The birth of airmail
We take airmail for granted today, but in the early 20th Century the use of aeroplanes to speed up the delivery of the post was a novel idea. However, just over two years after Louis Blériot flew across the Channel in 1909, British air pioneer Gustav Hamel undertook the world’s first officially scheduled airmail flight in England in 1911.
This milestone took place on Saturday 9 September 1911 and saw Hamel cover the 19 miles between Hendon airfield in the north-west of London and Windsor to the west of the capital in 18 minutes. In addition to a post card that he wrote enroute, Hamel carried a bag of mail with several hundred letters, postcards, and newspapers. This first scheduled air mail service ran for just over a month with three other pilots joining Hamel on 16 flights, transporting a total of 35 bags of mail.1 This scheduled airmail flight and Blériot’s historic channel crossing shared two important components. Both were flown with the Blériot XI monoplane, and both were powered by fuel from Shell, as part of the company’s commitment to supporting the early pioneers of aviation.
Hamel, who learnt to fly at Blériot’s training school and was described by the French aviator as a “natural” pilot, recorded several aviation firsts, including the first cross-channel flight with a woman as a passenger. He flew Eleanor Trehawke Davies from Hendon to Paris, with intermediate stops at Ambleteuse and Hardelot, on 2 April 1912. Although Hamel crossed the channel 21 times in total, the enterprising aviator, who also pioneered acrobatics, including the looping-the-loop manoeuvre, disappeared on a Channel transit flight on 23 May 1914. For the early aviation pioneers, flying was still very much a dangerous occupation.
Shell’s support for Hamel and Blériot are just two examples of the backing the company gave to early aviators, helping aviation evolve from what was seen as little more than a sport into a viable business by the 1920s. Today, aviation plays a vital role in transporting mail as well as a wide range of goods all around the world. The challenge now is how to do this more sustainably, cutting emissions as the world works towards the targets set in The Paris Agreement. Shell is helping the aviation industry meet this challenge head on with the development of new low carbon flight options, including sustainable aviation fuel. In July 2020 Shell and its partner World Energy signed a multi-year collaboration to supply over six millions gallons of SAF to Amazon Air, the global online retailer’s air cargo operation.2 This collaboration shows how businesses can directly cut carbon emissions within their value chains today.
R. van Egmond and A. Westra, Shell and aviation. The story of more than a century of collaboration. Shell International B.V., 2019, p. 19.
‘Gustav Hamel’, Website This Day in Aviation, https://www.thisdayinaviation.com/?s=hamel.
Shell historical archives.