by Ingert Kuzych

Treasures from the first airmail service

A previous two-part article in The Ukrainian Weekly (December 3, 2000, and January 7, 2001) introduced readers to the world's first regular and first international air mail service, which functioned between Vienna - in the Austro-Hungarian Empire - and Kyiv - in newly independent Ukraine - from March 31 to October 15, 1918, i.e. during the last year of World War I.

This line featured daily flights in both directions with intermediate stops in Krakau (Krakow, now in Poland) and Lemberg (Lviv, in present-day Ukraine); see Figure 1. Different planes flew each leg of the service with the mailbag quickly transferred from the arriving flight to the warmed-up-and-waiting departing plane.

The flight distance between the two end points was about 1,200 kilometer, (720 miles) and the route was completed on average in about 12 hours. Most mails traveled between the Austrian cities of Vienna, Krakau and Lemberg, with relatively few items carried on to Kyiv (and most of these were of military correspondence). On March 31 three special Austrian air mail stamps were introduced for the civilian mails that began to be carried on that day.

In February of 2003, the Austrian OPHILA Auction featured some of the rarest and most interesting covers ever assembled from the first airmail service - 146 lots in all. This article will highlight five of the most interesting items.

Pre-service cover

Figure 2 is of a field postcard mailed on March 28, 1918, from Krakau to Lemberg. This item was flown during the 11-day period (March 20 to 30) when experimental flights were made that carried only military dispatches. Such mails did not require any stamps.

The card features three special handstamps. The three lines of the marking in the upper left translate as: Imperial and Royal Air Reserve Troops I Air Reserve Battalion I/Air Reserve Company 10. The two-line handstamps - applied at the beginning and end points of the flight read: Imperial and Royal Courier Line Vienna-Kyiv I Flight Station Krakau (or Lemberg). The message on the card relates that in an earlier flight from Lemberg to Krakau, flown by Oberleutnant Matzenauer, the pilot became lost in a snowstorm near Rzeszow and was forced to make an emergency landing. The card presumably was then forwarded by train.

Estimated value for the card was 1,100+ euros. Bidding began at 700 euros; and the winning bid was 2,100 euros.

First flight from Lemberg

The second cover (Figure 3) is of a card carried on the first-ever civilian flight out of Lemberg (to Vienna) on April 3, 1918. The 8 heller is the postal card rate while the 4 kroner paid for air delivery: a 1-krone handling charge and 1.5 kroner for each leg of the flight, Lemberg-Krakau and Krakau-Vienna.

The card was posted on the second, but it displays additional departure and arrival markings applied on the third. The estimated value for this first-flight item (always very desirable) was set at 325 euros. Bidding began at 160 euros and ended at 420 euros.

Single-leg flight

Figure 4 presents both sides of a unique postcard mailed on April 27, 1918, from Lemberg to Krakau. Since this was only a one-leg mailing, the franking consists of just one airmail stamp of 2.50 kroner (1 krone handling plus 1.5 kroner for the one leg) plus a 10-heller stamp to cover the postcard rate.

What makes this item so interesting is that it pictures the very plane on which it was carried. In addition, this card's value was further enhanced by the fact that it traveled on such a short stretch (most mails went further - to Vienna, the capital).

The estimated value for this card was 350+ euros and the bidding began at 200 euros. The winning bid was not reached until 750 euros.

Multiple-weight-increment cover

The fourth cover (Figure 5) features a large envelope sent from Vienna to Lemberg on September 6, 1918, and bearing five air mail stamps. These were needed to cover the two additional weight increments of this oversize letter. Since this was a military dispatch, the letter franking fee was waived, but the cost of air delivery had to be paid for in stamps: a l-krone handling fee and 1.5 kroner for each 20 grams of weight and each increment (leg) of the route. Since this route had two legs - Vienna to Krakau and Krakau to Lemberg - an ordinary letter would have required 4 kroner (lk+3k). This letter bears 10 kroner worth of stamps because it weighed between 40 and 60 grams (so lk+3k+3k+3k).

Estimated value for the cover was 1,000+ euros and bidding began at 800 euros. Amazingly, the hammer price for this item was only 950 euros. In my estimation, the price was a real bargain for this wonderful item.

Civilian Cover - Vienna to Kyiv

Figure 6 displays the crown jewel of the auction - and one of the most famous of all air mail covers. This item traveled the entire route from Vienna to Kyiv. It is one of only a few such covers known that was not of a military nature.

The franking on the envelope has 4 kroner worth of airmail stamps plus the 15-heller letter postage. Air postal rates applied for within the Austro-Hungarian Empire and there was no charge for the third leg (Lemberg-Kyiv). This last stretch now made the flight an international one (since it was traveling to Ukraine, independent since January 22, 1918).

The two airmail stamps display an unusual "mixed franking" because the 1.50 kroner value is of the first printing on gray paper, while the 2.50 kroner is from a second printing on white (cream) paper. The plane carrying this item turned back around Ostrau in Moravia (the present-day Czech Republic) due to fog and made a forced landing at Prerau when it ran out of gas. The letter was then forwarded to Lemberg via train.

In Lemberg three censor markings were applied: a boxed inscription, a "209" censor number, and a seal (on the reverse). All this effort because the letter would now be traveling further to a foreign destination.

This extraordinary cover was estimated to be worth 2,250 euros and bidding began at 1,000 euros. Closing price was 2,400 euros. The final prices for all of the items from this auction are a bit deceptive. A hefty commission was added to all of the gavel prices; combined with exchange fees, insurance and postage, this added about 20 percent to the final cost.

I am happy to report that I was able to participate in the auction and acquired three items for which I bid - including some described above. Yes, I did spend a considerable amount, but the three covers now hold a prominent place in my new exhibit "Lemberg: The Postal History of an Imperial Austrian Crownland Capital," which I plan to begin to show internationally later this year.

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

New catalogue illuminates little-known issues

Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, August 3, 2003, No. 31, Vol. LXXI

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