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"First Air Mail to Arrive in New York from the East": Close But No Cigar

The cover shown in Figures 1 and 2 caught my attention when it was offered at auction in July 2023. I had heard of the recipient Edward Worden, of course - a renowned chemist who was a pioneer in first day cover collecting and amassed one of the most valuable stamp collections in the pre-World War II era. Sir Alan Cobham was a mystery to me, however, as was the RSM Homeric, but the cover's banner - "First Air Mail to Arrive in New York from the East" - intrigued me. I entered a bid, won the cover, and proceeded to research the story of this "first flight cover." What a story it turned out to be.

Figure 1 - Front of cover initialed "AJC" for Alan John Cobham. Franked with 1-1/2 pence Great Britain Scott 189 that is tied to cover with Homeric handstamp and dated "25 NOV 26." That met the Great Britain letter rate as of 1926. Also franked with U.S. Scott 583 for the U.S. 1st class letter rate. That stamp has a duplex handstamp with a New York Central Post Office November 25, 1926, 1:30 p.m. postmark. Source: Author's collection.

Figure 2 - Back of cover with White Star Line logo and Milburn, New Jersey receiving circular date stamp dated November 26, 1926. Source: Author's collection.

From the cover's corner message, it was clear this first flight was not a transatlantic journey. Crossing the Atlantic Ocean by airplane was still a dream in late 1926. This was more of a demonstration flight, but it was an ambitious one as reported in The Manchester Evening News of November 13, 1926:

Sir Alan Cobham intends to carry out an interesting experiment when he leaves for America on board the Homeric on Wednesday.

He will take with him a little Moth airplane which has been purchased in the United States.

As the liner approaches New York, Sir Alan will lower the plane loaded with mail bags into the sea and will fly with them to the city.

"I have long thought that by air co-operation of this sort, the carrying of mails could be speeded up," said Sir Alan today.

Sir Alan John Cobham (Figure 3) was an English aviation pioneer. He started his flying career in the Royal Air Force towards the end of World War I. After the war, he became a test pilot for the de Havilland aircraft company and became famous for his long flights (measured by both distance and elapsed time): a 5,000-mile, three-week air tour of Europe in 1921; a 17,000-mile London to Cape Town roundtrip between November 1925 and March 1926; and a 26,000-mile London to Australia roundtrip between July and September 1926. He completed the last trip despite the fact that his engineer was shot and killed while the plane was flying low over Iraq on the outbound flight. He was knighted after returning from his trip to Australia. Clearly, he was a skilled pilot and well suited to try an experiment of the sort reported by The Manchester Evening News.

Figure 3 - Sir Alan John Cobham (1894-1973), by Frank Salisbury in New York, 1926. Salisbury approached Sir Alan on the Homeric about doing his portrait. Source: National Portrait Gallery, London.

The ship on which Sir Alan was sailing, RMS Homeric (Figure 4), was built in 1913 for a German shipping company and was ceded to Great Britain in 1919 as part of German war reparations. It was subsequently sold to the White Star Line (that's its flag logo on the back of the cover shown in Figure 2) and sailed across the Atlantic until 1927. After that, it sailed on cruises in the Mediterranean and Caribbean until it was scraped in 1936.

Figure 4 - RMS Homeric Circa Mid 1920s. Source: Wikipedia.

The plane he intended to use for the experiment was a de Havilland 60 Moth - D.H. 60 Moth or just Moth for short. The Moth was a light aircraft that was the most common civilian aircraft in Great Britain at the time. More than 1,500 were built, and about 50 remain in flying condition today, primarily in Great Britain and Australia.

The Moth was to be shipped on the Homeric to its buyer in the U.S., Kenneth Betts Walton. Walton, who was born in Philadelphia in 1901, was certified on the D.H. 60 Moth at the de Havilland School in Edgware, England in July 1926. He likely met Sir Alan there and that is probably when he purchased the plane. I'm sure Walton had no objection to Sir Alan taking the Moth for a spin before delivery. Sir Alan even tested it before it was stored onboard the Homeric as shown in Figure 5.

Figure 5 - Caption of top photo: "Sir Alan Cobham's Moth seaplane in flight over the Medway at Rochester yesterday during his test of the machine, which he intends to take across the Atlantic on the White Star liner Homeric. He is to fly into New York Harbour in it." Caption of bottom photo: "Sir Alan and Lady Cobham in the seaplane at the start of the trial flight, which was the first since the machine was fitted with floats. Another experimental flight will be made from the Homeric when the liner approaches New York." Source: Daily Mirror, November 16, 1926.

Sir Alan's experimental flight was big news in Great Britain. In fact, his name was in the newspapers almost daily in October and November of 1926. He had just returned from his epic flight to Australia, and after being knighted, he went on a speaking tour throughout the country. On top of that, the individual who shot his engineer in Baghdad was found guilty of manslaughter and that news was widely covered by the papers as well.

It was no surprise, then, that Sir Alan's journey on the Homeric was closely reported. After he was received by the Prince of Wales at St. James Palace the morning of November 17, he traveled to Southhampton to board the Homeric. Before his departure he said, "In my travels a propeller has always pulled me through, but now one is going to push me through the water" (i). He laughed he had travelled over a half a million miles by air but this was his first long sea voyage. He explained, "For a long time, I have been very interested in the possibilities of speeding up special mails by sending them ahead by aeroplanes as the mail-ships near their ports. My flight into New York Harbor will be in the nature of an experiment" (ii).

The amount of time by which mail could be sped up by Sir Alan's idea was not trivial. Liners had to pause at a quarantine point outside of New York for an inspection that could take several hours. The delay was such that beginning in 1922, the U.S. Post Office Department experimented with sending a boat to pick up mail bags from liners at quarantine, and they found they could shave 5 to 12 hours off delivery time. Perhaps a plane carrying mail from a liner could buy even more time savings.

Figure 6 - Caption reads: "Photo shows Sir Alan and Lady Cobham with the Mayor of Southampton (on left) by the aeroplane stowed on the liner's deck. Photo taken aboard the White Star liner Homeric." Source: Evening Telegraph and Post, Dundee, November 18, 1926.

The Homeric arrived at the quarantine point in Lower New York Bay about dozen miles from Battery Park in lower Manhattan on November 25, Thanksgiving Day. After the plane was assembled and lowered into the water (Figure 7), Sir Alan intended to head up the Hudson River, cross the city in the vicinity of Columbia University and fly down the East River before landing off the southern tip of Manhattan at the Battery. But things did not go as planned.

Figure 7 - Sir Alan and the Moth Being Lowered from the Homeric. Note the folded wings on the Moth, which made the Moth easy to store. Source: Sir Alan Cobham: The Flying Legend Who Brought Aviation to the Masses, Colin Cruddas, 2018.

The reports vary, but after Sir Alan and Lady Cobham boarded the plane and were lowered over the side of the ship, they ran into one or more problems. One report said there was a considerable swell that had not been perceptible from the deck. The plane's floats were small, and Sir Alan was unable to generate enough lift to overcome the swell. Another report added that no arrangement had been made to remove the mechanic from the plane who was to crank or start the engine and that added a delay by which time the swells had increased. The New York Times of November 26, 1926, also said a towline fouled the tail of the plane and nearly capsized it, adding yet another costly delay.

Whatever the reason, the plane did not takeoff and Sir Alan, Lady Cobham and the Moth were unceremoniously towed to the Battery (Figure 8). Greeting them there was the chairman of the Aeronautical Chamber of Commerce L.D. Gardner and Kenneth Betts Walton. On arriving. Sir Alan said, "It's too bad, too bad. Sorry, old man, I wasn't able to get her tail out if the water. There was heavy groundswell, and every time I tried to lift her tail, she stuck her nose into a swell and the spray went over us." Lady Cobham reportedly commented that her experience "had been novel and enjoyable."

Figure 8 - Sir Alan's Plane Being Towed from the Homeric in the New York Harbor. Source: Original news photo.

There was a short period of time after the Homeric had docked in New York and there was no sign of the Moth, that worries arose about Sir Alan and his wife's well-being. The "fastest rum-chaser [this was during Prohibition] steaked out down the bay to find out what was the matter" and found the two of them safely on the tugboat with the Moth in tow.

Sir Alan was not done with the Moth, however. On December 2, Lady Cobham and he departed from New York for Washington, DC via Philadelphia where they had lunch with Kenneth Betts Walton. After arriving in Washington, DC, Sir Alan met with President Calvin Coolidge before addressing the National Geographic Society.

On his flight from New York to Washington, DC, he carried two bags of mail: one from New York and the other from Philadelphia. "Both were addressed to Dr. Edward C. Worden of the Air Service, in the Munitions Building," according to the December 3, 1926, Evening Star. Figures 9 and 11 show the covers postmarked December 2 in New York and December 3 in Philadelphia, respectively, both initialed by Sir Alan and addressed to Worden. Figures 10 and 12 show the backs of those covers that were franked again and postmarked in Washington, DC on December 3. My impression is that those covers were withdrawn from the General Post Office (see the purple stamp over the cachet in Figure 9) and flown over Washington, DC by Sir Alan before being finally delivered to Worden. Like the Homeric covers, these were serially numbered -- number 448 for New York and number 449 for Philadelphia. I don't know how many of these covers were carried, but a guess of 500 each seems likely.

Figure 9 - Cover flown from New York to Washington, DC by Sir Alan December 2-3, 1926. Franked with a pair of Scott 343 or 383 depending on the watermark. Source: Author's collection.

Figure 10 - Back of Figure 9 cover franked with Scott 612 and postmarked Washington, DC December 3, 1926. Source: Author's collection.

Figure 11 - Cover flown from Philadelphia to Washington, DC by Sir Alan December 3, 1926. Stamped envelope is Scott U522. Source: Author's collection.

Figure 12 - Back of Figure 11 cover franked with a single from souvenir sheet Scott 630 and postmarked Washington, DC December 3, 1926. Source: Author's collection.

On December 4, Sir Alan and Lady Cobham flew the Moth north to Bristol, Pennsylvania where they left it at Huff Daland Airport for Walton. They then proceeded to New York City by train where Sir Alan would meet Charles Lindbergh for the first time. They would meet again in Paris on May 27, 1927, when Sir Alan flew there to congratulate Lindbergh on his solo flight across the Atlantic May 20-21. It was also during this time in New York that Sir Alan managed to squeeze in a series of sittings to allow Frank Salisbury to paint the portrait of him shown in Figure 3.

Following his stay in New York City, Sir Alan embarked on a speaking tour that took him to Detroit, Chicago and into Canada. All in all, Sir Alan's trip to the U.S. was a success, although many passengers on the Homeric reportedly "voiced indignation" that they had missed their trains and Thanksgiving dinner due to the ship's delay in docking to enable Sir Alan to make his attempt.

On March 11, 1927, Sir Alan sailed back to England, where he remained active in aviation. (Lady Cobham, who was pregnant during the U.S. trip, returned to England earlier and gave birth to the couple's second son on February 22.) Aside from his record-setting flights, he is best known for developing systems for refueling aircraft in flight, a topic he turned his attention to in 1936. He spent 15 years perfecting his refueling technique, which resulted in the probe-and-drogue system for refueling that remains in use to this day. Sir Alan died in 1973 at age 79.

Lady Cobham passed away in 1961 at age 64. She was remembered for her work with refugee children as well as being the first woman to fly across the Equator in a plane when she accompanied her husband on a 20,000-mile flying-boat trip around Africa in 1928.

I have not been able to ascertain how and when Edward Worden and Sir Alan connected to have the covers flown onboard the Moth from the Homeric, but it must have happened sometime after October 1, 1926, which is when Sir Alan returned to England from his journey to Australia. According to his biographer Colin Cruddas, that was when Sir Alan was offered a speaking tour of the U.S., to which his wife was also invited. That sparked the idea that he could deliver the DH 60 Moth to its U.S. customer and fly a small amount of mail from the Homeric, thus "justifying a claim to be the first delivered by air from Europe to the USA" (iii).

I suspect that Worden knew of Sir Alan, given that Worden was chief of the airplane wing-coating section of the Bureau of Aeronautics during World War I. Between his background in aviation and his interest in stamp collecting, it's no surprise that Worden would seek out Sir Alan or vice-versa.

There was some controversy in the late 1920s about the Homeric covers. Those contentions were laid to rest by an article titled "The Cobham Homeric Covers" that appeared in the January 1928 issue of The Stamp Collector's Magazine. The article was authored by Arthur Barger, a Boston stamp dealer.

There were two points of contention. First, the covers were being sold as having been " the full acceptance of the word." Barger noted with indignation that the covers were never marketed as such. "Nevertheless," he continued, the covers are "of great interest and historical significance from an aero-philatelic point of view to airmail collectors, as being the first serious attempt to transport mails from a steamer at sea to New York City."

The second contention was whether the covers were carried by Sir Alan on the Moth at all. Some speculated that the covers arrived through regular channels with other mail carried by the Homeric. To refute that argument, Bargar noted that the Worden covers were postmarked at 1:30 p.m. in New York, while other mail from the Homeric arrived after 2:00 p.m. that day. Clearly, the Worden covers arrived separately and earlier than other mail on the Homeric.

Bargar closed his rebuttal to this second contention by reprinting a letter from Sir Alan to Dr. Worden dated November 25, 1926

Dear Sir:--

Referring to your inquiry, I state that the only mail brought on the D.H. Moth seaplane from the steamship Homeric to New York City this day, were the serially numbered envelopes brough by me addressed to you, which, as you note, each have the cancellation of the Homeric and the date 25 Nov. '26 on the three ha'penny stamp tied to cover, and were dated this day and initialed individually by me in the lower left hand corner of the front of the cover.

Alan J. Cobham

Bargar closed his article by stating, "We have conclusive proof at our office that the Cobham Homeric covers are legitimate in every way, which proof is open to inspection at any time by anyone."

Worden himself may have contributed to the confusion about the Homeric covers. He authored a short piece in the January 1927 issue of The American Philatelist titled, "First Airmail to Arrive in New York from the East." Worden first describes how Sir Alan was feted upon his arrival in New York, which included a testimonial dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on November 29 that was attended by then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover representing the U.S. Government. He continued, "In his flight from the Homeric to New York City, when his plane was lowered from the deck of the Homeric, a line fouled its tail, so that he was unable to better the time of mail delivery in his initial attempt... He brought with him, however, a few covers of exceptional historical significance from an aeronautical point of view, in that it is the first successful attempt to transport first class mail from a liner to New York City." No where does he explicitly state that the plane never took off. The covers may have arrived on a plane from a liner at sea, but except for the brief time when the Moth was lowered from the Homeric, the covers were never airborne.

I have not been able to ascertain how many serially numbered envelopes Sir Alan carried from the Homeric. Worden says the Sir Alan carried "a few covers," but he never specifies how many. The cover in Figure 1 is numbered 183, and I have seen one numbered 333. Perhaps he carried 500 covers?

And what became of the celebrated Moth? Walton applied to register his Moth on October 1, 1926, and he obtained his registration certificate January 31, 1927. He then sold the Moth to a J.H. Holley of Winnipeg, Alberta, Canada on September 29, 1927. Less than two years later, on March 6, 1929, it was destroyed in a fire that fortunately both the pilot and passenger survived.

Sir Alan's attempt was admirable but unsuccessful. It was, however, as Worden wrote in The American Philatelist, a "precursor of other attempts leading up to the cutting off by a number of hours the delivery of first-class foreign mail in this country."

(i) The Scotsman, November 18, 1926, p. 8.

(ii) The Leeds Mercury, November 18, 1926, p. 6.

(iii) Sir Alan Cobham: The Flying Legend Who Brought Aviation to the Masses, Colin Cruddas, Frontline Books, 2018, p. 115.

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