Aviation history : The Catapult Mail


During the late 1920s, the need for greater speed across Atlantic was recognized in the carriage of mail between Europe and the Americas. Among the ideas developed by commercial enterprises from the military advances was something that came to be called catapult mail. It is an interesting story of man bringing together the knowledge learned from sailing the sea and flying in the air for the benefit of man's needs, as mail could be carried in the last leg by an airplane launched from a ship while still at sea. The idea was to cut a day or two off the ship’s mail delivery time by launching a mail-filled aircraft off the deck part way into the sea journey.


Mail carried from the SS Homeric on nearing New York, initialled by pilot Alan John Cobham.

One of the early experiments was done by the English with a shore-to-ship formula. On 25 November 1926, aviation pioneer Alan John Cobham had attempted a floatplane flight in a de Havilland DH.60 Moth carrying mail after being lowered from the deck of the RMS Homeric, when the ship was about 12 hours from New York harbour on a westbound crossing from Southampton; his flight was unsuccessful due to rough water.


In the USA, the United States Post Office conducted experiments with aircraft flying mail to ships at sea in order to speed up delivery. The first ship to install a flying mail service was the SS Leviathan in 1927; a special deck was installed diagonally across the bow of the ship and extended over the sea. In a Fokker biplane, pilot Clarence D. Chamberlin, the second pioneer to cross the Atlantic on 4 June 1927, flew the maiden voyage on 31 July 1927.


Later, US Navy Lieutenant Clarence H. Schildhauer, in his flying boat PN-10, attempted to drop mail onto the USS Leviathan deck on 20 August 1927, 500 miles off New York on its eastward voyage; he could not locate the ship, making the flight unsuccessful. The aircraft returned to New York. The postal authorities had time to stamp each item with: “AIR MAIL FLIGHT FAILED TO / SS LEVIATHAN” (on 2 lines). Schildhauer made no further attempts to drop mail to the ship.


The shore-to-ship formula, which was much too risky and difficult to master, was discontinued. All efforts went into the ship-to-shore technique to cut transit time, which was perfected by the French in 1927-1928. In the late 1920s, experiments were undertaken from the deck of big passenger ships; by mounting a catapult to the deck, the liner could launch a flying boat. The plane was placed on a trolley, itself placed on a ramp protruding the back of the steamer. The catapulting was done by compressed air and powder that propelled the aircraft at 110 km/h. The combination of the ship and plane was first tested at the Chantiers Aéro-Maritimes de la Seine with specially modified CAMS 37/10s flying boats for the launch; the French luxury transatlantic liner SS Île de France of the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique was equipped to evaluate the feasibility of catapult-launched planes. The CAMS 37 was considered an interim plane while the aircraft company Lioré et Olivier constructed their LeO H-198, a variant of the company’s H-190 specifically designed to be catapulted launched from a ship.


This new system was inaugurated on 13 August 1928, when the Île-de-France liner, carrying a Lioré et Olivier H-198 seaplane, left Le Havre. At 450 miles from the US coast, the seaplane, piloted by Lieutenant Louis Demougeot and registered F-AJHR, was launched via a catapult from the steamship at 14:00 and landed in New York at 17:12 before joining the docks for inspection. This first postal liaison was a success and allowed the mail to be delivered approximately 24 hours ahead of a conventional routing. The seaplane carried mail in three bags with 1700 airmail covers, franked with a surtax of 10 Fr. At that time, cutting a day off a journey of a week or more was considered a significant improvement in service. Even though the Île de France could not claim to be the fastest vessel in the world, she briefly pioneered the quickest mail system between Europe and the United States.


French stamps after overprint

As a result of the operation, the French Postal Agent On-Board, Jules Cohen, feared that the stock of tax label would not be sufficient to ensure franking for the return flight to Le Havre. He convinced the French Consul General in New York that the shortage would cause an important financial prejudice for the postal authorities and persuaded him to overprint locally 3,000 90c-Berthelot stamps and 1,000 1.50Fr-Pasteur stamps with 10Fr, for the return leg. The overprint was done by Emile Cabella, a New York printer. In fact, Jules Cohen had planned this overprint by creating the scarcity of 10Fr stamps during the outward voyage and had purchased Berthelot and Pasteur sheets to be overprinted once in New York.

Cohen managed to get word to dealers and collectors in France that he would be bringing two new stamps back to France with him. During the return voyage, he sold only 1,135 surcharged Berthelot and 250 surcharged Pasteur stamps. When he reached Le Havre on 23 August, Cohen sold 2,150 surcharged stamps for 35fr each, presumably pocketing the amount over the stamps’ face value. The postal authorities at Le Havre seized the rest. By that evening, the stamps were going for 100fr each; a few days later, the price had increased to 1,000fr. Today, the catalog values for both of them are in the thousands of dollars with unused stamps commanding a higher price than used ones. Not surprisingly, forgeries of the 10fr overprint exist, as well as forged covers.


Registered cover – Catapult-launched mail by the Île de France. The stamps paid the rate for an international letter, plus the 10fr surcharge for catapult service.


Approximately one month after the inaugural airmail flight to New York, during the crossing New York-Le Havre of the Île-de-France liner, Major Blancart authorized the catapult of the Lioré Olivier seaplane piloted by Demougeot and Co-Pilot Montrouseau (Captain, Engineer Officer of 1st class, radio). Off the south of England, the plane flew to Le Havre in the morning of 13 September 1928. The plane was expected to arrive at Cherbourg in the afternoon. A magneto failure forced the seaplane to sediment and could not take off because of an agitated sea. Lieutenant Demougeot and its crew were not found; the many researches were unsuccessful, reinforcing the concern of all. On 14 September, it was with relief that one learned the towing of the aircraft, broken at 28 miles southwest of Bishop Rock.


Even though the Île-de-France was not the fastest vessel in the world, it briefly pioneered the quickest mail system between Europe and the United States. After the initial successful service, expansion was quickly undertaken; a dozen H-198s were ordered and built in anticipation of continued mail service and expansion. But the Île-de-France ceased such operations about two years later due to the high costs of the project and the quickly expanding capabilities of aircraft to fly across the Atlantic. Also, the strength of the catapulting fatigues the structure of the steamer. The last flight eastbound to Le Havre took place on 2 September 1930 and the catapult service was disbanded in October 1930.


First catapult from the Bremen

Hand stamp 22 July 1929.

The idea of catapult mail was not fully developed by the French and it was the German, who understood the possibilities in using catapult mail on a regular service to speed up trans-Atlantic mail service to America. In 1927, the German Reich Transport Ministry entered into agreements with the German Norddeutscher-Lloyd shipping company and the Reichspost; a catapult mechanism was installed on the new liner Bremen, from which a seaplane could be launched when the ship approached its destination. Mail was typically carried by airplane only on the final leg of each journey. The first German catapult flight was made on 22 July 1929 during Bremen’s maiden voyage, when a Heinkel He12 (registered D-1717; a derivative of the military HE 9 design) seaplane, flown by 27-year-old Lufthansa pilot Baron Jobst von Studnitz, was launched while the ship was some 250 miles out of New York, and arrived in New York some 2½ hours later. This reduced the transit time by 36 hours. Mail carried on the flight was stamped with a serial number, with a total of 10,997 pieces carried; a few covers are known without a serial number. The next day, in front of a crowd of 3,500 people, Mayor Jimmy Walker christened the HE 12 with the name of the city.


Cover catapulted by the Heinkel D-1717 on 2 August 1929 during the return leg of the Bremen.

The return leg of the Bremen was scheduled in late-July 1929 and the Heinkel He12 “New York” was catapulted near Cherbourg on 2 August 1929 and flew 4.5 hours 940 km up to Bremerhaven, where the 18,000-letter express mail cargo was reloaded in a waiting Lufthansa aircraft and reached in the afternoon Berlin, 5½ days after the ship had left New York. All mail was stamped with a sequential number. 


In 1930, a catapult was fitted to a second ship, Europa, which used a Heinkel He58 aircraft (registered D-1919 Atlantik, a slightly larger aircraft with side-by-side seats and bigger payload). Both Heinkel seaplanes were replaced by Junckers Ju46 aircraft, the Europa receiving the new Junkers Ju46 aircraft as early as 1932, the Bremen followed in 1933.


In 1933, a catapult airmail service was also instituted for liners on the Germany-South America routes. Mail on the South Atlantic routes was carried by airplane on both ends of the routes, with the ship carriage only in between Las Palmas, capital of Gran Canaria in the Canary Islands, and Fernando de Norontha, an archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean part of the State of Pernambuco, Brazil.


Over the years, several different flight cachets were used on the catapult mail. Flights were only made during the summer; in the winter, bad weather made launches too dangerous. German catapult service on the Bremen and Europa was not resumed at the beginning of the 1936 season, as the airship LZ 129 Hindenburg (Luftschiff Zeppelin #129) had begun a regular transatlantic passenger and mail service since March of that year. However, supplementary flights from Köln to Cherbourg, with the mail being loaded onto Bremen and Europa at that location, continued until 1939, without the final leg being by catapult; however as during the catapult era, mail transported in this manner carries a supplementary flight cachet.


With the advance of aviation, transatlantic flights made the catapult mail system unnecessary, but for a period of time it was a successful application of innovation in delivering the mail.


Paraguay first day cover commemorating the 100th anniversary of Sir Rowland Hill’s death, with the souvenir sheet reproducing the two stamps from France (overprinted with the ICAO logo). Issued on 24 August 1979.

More information on this issue can be obtained by clicking on the following link:

Paraguay – 100th Anniversary of Rowland Hill Death.


Mail carried on 13 August 1928 by the first postal liaison between La Havre, France and New York. Day of Issue octagonal date stamp on flown catapult cover franked with a surtax of 10Fr (2 x 5Fr), imposed by the decree of 29 July 1928 for airmail.


Private hand-stamp commemorating the catapult aircraft piloted on the return leg by Lieutenant Demougeot: PREMIÈRE LIAISON POSTALE AERIÉNNE / TRANSATLANTIQUE / PAR HYDRAVION LANCÉ PAR CATAPULTE DE « L'ÎLE DE FRANCE » / PILOTE: LIEUTENANT DE VAISSEAU L. DEMOUGEOT.


Île-de-France First Flight Airmail Cover from New York, USA to Paris, France.

Postmarked on 15 August 1928.


Cover rescued from the crash of the seaplane during the return leg of the Île-de-France.


Cover carried on 22 July 1929 by the first catapult flight from the Bremen liner.

It bears the on-board red Norddeutscher Lloyd cachet, the black first-flight cachet and the red “Bremen 5 Post Office Cachet”.


Cover carried on 22 July 1929 by the first catapult flight from the Bremen liner.

Special stationery from the Norddeutscher Lloyd shipping company.


Catapult mail sent from the Bremen, on its return leg to Europe on 2 August 1929.


Catapult mail sent from the Bremen, on its return leg to Europe on 2 August 1929,

with “Deutsch-Americanische Seepost” cancels on 15.7.29, 27.7.29 and 1.8.29.

Franked with the 2-cent stamp related to the International Civil Aeronautics Conference.