Specific instances of a letter being delivered by air long predate the introduction of Airmail as a regularly scheduled service available to the general public.
Although homing pigeons had long been used to send messages (an activity known as pigeon mail), the first mail to be carried by an air vehicle was on 7 January 1785, on a hot air balloon flight from Dover to France near Calais. It was flown by Jean-Pierre Blanchard and John Jeffries. The letter was written by an American Loyalist William Franklin to his son William Temple Franklin who was serving in a diplomatic role in Paris with his grandfather Benjamin Franklin.
During the first aerial flight in North America by balloon on January 9, 1793, from Philadelphia to Deptford, New Jersey, Jean-Pierre Blanchard carried a personal letter from George Washington to be delivered to the owner of whatever property Blanchard happened to land on, making the flight the first delivery of air mail in the United States.
The first official air mail delivery in the United States took place on August 17, 1859, when John Wise piloted a balloon starting in Lafayette, Indiana, with a destination of New York. Weather issues forced him to land near Crawfordsville, Indiana, and the mail reached its final destination via train. In 1959, the U.S. Postal Service issued a 7 cent stamp commemorating the event.
Balloons also carried mail out of Paris and Metz during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, drifting over the heads of the Germans besieging those cities. Balloon mail was also carried on an 1877 flight in Nashville, Tennessee.
Starting in 1903 the introduction of the airplane generated immediate interest in using them for mail transport. An unofficial airmail flight was conducted by Fred Wiseman, who carried three letters between Petaluma and Santa Rosa, California, on February 17, 1911.
The world's first official airmail flight came the next day, at a large exhibition in the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh, British India. The organizer of the aviation display, Sir Walter Windham, was able to secure permission from the postmaster general in India to operate an airmail service in order to generate publicity for the exhibition and to raise money for charity. Mail from people across the region was gathered in at Holy Trinity Church and the first airmail flight was piloted by Henri Pequet, who flew 6,500 letters a distance of 13 km from Allahabad to Naini – the nearest station on the Bombay-Calcutta line to the exhibition. The letters bore an official frank "First Aerial Post, U.P. Exhibition, Allahabad. 1911". The aircraft used was a Humber-Sommer biplane, and it made the journey in thirteen minutes.
The first official American airmail delivery was made on September 23, 1911, by pilot Earle Ovington under the authority of the United States Post Office Department.
In Britain in September 1911 a pioneer aerial mail was organised in conjunction with the coronation of King George V. The flight was between London and Windsor and a South African Mr Evelyn (Bok) Driver was one of the pilots. He, Captain Guy Livingstone and Compton Paterson formed the African Aviation Syndicate and 2 aircraft were shipped to Cape Town, a Farman-type bi-plane and a Bleriot monoplane.
These planes were assembled at Kenilworth. Paterson flew the Farman on a test flight to Green Point Common and he landed perfectly. On take-off the next morning a gust of wind caught the small plane and it crashed. This was a sad setback for the African Aviation Syndicate. The Cape Town Publicity Association had planned a fortnight for the second half of December 1911 and the Minister of Posts and Telegraphs had sanction the conveyance of mail by air. Special postcards were printed by Messes Whitehead / Morris and these were being sold for 10c. A special hand stamp for franking the postcards had been provided by the Post Office and like the design of the postcard had been patterned on those used in the pioneer airmail in Britain. They were date stamped in Muizenberg and Kenilworth and then circulated by ordinary mail. The total number of cards was 2597.
In the remaining aircraft Evelyn Driver took off from the Kenilworth Race Course in the remaining aircraft on 19h15 on 27 December 1911 and piloted the machine for a safe touch down 7 ½ minutes later at Oldhams Field on the verges of Zandvlei in Muizenberg. Oldham was a chemist and his field was used as a dairy farm and sports ground. At the field Mr P.J Hutchings the Post Master at Muizenberg, received the post and gave the pilot a return post. The aircraft was safely back at Kenilworth at 20h10.
The first official air mail in Australia was carried by French pilot Maurice Guillaux. On 16–18 July 1914, he flew his Blériot XI aircraft from Melbourne to Sydney, a distance of 940 km, carrying 1785 specially printed postcards, some Lipton's Tea and some O.T. Lemon juice. At the time, this was the longest such flight in the world.
The world's first scheduled airmail post service took place in the United Kingdom between the London suburb of Hendon, North London, and the Postmaster General's office in Windsor, Berkshire, on 9 September 1911 as part of the celebrations for King George V's coronation and at the suggestion of Sir Walter Windham, who based his proposal on the successful experiment he had overseen in India.
Cover flown on the first day of scheduled Air Mail Service in the U.S. and franked with the first U.S. Air Mail stamp, the 24 Cent "Jenny" "AIR MAIL SERVICE – WASH. N.Y. PHILA. MAY 15, 1918 – FIRST TRIP PHILA."
The service ran for just under a month, transporting 35 bags of mail in 16 flights; four pilots operated the aircraft including Gustav Hamel, who flew the first service in his Blériot, covering the 21 miles between Hendon and Windsor in just 18 minutes. The service was eventually terminated due to constant and severe delays caused by bad weather conditions.
Similar services were intermittently run in other countries before the war, including in Germany, France and Japan, where airmail provision was briefly established in 1912, only to meet with similar practical difficulties.
The range, speed and lifting capacity of aircraft were transformed through technological innovation during the war, allowing the first practical air mail services to finally become a reality when the war ended. For instance, the first regularly scheduled airmail service in the United States was inaugurated on May 15, 1918.
The route, which ran between Washington, D.C., and New York City, with an intermediate stop in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was designed by aviation pioneer Augustus Post. In 1925, the U.S. Postal service issued contracts to fly airmail between designated points. In 1931, 85% of domestic airline revenue was from airmail.
In Germany, dirigibles of the 1920s and 1930s were used extensively to carry airmail; it was known as Zeppelin mail, or dirigible mail. The German Zeppelins were especially visible in this role, and many countries issued special stamps for use on Zeppelin mail.
In the aftermath of the war, the Royal Engineers (Postal Section) and the Royal Air Force pioneered the first scheduled international airmail service between Folkestone, Kent and Cologne, Germany. The service operated between December 1918 and the summer of 1919, its purpose was to provide troops of the British Army stationed in Germany with a fast mail service. Throughout the 1920s the Royal Air Force continued to develop air routes through the Middle East.
On 25 December 1918, the Latécoère Airlines, later becoming the famed Aéropostale, became the first civilian international airmail service, when mail was flown from Toulouse, France, to Barcelona, Spain. Less than 2 months later, on the 19th of February 1919, the airmail service was extended to Casablanca, Morocco, making the Latécoère Airlines the first transcontinental airmail service.
The first airmail service established officially by an airline occurred in Colombia, South America, in the 19th of October 1920. Scadta, the first airline of the country, flew landing river by river delivering mail in its destinations.
Australia's first airmail contract was awarded to Norman Brearley's Western Australian Airlines (WAA). The first airmail was carried between Geraldton and Derby in Western Australia on 5 December 1921.
Since the early pioneers took to the skies to deliver mail the industry has grown with thousands of mail articles being transported daily to all corners of the world daily. The digital age of communication did impact the sector but there will always be a need for a reliable postal service to transport documents and the like. Courier companies, the likes of DHL and Fedex, have grown to massive organisations all due to the need for quick delivery of items from one place to another.