Mail and flight
The history of airmail is the history of man. Because human beings cannot do without communicating with each other. And the further away mankind communicates, the more it feels fulfilled for having demolished another border, another barrier.
Airmail is also the means of getting to know ourselves better by describing ourselves to others. By transmitting information, remembering people and commemorating events that have excited and amazed us.
Airmail tells the story of stories. Not a simple set of dates but a real album in which the creativity and wit of us human beings have been depicted.
It tells of the loneliness of the great solitary flyers on the ocean. It tells of hot air balloons that have crossed frozen expanses. It tells of men, so small and insignificant, when facing the heart of the storm, who made themselves big by relying only on their skills and two wings with a propeller.
After the ballon montés
The album on mail and flight looks fascinating from the very first pages. Those in which we find the Wright brothers, Alberto Santos-Dumont and the Blériot brothers. All aviation pioneers in their home countries. The first international, semi-official, stamp, depicting an airplane, only came out in 1911: the Vin Fiz Flyer. In the same year, the first official airmail flight to Allahabad (today Prayagraj) took off in India. The first postal flights from other countries were established during the first decades of the new century, followed by important records and long crossings. In 1931 Charles Lindbergh flew the Atlantic solo aboard the Spirit of St. Louis, a high-wing single-engine aircraft. But before that year, in 1926 and 1927, there had already been flights to the North Pole, and even Commander Richard E. Byrne with his co-pilot Floyd Bennet went up to 243 kilometres from the pole vertical. In 1932 the Swiss physicist Auguste Piccard reached over 16,000 metres with a hot air balloon, establishing the result of the first postal transport in the stratosphere. Later he lost interest in "heights" and devoted himself, instead, to sea depths. In 1937 Amelia Earhart tried to travel twice around the world.
And in Italy?
In Italy, if the term "Flying" (Volando), as a symbolic precursor of flight, already appeared in the 1500s on particularly urgent missives, the postal diffusion of news "by air" became reality only much later, in the period of the Italian unification when, during the Five Days of Milan, the insurgents launched small balloons to exchange messages in defiance of the Austrians.
And while, also in the military field, the first messages were sent "by air" from the dovecotes with the racing pigeons and through the use of airships in the Italo-Turkish war of 1911-1913, Italy too was experiencing the pioneering phase of the air postal flight. The first flight experiments were carried out from 1909 to 1912 with the "heavier than air", the first experiment conducted a year earlier, in 1908, with the Frenchman Léon Delagrange, who performed demonstration flights in various Italian cities. Subsequently, the first crossing of the Alps by airplane happened in 1910, from Brig to Domodossola, with the Peruvian Jorge Chàvez (perished during the landing phase) as well as the first circuits or international air competitions and aviation shows (Brescia, Milan, Bologna, Florence, Verona), accompanied, in the postal field, by postcards, cancellations and special postmarks.
When the First World War broke out, the high commanders discovered aviation. And they employed it in the most varied ways. Observation and reconnaissance, bombing and transport of both materials and correspondence. But also propaganda, such as the flights made by Gabriele D’Annunzio over Trieste, Trento and above all Vienna in 1918, which the Poet "bombarded" with flyers.
The sky of Vienna
On this August morning, while the fourth year of your desperate convulsion is taking place and the year of our full power begins brightly, the wing of the Italian flag suddenly appears to you as an indication of the destiny that is turning...
The Viennese carried the memory of that 9th August 1918, firmly imprinted in their mind, for a long time. The first feeling was fear. The roar of the engines in the sky, having to look up to find a reference and to focus on the black figures of Ansaldo S.V.A's squadron, which appeared almost by magic. But D'Annunzio was categorical.
The flight will be strictly political and demonstrative; it is therefore forbidden to bring any offence to the city [...] With this raid the wing of Italy will affirm its unchallenged power on the sky of the enemy capital. Your Duce will be the Poet, animator of all the fortunes of the Fatherland, symbol of the eternally renewing power of our race. This announcement will be the auspicious omen of Victory.
Thus, a shower of provocative white and tricolour flyers, in resemblance of the Italian flag, fell down on the heads of the incredulous citizens of Vienna. The leaflets said: surrender! End this war! An enterprise never accomplished before. Performed by Gabriele D’Annunzio with the help of daring aviators, such as Natale Palli, Antonio Locatelli. Gino Allegri, Aldo Finzi, Piero Massoni, Giuseppe Sarti, Ludovico Censi and Giordano Granzarolo.
If I don't get to Vienna, I'm not coming back. If you don't get to Vienna, you won't be coming back. This is my command. This is your oath. The engines are running. You must leave. But I promise you that we will arrive. Even through hell. Alala!
But almost everyone arrived in Vienna. In wedge formation, after 800 kilometres of flight in enemy territory, making the history that is still printed on books to the very day.
De Pinedo, Nobile and the others
After the pioneering period, flight became a protagonist also with the passenger transport service on airships. The aviation undertakings performed with airplanes, seaplanes and airships, witnessed by the postal documents carried on board, are still preserved today. The "Italian Wings" became famous in the world: Mario de Bernardi, Arturo Ferrarin, Francesco de Pinedo, Umberto Nobile, Italo Balbo, Francis Lombardi.
The world's first postage stamp for airmail was issued in May 1927, on the occasion of the postal experiment round trip Turin-Rome conducted by the pilot Mario de Bernardi: an ordinary stamp for the 25-cent express, overprinted in black on three lines with the sentence “Airmail experiment May 1917 Turin = Rome + Rome = Turin", exclusively valid for the flight.
With the echoes of the First World War that was definitively extinguished, the civil development of the national - and international - air service, with the consequent postal transport, increased its breath.
Gabriele D’Annunzio promoted the first mass connection between Italy and Japan, but then his attention was captured by the Rijeka adventure. The idea, however, was now launched and who collected it were the pilots Arturo Ferrarin and Guido Masiero. Eleven aircraft took off from Rome, but only one arrived - flying - in Tokyo, the aircraft of Ferrarin. Both aircraft, that of Masiero and of Ferrarin, carried bags of private correspondence.
Commander Francesco De Pinedo left Italy, in 1925, on an air cruise directed to Australia and Japan. He returned to Rome after having spent 370 hours "in the air", travelling for 55,000 kilometres and touching 80 different locations. On this occasion there was no official mail transport from Italy but only aerogrammes between one stop and the next, organised on site and at the time. In 1927, the air cruise of the Atlantic of "Santa Maria" played a leading role. Stops in the two Americas were envisaged: Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, New York, Chicago and Trepassey with the return to Sesto Calende. The embarked postal dispatches were transported privately by the crew, due to a lack of authorisation by the Italian authorities.
If I were to do another enterprise I would like to travel outside of the Earth's atmosphere.
In the spaces towards the Moon, towards Venus, towards, let's say, the outer planets; but this, of course, is utopian today for one man alone.
The years of the North Pole
1926 and 1928 were the years of Umberto Nobile's overflight of the North Pole, the various aerogrammes that were transported can be considered the first polar airmail. First with the "Norge" airship and then with the "Italia" airship, one of the greatest disasters of the Italian aviation and tomb of Nobile's career.
Umberto Nobile was a fan of airships, he imagined a bright future for these giants of flight. It is for this reason that Roald Amundsen came into contact with him when he discovered that the American billionaire Lincoln Ellsworth was prepared to subsidize the conquest of the North Pole.
Actually, when Amundsen turned to Nobile, he had already attempted the enterprise himself with a hydroplane that crashed ruinously in the ice.
Ellsworth and Amundsen purchased Nobile's airship N1, the best of those built by the Italian, who was also hired as a pilot. The N1 was renamed NORGE in honour of the Homeland of Amundsen and delivered to Ciampino with the presence of Mussolini. On 12th May 1926, the NORGE, with Amundsen, Ellsworth and Nobile on board, flew over the North Pole. With the launch of the Norwegian banners and the huge Italian flag, the relationship between Umberto Nobile and Amundsen, which had already cracked in the first days of flight, deteriorated completely. The NORGE arrived in Alaska at dawn on 14th May after seventy hours of travel and 3,180 miles travelled. The two, Amundsen and Nobile, do not know - and will not be aware for many years - that they were truly the first to arrive at the Pole. The record held by Peary, who claimed to have achieved it in 1908, will be disclaimed only later.
The tragedy of the red tent
Upon returning from the mission with Amundsen, Mussolini promoted Nobile to general of the Air Force. On the wave of this appointment, the pilot organised a new expedition to the North Pole, formed exclusively by Italian members. It is no coincidence that the airship used was named Italia. On 24th May 1928 the airship Italia brought Nobile, once again, to the North Pole where the Italian flag was launched again together with a cross blessed by Pope Pius XI. And here the problems began. A landing was foreseen but the conditions did not allow it, therefore the crew remained a couple of hours on the vertical of the maximum north latitude before resuming their journey. They were caught by a storm in view of the Svalbard mountains. The airship crashed on the ice, the cabin with ten men was lost, Umberto Nobile with them. The rest of the crew was dragged away with the balloon blown by the wind, one of them had the time to launch the food, radio and a red tent - coloured with aniline - which will tragically become legendary.
For seven weeks, the survivors awaited to be rescued, the whole world worked hard and actively participated for their recovery. Except for Italy. Mussolini, probably instigated by Balbo, did not move a finger. The latter, jealous for Nobile's enterprises and contrary to an aeronautical vision that gave space to aerostats, was not so unhappy of the thought of Nobile's failure to return.
Nonetheless, Nobile was rescued from an international expedition, not without controversy due to the "precedence" with which the rescue was carried out. On his return to Italy he was forced to resign from all positions and accused of cowardice. Only after the end of the Second World War was his position rehabilitated as it deserved.
The remaining survivors were picked up by the Soviet icebreaker Krassin on 12th July 1928, including the pilot - who saved Nobile - who meanwhile crashed on the second rescue flight.
And what about Amundsen? Despite the divergences between the two, the Norwegian generously tried to reach the survivors aboard a French seaplane. Unfortunately, he will be dispersed in the waters of the Barents Sea and will never be found again.
From 1930 to 1934, the postal issues of airmail stamps accompanied the large enterprises of Francis Lombardi and Italo Balbo, a major player in Italian aviation.
On 12th February 1930, the Italian colonies of East Africa were finally connected by air - no longer only by sea - with the Rome-Mogadishu Raid by Francis Lombardi. The transport of a limited postal courier was authorised from Rome. The first direct Rome-Buenos Aires flight followed in 1934, with a stop also in Cyrenaica and Tripolitania interrupted near Fortaleza (Brazil) due to a collision with the rocks of the beach that damaged the plane. For this flight, the Italian post offices issued three series of special stamps, for Italy and the Italian Colonies, a series consisting of 4 stamps of L. 2, 3, 5 and 10, obtained by overprinting the current airmail stamps with commemorative wording of the flight on 3 lines. Francis Lombardi was also the protagonist, in November 1934, of the special Rome-Mogadishu flight, with stopovers in Tobruk and Massaua, accompanied by the issue of a series of special stamps consisting of 6 values of L. 1, 2, 4, 5 , 8 and 10 and a stamp with crown and overprint "State Service".
Mario de Bernardi in 1941 again made Italy the protagonist of air postal transport with the Milan Linate-Guidonia (Rome) flight, classified as the first postal flight in the world carried out by jet plane, the Campini-Caproni monoreactor.
The Gronchi rosa
The history of airmail cannot be said to be complete without mentioning the Gronchi rosa. The Italian stamp, most popular in the world, was issued by Italy on 3rd April 1961 to commemorate the journey of the President of the Republic Giovanni Gronchi to South America.
The "Gronchi rosa" from L.205 - combined also with the 170 for the visit to Argentina and the 185 for that to Uruguay, reported the drawing of the Peru borders as wrong. In order to prevent the diplomatic scandal, and at the direct request of the Embassy of Peru, immediate instructions were given to withdraw and destroy every copy of the stamp. In addition, a new stamp was printed, grey in colour, to cover those already sold and not recovered (about 80,000 copies) used to stamp the aerogrammes. In fact, despite the diligence of the postal workers in charge of hiding the "pink" with the "grey", it was not possible to prevent some Gronchi rosa from flying as a postage for the airmail loaded on the presidential flight.
The circumstance provoked an "escalation" of popularity for the philatelic world and speculative scenarios were witnessed, destined to die out a few years later.