A Vivid Celebration of Pan Am’s Famous Airmail Service - Review by John A. Hill
New Krupnick Book a Vivid Celebration of Pan Am’s Famous Airmail Service
by John H. Hill - Former Assistant Director, Curator-in-Charge of Aviation, SFO Museum & Coauthor of Pan Am At War
Jon E. Krupnick’s new book, Pan American’s Final Flight, is what museums call an exhibition catalogue—and it is a first-rate one at that. This visually stunning and deeply researched work is a printed version of the author’s award-winning collection of airmail “flight covers,” which he has exhibited at stamp shows over the years. It masterfully caps off his two previous publications, Pan American’s Pacific Pioneers: A Pictorial History of Pan Am’s Pacific First Flights 1935–1946 (1997) and Pan American’s Pacific Pioneers: The Rest of the Story (2000).
Those two profusely illustrated volumes comprised a definitive operating history of the famed Pan American Airways—before “World” was added to its name—and the airline’s singular development of ocean air transport with its commercial routes to and through the Pacific Region beginning in 1935. The earlier works centered on airmail but also included other documents and illustrations of historic three-dimensional artifacts, all from the author’s personal collection as well.
This new book, however, focuses exclusively on the airmail history and thus provides a wonderfully expansive view of the subject. The pictorial presentation and contextual research in Pan American’s Final Flight are so compelling that it transcends stamp collecting circles with great appeal to a broad spectrum of interests and readers. Mr. Krupnick has exalted these exquisite aerophilatelic specimens and the history they radiate to new heights of understanding and appreciation.
Today, it is easy to lose sight of the important role airmail played in the formative years of the airline industry. Mail flew first in the period between the wars. An inaugural scheduled flight was almost always limited to just airmail. Passenger service followed on perhaps the next scheduled flight, if tickets could be sold. Domestic and foreign airmail contracts were essential sources of revenue for the fledgling industry. Exploratory survey flights occasionally carried small loads of mail as well.
Mail service continued with regular passenger service, but the mail carried on the very first scheduled flights, and other first-passenger or combined first-passenger and mail flights, was handled in a special manner. The envelopes, called covers, were adorned with unique features including elaborate art and commemorative rubber stamp imprints called cachets identifying the route and memorializing the date. The postage stamps, often specially issued by the country of origin, added more color and many covers were further enlivened by flight crew signatures. The post office time stamp and cancellation marks added to the all-over look of a “first flight cover.”
With multiple stops needed due to the limited range of the famous “Clipper” flying boats first used by Pan Am for long over-water routes, each segment of each route—outbound and inbound—could have its own variety of such enhancements for each piece of mail. The first trans-Pacific route, for example, had five stops at island bases between San Francisco and Hong Kong producing a multitude of flight covers for all the variations of mail drops along the line. Instantly collectible as prized keepsakes, these flight covers are tangible pieces of history from the pioneering days of air travel.
Documenting the dates and places for commercial aviation’s development point by point across oceans and continents, they speak to us of the days when the airplane emerged as a powerful new means of global communication between once distant lands.
By generously sharing his collection and insights Jon E. Krupnick has brought this fantastic history back to life for all to enjoy in Pan American’s Final Flight.