Orville and Wilbur Wright flew their airplane for the first time on December 17, 1903. Since then air travel has revolutionized the world in countless ways. When airplanes first took to the skies, the mere idea of an airplane (or aeroplanes as they were known then) was astounding. Man had wanted to fly for thousands of years, but now it was a reality. But less than 118 years ago, the concept seemed unbelievable. Now, airplanes enable quick travel for millions daily around the globe; and millions of packages are shipped by air freight every day. In addition, advancements in aircraft led to the development of rockets and the beginnings of man’s exploration of space.

A photo of the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903.
(Photo: Air & Space Magazine)

Carrying freight

In the years following the Wright brothers’ flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, aviation spread. Within a few years those promoting aviation were seeking practical uses for the airplane. At about the same time that commercial trucks were first being manufactured, those promoting aviation sought to carry freight by air.

The first practical demonstration of air freight took place on November 7, 1910. Piloting a Wright Model B aeroplane 65 miles from Dayton to Columbus, Ohio, Philip Parmelee delivered a package containing 200 pounds of silk for the grand opening of a retail store. This first shipment was no mere delivery either, it was also a race, pitting an airplane against an express train.

The flight was officially timed at 57 minutes, which was a world speed record at the time. More importantly, It was the first “cargo only” flight, scheduled specifically to transport goods from one point to another. It was also the first flight commissioned by a client, as well as the first example of multimodal air transport, since the silk was transported by automobile from the Columbus aerodrome to the store. The Columbus newspaper officially reported that the air shipment had beaten the railroad express service between the two cities.

Eddie Gardner posed with his Curtiss JN-4H in 1918.
(Photo: National Postal Museum)

Air mail

It should be noted that although cargo was carried by air beginning in 1910, early aircraft were not powerful enough (or sturdy enough, or large enough) to carry much cargo. Air mail (consisting of mail and small packages) was the primary cargo carried during the earliest years of aviation.

Although the Wright brothers were the first to successfully demonstrate powered flight, men in other countries had attempted it before them, and interest in aviation was not confined to the United States.

Therefore, it should be noted that the world’s first official flight to carry “air mail” occurred on February 18, 1911, in the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh in British-ruled India. Sir Walter Windham organized an exhibition to showcase aviation. He received permission from the Postmaster General in India to operate an air mail service to increase publicity for the exhibition, as well as to raise money for charity.

The first air mail flight was flown by Henri Pequet. He flew 6,500 letters 8.1 miles from Allahabad to Naini (the nearest station on the Bombay-Calcutta rail line). He flew a Humber-Sommer biplane equipped with a 50 horsepower engine; the airplane completed the trip in 13 minutes.

The first scheduled air mail postal service was in the United Kingdom. Air mail was flown between the London suburb of Hendon and the Postmaster General’s office in Windsor, Berkshire, on September 9, 1911. This was also proposed by Sir Walter Windham, who based his recommendation on the successful experiment he had arranged earlier in India. The postal service was part of the celebration surrounding the coronation of King George V. The air mail service only lasted about a month; a total of 35 bags of mail were transported on 16 flights.

A deHavilland DH-4B mail plane, designated number 358.
(Photo: National Postal Museum)

Between the World Wars

Airplanes were used as a new machine of war during World War I. After the war, American pilots and other aviation enthusiasts sought to keep airplanes in the news and to make them commercially viable. They hoped to convince the U.S. military, as well as businesses, to help expand the nation’s nascent aircraft industry.

In 1919, American Railway Express sought to fly 1,100 pounds of freight from Washington, D.C. to Chicago. A converted World War I bomber was used for the flight; it was forced to land in Ohio because of a frozen radiator, but the company continued to experiment with airfreight.  

Many airlines were started during the 1920s, and a number of those flew freight as the decade progressed. Just as is the case 100 years later, their cargo was often mechanical parts or merchandise that was needed quickly. Nonetheless, during most of the decade air cargo remained primarily a novelty.

A Douglas M-4 painted in Western Air Express colors sits on runway in 1940 for reenactment of Western’s 1926 air cargo flights.
(Photo: National Postal Museum)

But a number of entrepreneurs understood aircraft could move high-value/low-volume consignments faster than railroads, shipping companies and parcel delivery companies. In Europe, the first scheduled flight from London to Paris in 1919 carried only one passenger, but also transported leather for a shoe manufacturer and grouse for a restaurant. Prints of movies and newsreels were a frequent air cargo consignment and distributed across the European continent to movie theaters.

Records are spotty from the early years of U.S. air cargo service, but 45,859 pounds of freight were carried by American Railway Express in 1927. The company was an early entrant in air cargo and contracted with a number of small airlines to deliver freight (rather than have its own fleet). In March 1929, the company was renamed Railway Express Agency, or REA.

Another company, National Air Transport, was founded on November 14, 1926 to carry parcels by air. Later, it was one of the companies that were combined to create United Airlines. National Air Transport delivered its first air cargo on September 1, 1927, between Dallas and New York.

Two years later, in 1929, the amount of freight carried by air had grown to over 257,000 pounds. By 1931, more than 1 million pounds of air cargo were shipped.  

An American Railway Express airplane on display at the Museum of Flight in Seattle.
(Photo: Airplanes-Online.com)

Auto pioneer Henry Ford also started an air freight service for his company. (In addition, Ford built the Ford Tri-Motor airplane, which still has admirers for its design although only 199 were built.) The Ford air subsidiary carried 1 million pounds of freight for the company when it was founded in 1925, and averaged more than 3 million pounds by the end of 1929. The U.S. Post Office also shipped mail and freight by air.

Another competitor of REA was General Air Express, which was founded in 1932. Because of competition and low rates, neither company generated significant profits in the early 1930s. The two companies merged and operated as one entity as of February 1935.

Despite the number of companies carrying air cargo, of all air traffic-related revenues at that time, air freight consisted of just under 4%.

Packages shipped via Railway Express Agency being loaded on an airplane. (Photo: DigitalForsyth)

United Airlines

United Airlines began its air freight delivery service on December 23, 1940. A number of historians believe United’s all-cargo service was the first in U.S. airline history. United utilized Douglas DC-4 aircraft to deliver mail on a New York-Chicago-New York route. However, the service was suspended less than five months later.

Air freight (other than U.S. air mail) was a minor part of airline operations; the focus was on passenger service. However, the four largest airlines at the time (United Airlines, American Airlines, TWA and Eastern Air Lines) created Air Cargo, Inc. on March 14, 1941 to deliver freight.

Air Cargo’s operations began in December 1941; it operated during most of World War II (its last flight was in November 1944). By war’s end, many of the airlines offering scheduled passenger service were starting their own air freight services.

The aviation industry and the development of aircraft moved forward because of World War II. As the war progressed, both the Axis powers and the Allies built faster and more powerful airplanes. Essential to the war effort, aircraft delivered troops, supplies and bombs across the Pacific, African and European theaters of war.

A B-26 bomber in flight. (Photo: blog.museumofflight.org)

To help win the war, aircraft technology grew exponentially in less than a decade. Engines were designed that were more powerful, which led to bigger aircraft that could fly longer distances. Multi-engine aircraft were built by the thousands, and the jet propulsion engine was developed for the German Luftwaffe. (Providentially, the development of the jet engine came late in the war and was not able to be fully utilized. German scientists also developed the first rocket engines, which were used in the dreaded V-1 and V-2 rocket bombs.)

All of the developments used for warfare were later used for commercial purposes, including by the air cargo industry.

Post-World War II

The International Air Traffic Association was founded in 1919, the year of the world’s first international scheduled air service. Its successor was founded even before World War II ended. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) was formed by 57 airlines at a conference held in Havana on April 19, 1945. It is still working on behalf of the industry today and it has 290 member airlines, primarily major carriers, representing 117 countries.

A Budd RB-1 Conestoga was the first airplane used by the Flying Tiger Line, which was formed on June 25, 1945.
(Photo: FlyingTigersClub.org)

Using the technology developed during World War II and surplus aircraft from various air forces, the air freight industry grew significantly in the post-war years. The commercial airlines moved into the sector aggressively. Moreover, numerous dedicated all-freight airlines and companies were started.

Look for Part 2 of this FreightWaves Classics article tomorrow, July 16.

FreightWaves Classics thanks the following sources for information and photographs used in this article – Century-of-flight.net, FlyingTigersClub.org, Azee Shipping & Trading Co. and Donna Aldridge.