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Air Crash Mail

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Collecting Air Crash Covers

By Ken Sanford

Please be patient - there are several large images on this page

I have been collecting crash covers for many years. My two special interests are the crash mail of Pan American World Airways and Imperial Airways, which was Britain's major international airline between 1924 and 1940. In March 2003, I published a book "Air Crash Mail of Imperial Airways & Subsidiary Airlines", which is available from my website.

This is a short introduction to collecting crash mail. The primary reference for worldwide air crash mail is the 2 volume "Recovered Mail" by Henri Nierinck, published in 1992 & 1995. It is still available from a few aerophilatelic book dealers. The main reference for U.S. crash covers is the American Air Mail Catalogue, 6th Edition, Vol. One, Interrupted Flights Section, which is available from the American Air Mail Society.

You can collect crash covers in many different ways. For example, you can collect the crash covers of a single airline, country, continent, region, state or specific time period. Or you can collect those franked with a specific stamp, such as the Beacon stamp issued in July 1928. Some people collect the covers from crashes of a single type of aircraft. The possible variations are unlimited.

This page shows a variety of different types of air crash covers.

What other comments, covers, etc., do you have, to add to this discussion?

Color illustrations and comments by e-mail to MAPS webmaster or by snail-mail to MAPS Editor George Sioras.

The earliest crash covers are those carried by balloon out of Paris
during the Siege of Paris 1870-71

Paris Balloon Flight

The Parisians were able to get mail out of the besieged city by building balloons and flying them out over the heads of the Prussian army. Some of the balloons crashed and the mail was usually recovered.

This is a cover from the balloon "Ville de Paris", which departed from the Gare du Nord on 15 December 1870 at 4:45 a.m. It was carrying 65 kilos of mail, and 12 homing pigeons, which were intended to be used to carry pigeongrams back into Paris. It crashed near Wetzlar, Prussia, which was of course, enemy territory. The cover is addressed to Geneva, Switzerland, which is an unusual destination for Paris balloon covers.

1918 U.S. Air Mail Service Crash - Hicksville, NY - 10 September 1918

1918 Airmail Crash Chicago to Hicksville, NY

The first U.S. air mail service in 1918 was operated by U.S. Army pilots, who were relatively inexperienced, and the aircraft were not very reliable. Thus, there were a number of crashes.

On a flight from Chicago to New York on 10 September 1918, the aircraft arrived in the New York area and the pilot was unable to locate the Belmont Park airfield in the dark. The aircraft was running out of fuel, the pilot attempted an emergency landing, misjudged the altitude and hit the ground too hard and damaged the aircraft. The mail was forwarded without any special markings. When mail is undamaged in a crash, and there are no special crash markings, it is necessary to research the cover to determine if it was in a crash.

First Pan American Airways Crash - Gulf of Mexico - 15 August 1928

First Pan Am Crash 1928

The first crash by Pan American Airways was a flight from Havana, Cuba to Key West, Florida on August 15, 1928.

The aircraft was a Fokker F-7 landplane. The aircraft encountered engine trouble and the pilot was forced to ditch in the Gulf of Mexico.

The pilot and passengers were rescued by a nearby ship and all the mail, some 5,000 pieces, was recovered and dried out in a bakery in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Crash of the Imperial Airways "City of Khartoum " - Alexandria, Egypt - 31 December 1935

City of Khartoum Crash - Dec 1935

The Short S.8 Calcutta flying boat, the "City of Khartoum ", was operating a flight from England to Australia. When landing at Alexandria, it apparently ran out of fuel, all the engines stopped at an altitude of 600 feet and it dived into the sea: 71 bags (390 kilos) of mail were recovered. Various types of cachets were applied by different post offices at the destinations of the mail.

This is the type "n" cachet applied by the Adelaide, Australia Post Office.

Crash of American Airlines at Goodwin, Arkansas - 14 January 1936

American Airlines Crash - Jan 1936

The flight was operating from Newark, New Jersey to Ft. Worth, Texas. The pilot encountered engine trouble and he was trying to glide to an emergency landing field when he hit the tops of some trees and the aircraft crashed.

About 200 lbs. of mail was being carried and the crash scattered the mail around the crash site, but the postal inspectors believed that it was all recovered.

Recovered mail was marked with three different varieties of cachets, and the badly damaged covers were accompanied by a post office envelope, which is known as an "Ambulance Cover" as shown below.

Crash of the Airship Hindenburg at Lakehurst, New Jersey - 6 May 1937

1937 Hindenburg Crash Cover

The airship was operating a flight from Germany to Lakehurst, New Jersey. As it was being moored, it burst into flames and crashed onto the ground in a huge ball of fire. This was one of the world's greatest disasters. 357 pieces of mail were salvaged, 181 in a burned condition.

Because Hindenburg covers are quite valuable, there are a number of fakes around. It is therefore essential that everyone buying one have it expertised.

Cover courtesy of: Hindenburg Crash Mail - the Scout Covers website:

Crash of the Imperial Airways "Cygnus" - Brindisi, Italy - 5 December 1937

Cygnus Crash - Dec 1937

The Short S.23 "C" Class flying boat, the "Cygnus", was operating a flight from Australia to England. When taking off in a choppy sea, the Captain inadvertently set the flaps fully down, causing the aircraft to bounce off the water. It bounced a few times and then overturned and sank.

Most of the mail (approximately 100 bags) was salvaged in watersoaked condition. Some post offices prepared a mimeograph explanation like the one above, explaining the damage to the covers. This one is unusual as it is informing the Birmingham Postmaster they could not read the address but it appeared to be for someone in their area.

Crash of the Pan American World Airways China Clipper - Port of Spain, Trinidad - 8 January 1945

The famous Martin M-130 flying boat, the "China Clipper", was operating a flight from Miami, Florida to the Belgian Congo. The plane crashed in the bay at Port of Spain, Trinidad when attempting to land in a storm.

Some of the mail was recovered and returned to Miami for processing. The cover was marked with a cachet explaining the damage, and on arrival in the Belgian Congo, an explanatory slip was hand written in French.

This is the only recorded cover from this crash.

Crash of Pan American Flight 103 at Lockerbie, Scotland - 21 December 1988

On a flight from London to New York, the Boeing 747 exploded at 31,000 feet and the bulk of the wreckage came down over the village of Lockerbie. Terrorists had placed a bomb onboard the aircraft. Pieces of the wreckage and the mail was scattered over a wide area. A small amount of U.S. Military mail and a bank courier pouch were onboard.

Three covers have been recorded.

The Wreck & Crash Mail Society

The Wreck & Crash Mail Society was formed in the latter part of 1994, and is devoted to the collecting and study of all aspects of delayed and/or damaged mail and interrupted mail services. Currently the Society is composed of four study groups, namely:
  • The Air Crash Study Group
  • The Railroad Wreck Study Group
  • The Ship Wreck Study Group
  • The Suspended Mail/Conflicts Study Group.

The Society publishes a quarterly journal "La Catastrophe", which contains articles on all aspects of wreck and crash mail, as well as news on new cover discoveries, auction realizations on wreck and crash mail, and questions from members who are seeking information on their crash and wreck covers and the stories behind them.

The Wreck & Crash Mail Society normally holds an annual meeting (so far, all have been held in London ), where members display parts of their collection, meet other collectors of wreck and crash mail, and exchange information and material with fellow members.

If you have an interest in this area of postal history, the organisers believe that the Wreck & Crash Mail Society will fulfill your interest. Annual membership dues are UK £12.50 or US $20.00, which includes a subscription to four issues of "La Catastrophe".

For details and a membership application, go to The Wreck And Crash Society

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Updated 12 November 2007
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