by Ingert Kuzych

The world's first international, and regular, airmail service


In the area of aeronautic firsts, several countries make claim to having the first airmail service. The problem in distinguishing which claim is valid lies in how one defines "airmail service." Upon closer examination, it becomes clear that virtually all these "firsts" failed to meet two important criteria one would expect a service to perform: they did not last for any extended period of time and they did not follow a regular schedule. Towards the close of World War I, however, an Austrian airline was finally established that met the length and regularity criteria. In addition, an extension of the service to Kyiv made it an international mail run.

Pioneering airmail efforts

Homing pigeons were used hundreds of years before Christ in Greece, Persia, and China (it is difficult to determine which was first), so all three countries have some claim to having invented the first airmail service. The first example of a regular pigeon-carried mail service was the overly successful New Zealand Pigeon Post (1897-1901). This operation was ordered stopped by the New Zealand government with the excuse that it violated the official governmental postal monopoly.

However, what is usually meant by airmail is mail carried by an aircraft, and here the earliest flights were made by balloon. The first flight to carry mail on January 7, 1785, was also the first international airmail flight. Piloted by a Frenchman, Jean Pierre Blanchard, and an American, John Jeffries, the trip was made across the English Channel from Dover, England to the vicinity of Calais, France. The event was part of the new spirit of amity between the two countries following the American war of independence (where French aid was instrumental in securing the colonies' victory over England). Several letters, carefully wrapped in a pig bladder to keep them dry, were sequestered in the gondola of this hydrogen-inflated craft. Over the next century many more famous balloon airmail flights were made. All of them however, had two major drawbacks, none of them were regularly scheduled flights (all were subject to the vagaries of the weather) and none could know their exact final destination (since the balloons were dependent on the winds, they - and the mail - would be moved whither the air currents carried them).

The world's first officially approved airmail flight by a powered craft occurred on February 18, 1911, in Allahabad, British India. Some 6,500 letters were flown by French pilot Henri Pequet from the Agricultural Exhibition grounds to Naini Junction (about 13 kilometers). Proceeds raised by the event funded the construction of a new hostel.

Over the next few years other experimental airmail flights were made in various parts of the world. None were for very great distances; usually going only from a temporary postal station at an airfield to a post office in an adjacent community. Most of these flights were in conjunction with aviation meets, where the carrying of souvenir mail was incidental to the competitions among the pilots. While these various flights are worth recalling, they still do not meet the designation of airmail service. All these flights were simply for one-time special events.

Ad hoc wartime airmail services

It was during World War I that circumstances necessitated the setting up of more regular delivery of mails. Over time, and by the close of hostilities, these interim delivery methods evolved into what became the world's first regular airmail service.

The first of these provisional services was a military airmail effort set up by Austrian units into and out of the besieged town of Peremyshl (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, currently in Poland). Both airplanes and balloons were used to transport the mails during two sieges between September 1914 and March 1915, when the Russian armies were finally pushed back. There was one mail-carrying flight during the first siege and13 during the second. While some mail was flown into the fortress, much more was flown out. Covers from this temporary service are highly desired by collectors, who must be careful to avoid the many fakes that have appeared over the years.

Another irregular service that arose about the time the Peremysh flights ceased was an international service. Many people do not realize that not all of Belgium was overrun during the first world war. King Albert and his government sequestered themselves in a small pocket surrounding De Panne in West Flanders, and communications were set up with England. While most mail went out by ship, some was carried by plane. It wasn't long before civilian mail also will accepted: the first such mail is believed to have been flown on March 15, 1915. Flights continued sporadically until about mid-December when they were discontinued for the winter. In 1916 the service resumed. It is not known whether a fee was charged for flown mail, since the few covers that have survived have neither stamps nor charge marks. They are simply canceled with a circular date stamp of "PANNE". So, even though international flights were made, they were never regular and would hardly constitute a service.

The world's first officially approved round-trip airmail flight, an experimental junket featuring the use of the first airmail stamp, took place in May of 1917 between Rome and Turin. The stamp was created on May 16 by overprinting express mail stamps with a three-line inscription "Experimento Posta Aerea/ Maggio 1917/ Torino-Roma-Roma-Torino." First scheduled to take off on May 19, the flight was delayed due to bad weather. All mail was postmarked May 20, but foul weather again forced pilot Mario de Bernardi to cool his heels. He finally took off about 11 a.m. on May 22 and landed four hours later in Rome, handing over about 200 kilograms of mail and 100 newspapers. The return flight was once more delayed because of weather until May 26. Although a few aeronautical firsts were achieved during these two flights, they never evolved into a regular air service.

Establishing the Vienna-Kyiv Line

It is an often-overlooked fact of history, but while the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary did lose World War I on the Western Front, they had already prevailed in the East. The Russian Empire, staggered by huge military defeats, the occupation of some of its most fertile territories by German armies, the abdication of the tsar and the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks, finally sued for peace in December of 1917. On March 3, 1918, Russia signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, officially withdrawing from the war and recognizing the independence of Finland, Poland, Ukraine, and the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

In an earlier treaty involving the Central Powers and the Ukrainian National Republic (February 9, 1918, also signed at Brest-Litovsk), Austria-Hungary and Germany recognized the newly independent country, but were allowed to occupy a large portion of Ukrainian territory in order to help clear out Bolshevik armies. In return for this aid, Ukraine was to supply foodstuffs to its new allies.

The need soon arose for rapid and regular communications between Vienna and Ukraine's capital of Kyiv, where Austrian and German forces were headquartered. Railway lines had suffered some damage in the fighting and the sole remaining rapid link between the two cities at that time was a single telegraph line, obviously inadequate to handle the necessary communications.

On March 20, 1918, a military plane was sent off with much fanfare to make a trial flight from Vienna's Aspern aerodrome to Kyiv (Figure 1). The officer put in charge of the mail line was 24-year old Rittmeister (Captain) Field Pilot August Raft von Marwil, a fighter pilot. He made this reconnaissance flight, along with an observation officer, in a Hansa-Brandenburg C1 biplane equipped with a single 200-horsepower engine. Major stopovers were made in Krakow (present-day Poland) and Lemberg (present-day Lviv, Ukraine), both at that time still part of the Austrian province of Galicia (Figure 2). After overnighting in Lemberg, they arrived in Kyiv about noon the following day. Only official and military mail was carried on this trip (Figure 3). [Author's note: Since Western Ukraine with its "new" capital of Lviv did not secede from the Austro-Hungarian Empire until November 1, 1918 (a few weeks after this air service closed down), that city will be referred to by its "old" name of Lemberg in this article.]

The two men were feted gloriously upon their arrival. They made the return trip to Vienna in a single day, logging 10 hours in the air and stopping only to refuel. It was this return trip that was to be the model for all subsequent flights between the two capital cities.

On March 27 the Austrian government issued "Post and Telegraph Order No. 15, which contained specific instructions pertaining to the establishment of an airmail service between the major Austrian cities of Vienna and Lemberg. A few days later, on April 1, a flight schedule was established, which was revised at the end of June 1918 as follows:

Departure from Vienna at 0430 and land at Olmuniec (present-day Olomouc, Czech Republic) at 0600. Resume flight at 0630 to arrive in Krakow at 0800. Leave Krakow at 0830 and arrive at Lemberg at 1100. Depart from Lemberg at 1130 to arrive at Proskuriv (present-day Khmelnytskyi, Ukraine) at 1400. Leave Proskuriv at 1500 and arrive in Kyiv at 1730. The return flights to be in reverse order starting at 0400.

The distances between the landing sites at Vienna, Olmuniec, Krakow, Lemberg, Proskuriv and Kyiv were approximately 150, 200, 300, 250 and 300 kilometers, respectively, for a total of 1,200 kilometers. With generous time allocated for stopovers, the schedule allowed about 13 hours to complete the route one way. The trip was often completed in less time, even in as little as 11 hours. The average time was about 12 hours. The Olmuniec and Proskuriv landings were strictly technical in nature and no mail pick-up was made.

On March 31, 1918, a regular airmail service was established, which permitted private mail to Krakow and Lemberg with certain restrictions; mail carried on to Kyiv was entirely official. Towards the end of June 1918, private mail was allowed to proceed all the way to Kyiv. Thus the Vienna-Krakow-Lemberg-Kyiv line became the first regular international airmail service in the world.

Details About the Vienna-Kyiv Line

This airmail service performed uninterruptedly from March 31, 1918, until the third week in October 1918 - almost seven months. This record is quite remarkable when one considers that the line operated under several disadvantages, including: primitive weather forecasting, spotty ground communications, inaccurate maps, and a shortage of good planes and pilots - many of whom were needed for regular, full-time combat duty. Nevertheless, the Vienna-to-Kyiv run functioned with no fatalities and only a few forced landings. An interesting story about one such emergency relates how the pilot was forced to set down his craft in a Ukrainian wheatfield so bountiful that the stalks were higher than the plane. The pilot telephoned in his predicament, but it took an entire platoon of men to locate him and his craft.

The air route generally followed an old stagecoach highway from Vienna to Krakow and on to Lemberg. Locales where the road crossed railroad tracks served as orientation points. The aircraft used for making the runs were single-engine, unarmed, 165-and 200-horsepower biplanes that were capable of flying 120 kilometers per hour while transporting 200 kilograms of mail. There were 22 aircraft in the airmail fleet, which was made up of several model types: the Hansa-Brandenburg C1 (most of the aircraft), the Oeffag C2, and the Knoller-Albatros B1.

The manpower allocated to this mail service consisted of 14 non-commissioned officers, 16 observation officers, and ground and maintenance staff with spare engines at each landing site. Flights went in both directions daily, and each plane was employed on one particular leg only, going back and forth over just this one section.

Each flight from Vienna to Kyiv or in the opposite direction had to be completed during daylight hours, since there were no facilities for night flying and no navigational aids. As each plane came into sight, the pre-heated engine of the plane for the next leg was started with the crew of two, pilot and observer, already on board. The crew's outfits consisted of warm clothing, leather jackets and thick goggles. Mail bags were quickly transferred and signed for by the pilot against a bill of lading. Although passengers were not permitted, an occasional VIP or press reporter was carried.

A manual titled "Instructions for Airmail Pilots" was prepared, which dealt with the handling of mails. In case of a forced landing, the pilot was responsible for ensuring that the mail was forwarded without delay and all pilots held a special Post Office Certificate.

(To be continued.)

Dr. Ingert Kuzych may be contacted at P.O. Box 3, Springfield VA 22150 or at



Stamps commemorate the Vienna-Kyiv line

Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, December 3, 2000, No. 49, Vol. LXVIII

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