages of the last ten decades almost is not in a pristine condition but however a very rare collectable and the present value could be even a six digit figure.

Many a research had been embarked on the episode and it was recorded that the date of the flight had to be postponed because of the fact that landing site had to be pruned by removing thorns and shrubs enabling the flying machine to land safely without puncturing the tyres. It is said that, at the instigation of senior officials gathered at U.P. Exhibition grounds, the prisoners of Naini obliged to spruce up the site for making it as a good tarmac.

In a subsequent interview to a magazine the French Aviator Henry Pequet who was just 23 year old when he piloted the historic flight had mentioned that he had flown the machine just at a height of 120 to 150 feet from the grounds and he was actually rather doubtful when he had to pass over the holy river of Jamuna. He had also recollected about the herds of buffalos that baffled him and with his Sommer bi-plane with a Rotary Gnome Engine of 50 Horse Power he had to restrict the speed less than 60 miles per hour.

The pilot died in the year 1974 at the age of 86 in his native place in France and the French Government is now issuing a special postage stamp in his honour.(The pictures are from the collection of the author. His album on INDIAN AIR MAILS had fetched him lot of medals and prizes in India and Abroad. He had made extensive / exhaustive research on theTopic and he has many a research paper to his credit on this topic. He is also in the process of publishing a research volume / coffee table book on the History of Civil Aviation in India with philatelic materials as source of chronological narration)

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