Join Senior Archivist Gavin as he investigates the first attempts to deliver mail by helicopter. Did the service take off?
70 years ago the General Post Office was at the cutting edge of helicopter development.
The first trials in the West Country
At the start of 1948 (only months after the first aerial demonstration by British European Airways), BEA started dummy mail-run services in Dorset and Somerset. The Sikosrsky S-51s travelled a 115-mile route in just under two hours including stops. These trials achieved timekeeping within the five minute tolerance demanded by the GPO.
First public services in East Anglia
The story then moves to the east of England. The success of the dummy mail-runs led to BEA inaugurating the first helicopter-operated public mail service in the UK. On 1 June 1948 Captain John Theilmann with a Royal Mail pennant flew a S-51 from Peterborough to King’s Lynn, Wells, Sheringham, Cromer, Norwich, Thetford, Diss, Harleston, Great Yarmouth, Lowestoft, Beccles, Norwich again, and East Dereham before returning to Peterborough. 140lb of mail was transported.
These flights clearly prompted interest along the route. In a report from 15 June the pilot requests: ‘Policemen or some such other authority required to exercise some control over the overconfident casualness of increasing hordes of children at Norwich’.
Flights continued until 25 September 1948 by which time 38,046 lb of mail had been carried and 95% of the flights rostered had been completed.
‘Fagged out’ pilots
A letter from Midland Region Assistant Postal Controller, W K Mackenzie gives a flavour of what a flight was like: ‘Probably the most important point about the run was the effect on the pilot. We have, of course, heard that helicopters are unstable and not easy to fly..On arrival back at Peterborough he was very nearly, if not completely, fagged out.’
Experimental night services
On 17 October 1949 the night helicopter service first carried real mail between Peterborough and Norwich, continuing until 15 March 1950. Dr G S Hislop writing in Flight in January 1953 commented: ‘It really was a night operation, as anyone who know East Anglia will appreciate. There are precious few ground lights about in that area in the small hours of the morning’. These flights were the first time in the world when a helicopter was approved for instrument flight. The challenge of flying at night reduced punctuality – a problem given that night was the main time for moving mail.
Why didn’t this service take off?
By 1954, GPO Chief Inspector Mr L J Taylor reported looking back at the experiment: ‘trails were necessarily limited in several directions, e.g. the maximum weight lift was 700lbs, and the machines could not operate with a cloud base of less than 500 feet…the most that could be said was at the then existing stage of development helicopters could not be regarded as an economically attractive proposition for the carriage of mail’.
I’ve been fascinated by whirlybirds since enjoying the action-packed Australian TV Series ‘Chopper Squad’ as a child. Although purely postal helicopters didn’t continue beyond 1950 we can now imagine a future of parcel delivery by drone.
– Gavin McGuffie, Senior Archivist
From The Royal Mail Archive:
POST 13/3: Press release by British European Airways and the GPO on an experimental helicopter mail service in East Anglia, including route diagrams.
POST 122/909, Helicopter: experimental scheme in East Anglia, 1 June/25 September 1948 daylight services.
POST 122/14515, Helicopter Mail Services. Review of progress to date.
History of British European Airways by Charles Woodley.
BEA’s Helicopter Unit by Dr G S Hislop,el Flight (23 January 1953).