The following is an excerpt from the article. Read the full version online from the American Philatelist.
On November 11, 1918, when Poland regained sovereignty after 123 years of territorial partitions by Russia, Prussia, and Austria, world aviation was 15 years old. The Wright brothers transformed humanity’s dream to fly via a heavier-than-air machine into a reality on December 17, 1903, at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Not long afterward, on February 18, 1911, Henry Pequet carried the world’s first official airmail from Allahabad to Naini, India. Just seven months later, on September 23, 1911, Earle Lewis Ovington completed the first official postal flight in the U.S. from Garden City, New York to Mineola, New York.
The modern history of air communication in the Polish territories was deeply rooted in the air force, as exemplified by provisional airmail initiatives by the Austrian army, such as during the Siege of Przemysl in 1914-1915; the Prussian forces, via the Dirschau–Marienburg airline in 1912; and ultimately, the Polish air force, which carried mail during the Ukrainian-Polish war in 1919, along with the Berlin-Warsaw flight in 1919. These and other military courier flights gave birth to commercial aviation and civilian airmail services in a newly independent country.
On April 12, 1921, the French-Romanian Company for Air Transport (CFRNA; founded on April 23, 1920) incorporated the capital city of Warsaw into its international routing system. Poland’s location between Germany and Russia, combined with her size (ninth largest country in Europe) and population (more than 27 million in 1920), made this venture politically attractive and economically profitable.
Linking Warsaw and Paris (via Prague and Strasbourg) strengthened Poland’s ties with an old ally, France, whereas international expansion of air services promoted new relations between her European partners. Its location at the crossroads of the first transcontinental airline in aviation history also provided all the necessary experience and paved the way to establish regular domestic airmail services in Poland.
Establishing Gdansk–Warsaw–Lvov Airmail Route by Aerolloyd (1922)
In June 1922, representatives of two Polish oil companies, Fanto Ltd. and Polnaft Ltd., negotiated with the Polish government to establish a domestic airline. It intended to allow oil barons, such as their owners, to travel between Warsaw, where their companies had headquarters, the Baltic Sea Port of Danzig (Gdansk in Polish) through which they exported their products, and the Boryslaw-Drohobycz oilfields near Lvov (present day Lviv, Ukraine), an oil mining industrial zone commonly called “Polish Baku.”
Figure 2 illustrates a gem of Polish aerophilately, a cover from the inaugural flight by Aerolloyd from Warsaw to Gdansk on September 5, 1922. It shows a directional 2-line endorsement “Air Mail to Gdansk,” (Poczta lotnicza do Gdanska) and a “Poste aërienne” Warsaw departure marking, along with a Danzig arrival airmail cachet (“Mit Luftpost befördert/Flugpostamt Danzig 5”), in purple, angled and upside down at left.
Figure 2. This registered cover, accompanied by dated proof of posting, was on Aerolloyd’s inaugural flight from Warsaw to Gdansk on September 5, 1922.
Shown (Figure 6) is the only philatelically recorded registered dispatch flown from Lvov to Warsaw during the Eastern Trade Fair in 1922 (September 3-15). Posted at the fair’s post office substation, it shows a handwritten red crayon inscription "Poczta Lotnicza" (airmail) and penned-in postal charge notation.
Figure 6. This item was flown in September 1922, by a seasonal Aerolloyd service from the Eastern Trade Fair in Lvov to Warsaw.
Following the custom of European air carriers, the Polish airlines in the 1920s introduced “directional labels” for practical reasons and publicity. Although these were used to identify the passenger luggage and applied to small parcels, the labels also were attached to flown correspondence. The only recorded such label from the Aerolloyd era is shown (Figure 7). This relatively large (6.2 inches long by 3.1 inches high) two-color triangle label with a silhouette of an airplane in the middle and company’s name and the serviced route around it, is known in a few mint copies.
Figure 7. A mint directional air label from the Aerolloyd era, 1922-1925.
Expanding Air Service by Aerolloyd to Krakow, Bucharest and Vienna (1923-1925)
On April 3, 1923, by the initiative of two Warsaw newspapers, Aerolloyd organized an airborne passenger sightseeing ride, with proceeds supporting the development of local medical services.
A card with a bilingual cachet on the return flight from Vienna on April 27, 1925 (Figure 13) is one of 32 pieces addressed to Lvov by Alexander Berezowski, a Görlitz-based aerophilatelist. It was flown via Krakow to Warsaw, where it was offloaded and transferred to Aerolloyd’s service to Lvov, as noted by the April 29, 1925, arrival postmark at right. Indeed, the first direct postal flight from Krakow to Lvov took place one month later, on May 22, 1925. The card postage of 3,600 kronen is consistent with the Austrian foreign postcard rate of 1,800 kronen (inflation franking 13th period, December 1, 1924-June 30, 1925) plus 1,800 kronen air fee.
Figure 13. A card flown in 1923 from Vienna via Krakow to Lvov. Hyperinflation in postal service prices between Warsaw and Gdansk is evident.
Free City of Danzig at the Crossroads of European Airmail Network (1923-1928)
The Free City of Danzig (Freie Stadt Danzig in German; Wolne Miasto Gdansk in Polish), a semi-autonomous state, was established in November 1920 under the Treaty of Versailles and the protection of the League of Nations.
The first Warsaw-Copenhagen trial flight on August 15, 1925, was carefully philatelically documented. Eight hundred imperforated special labels depicting an airplane over the globe, Aerolot routes, and bilingual inscription reading “Pierwszy Lot Pocztowy/Warszawa–Kobenhavn/Premier Vol Postal/Polska Linia Lotnicza/15.VIII.1925” were printed.
Each of the 136 flown covers (Figure 15), in addition to a label, received a two-line violet cachet, appearing on this cover at bottom left. The postage (32 groszy), made up of a prevailing printed matter rate (6 groszy), the administration fee (20 groszy) and air surcharge (6 groszy), was canceled at the Warsaw airport. A receiving Copenhagen cancellation reads “Kobenhavn/0 0MB. 16.8.25 / K.” As the rubber-canceler at the Warsaw airport was broken, instead of “Par Avion,” it reads “Par vion” with a missing “a.” In April 1928, airmail cancellers were discontinued, and the Polish Ministry of Posts and Telegraph introduced blue stickers stating “Par Avion / Lotnicza.”.
Figure 15. A cover from Warsaw–Copenhagen trial postal flight by Aerolot on August 15, 1925 (136 pieces flown).
Figure 20 is an unusual cover, franked with correct letter postage, and carried on the inaugural Aerolot flight from Gdansk to Warsaw on July 10, 1928 (most of the mail was franked with the least expensive printed matter rate). Unlike the Lvov-bound item, here 70-groszy franking is a Polish postage, equal to a surface letter rate of 25 groszy (up to 20 grams), an administration fee of 20 groszy, and air surcharge of 25 groszy. It is plausible that different clerks handled mail at the Polish Post in Gdansk because this cover shows an airmail surcharge handwritten “Samolotem pobr. 25 gr” (by airplane, charged 25 groszy), while the previous item has an annotation of “pobr 5 gr” (charged 5 groszy). The reverse has “Warszawa 19 Port Lotniczy b / 10 VII 1928” and “Warszawa 1d / 10 VII 28.13” cancellations, in addition to “Nadeszła Pocztą Lotniczą” (arrived by air) marking.
Figure 20. A cover flown to Warsaw (unusual letter rate postage). The inauguration of airmail services from Warsaw to Poznan.
Aero: The Warsaw-Poznan Airline (1925-1928)
On February 27, 1925, the pilots’ association in the Polish city of Poznan formed the Society of Air Transportation, Aero S.A. It was founded on the Polish seed capital of 300,000 zlotys, obtained from the Poznan municipality, local banks, trade companies, and private investors.
Shown (Figure 23) is a preprinted cover carried on the first Aero flight on October 23, 1925, from Lodz to Poznan. It depicts a decorative first flight directional cachet, usually used as a departure marking. This dispatch required printed matter (DRUK) postage of 30 groszy (5 groszy, plus 20 groszy administration fee, and 5 groszy air fee).
Figure 23. This preprinted cover was carried by Aero’s first postal flight from Lodz to Poznan on October 23, 1925.
Flying the mail in the 1920s in a noisy aircraft with few instruments and less-than-reliable engines was not an occupation for the faint-hearted. Fuel and oil leaks were common and the planes operated with a small margin of safety due to stalling speeds. In this context, the performance of the Polish aviation sector in terms of safety and regularity needs to be rated as exceptional.
In 1930, the General Directors of Civil Aviation meeting in Paris coined the phrase, “The layman flies, the expert takes the train.” Although such a statement sounds preposterous nowadays, it reflected the uncertainties of air travel at that time, especially in varying weather conditions. However, the quest for higher speed, greater reliability, and the covering of greater distances continued, and each step forward brought the potential inherent in mass public air transport closer to reality. This was also exemplified by the steady expansion of Poland’s aviation network and the affordability of its fares. Indeed, in the late 1920s, the cost of air travel in Poland on some routes was about the same or even lower than a first-class train ticket.
Until 1928, there was no legislative framework for civil aviation in Poland. The Council of Ministers allocated commercial air transport matters to the Ministry of Railroads, Narrow-Gauge and Urban Railways Department. By the end of 1928, the major reorganization of the Polish commercial aviation sector fostered a merger between privately owned Aerolot and Aero. On January 1, 1929, a state-owned, self-governed entity with a passenger and cargo air transport monopoly was established. LOT Airlines Ltd., the flag carrier of Poland, is the 12th oldest airline globally still in operation and one of six that have not changed name since it was founded.
First flight covers are almost invariably philatelic, prepared by or for collectors as mementos of aerial and historical events. In the philatelic world, it has taken decades for them to achieve recognition as documentation of the beginning of airmail services and thus the interest they command. This was the case in Poland, where collectors and dealers alike were recording many new aerial events and building a foundation for what we refer to as aerophilately, which is studying the development and operations of the transport of mail by air. Indeed, as Polish aerophilately is rich in stories such as the one described, why not get involved?
Kupiec-Weglinski, Jerzy W. The History of Airmail in Poland and Its Contribution to Airmail Services of Europe, 1914-1939 (Collectors Club of Chicago, 2021).
Kupiec-Weglinski, Jerzy W. “100 Years of Civilian Air Mail Service in Poland” , The London Philatelist (2022).
Newall, Alexander S. British External Air Mails Until 1934 (London: Kingfisher Press, 1991).
Zbierski, Marek. Polish Postal Rates 1918-1939: A Compilation of Tables and Documents (Polskie Taryfy Pocztowe 1918-1939: Zbior Tabel i Dokumentow / Polnische Postgeburhen 1918-1939) (Poznan, Poland: 2004)
Jerzy W. Kupiec-Weglinski, M.D., Ph.D., the Paul I. Terasaki Chair, and Distinguished Professor of Surgery, David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA), has published more than 500 scientific papers on various aspects of organ transplantation. Involved in philately since childhood, Jerzy has specialized in the postal history of airmail services in Poland. His exhibits won several golds, three national grands and three FIP international large golds. Jerzy authored more than 80 philatelic articles, including for The American Philatelist (the Barbara R. Mueller Award, 2012), The American Philatelic Congress Book (the Walter R. McCoy Award, 2011 and 2012), The Airpost Journal (the L.B. Gatchell Award, 2013), the Bulletin of Polonus Philatelic Society (the Distinction Award, 2015), The London Philatelist, The Collectors Club Philatelist, and Polish Filatelista and Przeglad Filatelistyczny. Jerzy is a Fellow of the Royal Philatelic Society, London, and a member of several societies. Jerzy lives in Beverly Hills, California, with his visual-artist wife, Kasia, a medical-student daughter, Sophie, and Abigail, the dachshund.
For Further Learning
Recommendations from the APRL research staff:
“1929 Airmail Routes in Poland involving Danzig,” Danzig Report (April-June 1993).
Bura, E. “First Airmail Flight: Berlin to Warsaw,” Bulletin of the Polonus Philatelic Society (1980).
Gryzewski, T. “History of the Airpost of Poland from 1918 to 1927,” Airmail Collector (1929).
Tyler, Varro E. “Focus on Forgeries: Poland First Airmail Issue of 1925 Scott C1- 9,” Linn’s Stamp News (1989).