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The first air freight transport took place in 1910 in Ohio

110 years of air freight – an uneven race and lots of silk

Most people would imagine that transporting goods from A to B by airplane is a relatively recent development from the latter half of the previous century. In fact, the age of air freight began many years earlier, and the first transport is now 110 years behind us. On November 7th, 1910, a plane of the famous aviation pioneers, the Wright brothers, took to the skies with a cargo of silk and clearly won a race against an express train in Ohio. This marked the first step of an unbelievable success story. Join us to take a look at the early days of air freight...

Two brothers and a flying Whopper

It is not so astonishing that the world’s first air transport was carried out with an aircraft built by the brilliant Wright brothers. After all, Wilbur and Orville Wright were considered true pioneers and the first ever pilots of a powered aircraft. Their “Wright Flyer I”, which they also called “The Whopper Flying Machine”, took to the air on December 17, 1903, for the first powered flight with a passenger. The modest but still world-changing accomplishment of the first flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina: 260 meters within a flight time of 59 seconds. 

After many more attempts, some tinkering with the engine and alterations to the wing design, the brothers were able to invest their experience in the design of the “Wright Model B”. This plane could be somewhat facetiously considered the first “air-freighter” in the world since it was soon used for that purpose.


An ingenious entrepreneur invents air freight

The idea to use aircraft for commercial purposes came from Max Morehouse, President of the Morehouse-Martens Company in Columbus, Ohio. The clever businessman recognized the potential of “goods transport” by airplane after he read about the successful flight by Glenn Curtiss, another aviation pioneer, from Sandusky to Cleveland. He then contacted Orville and Wilbur Wright to learn whether they could deliver a large cargo of silk from a wholesaler in Dayton to the business location in Columbus. It was agreed in a contract between the two companies that one airplane and one pilot would be provided for this unusual advertising stunt for a fee of 5,000 US dollars. To make the entire episode even more interesting, a race was set up between the aircraft and an express train traveling the same route. The event was guaranteed to draw widespread attention, and the advertising value was tremendous.


“Smooth as silk” in the race against a train

The ten bolts of finest silk to be transported were divided into two packages: one contained a single large bolt of dark pink silk, while the other nine bolts were of various colors. In total, the delivery weighed just over 90 kilograms. The memorable first finally took place on November 7th, 1910: A “Wright Model B” aircraft piloted by Philip Orin Parmalee easily conveyed the textiles from Dayton to Columbus to the cheers of many onlookers. Parmalee completed the 105-kilometer flight in just 57 minutes, which was also a new aeronautical world record. The competing express train was clearly put in its place, and it was demonstrated early on that air freight would now be the fastest mode of transport, ushering in a new era in which a customer was able to order a “cargo only” flight and count on fast and direct delivery. Incidentally, this first transport flight was intermodal since the cargo was brought to the starting airport and from the destination airfield to the final recipient by car. 

Philip Orin Parmelee (1887 – 1912) was an American aviation pioneer and had the nickname “Skyman” attributed to him

The logical next step: airmail!

Although the first successful cargo flight had all the features of a “proper air transport,” technical hurdles naturally meant that it took some time longer before meaningful quantities of goods could be transported over significantly long distances. Airplanes had simply not developed far enough yet, and there was still enormous optimization potential for the engine, navigation and tail unit technology. But the early “rattletraps” were more than sufficient for airmail. No wonder, then, that the first airmail transports took place already in 1911 in British India and Great Britain.

The first official “airmail” was transported on February 18th, 1911, from Allahabad to Naini (province of Uttar Pradesh). As part of a flight demonstration, a certain Henri Pequet brought 6,500 letters to the destination 13 kilometers distant. This accomplishment sufficiently impressed the public that the first planned airmail service was introduced back in Great Britain. As part of the coronation celebrations for King George V, a one-month special airmail service was instituted, which carried the many letters of congratulation by aircraft over the 34 kilometers from London to Windsor. The British airmail experiment was halted after just 16 flights due to constant and severe delays resulting from poor weather. These early aircraft were simply not built to contend with British weather.


Continuous growth and a booster

Undaunted by the British climate, aviation (and by extension air freight as well) continued to advance steadily, and increasingly reliable aircraft transported a combination of passengers and cargo, a situation that is still typical today. With improved technology and many new developments, aircraft now dared to go still further by crossing the oceans. In 1919, for example, the first scheduled flight made its way over the English Channel from London to Paris, carrying one passenger, leather for a shoemaker and a wood grouse for a restaurant. From today’s perspective, quite an unusual collection.

The horrors of the World War II led in some ways to tremendous progress in drive technology as the first capable jet engines entered into mass production. At many battlefields, aircraft also played an important role in the rapid movement of troops, weapons and supplies, which subsequently revealed unimagined potential for the private sector.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) was founded already in 1945, and the first pure freight airlines were established in the same period, although it was still common at the time for aircraft to carry a combination of cargo and passengers. In 1968, Boeing brought its 747 – the “Jumbo Jet” – onto the market. This was the first airplane wide enough to transport entire pallets in the cargo space. 


Express packages and an e-commerce boom with a dark side

Not until the 1990s did the idea of aircraft dedicated to freight transport take off again thanks to the growth of globally operating express parcel services. This was also the time when the internet was finding its way into the living rooms of average people. It quickly became clear that the “World Wide Web” was an excellent place to do business and sell consumer goods. The internet had in fact opened up a global market, and the advent of the e-commerce boom is responsible for giving an immense boost to the air freight industry. Today we see online retailers competing for the fastest shipping; goods must be continuously in stock and be delivered to buyers at lightning speeds.

This might mean an improved consumer experience, but at the same time it is not very sustainable from an emissions perspective. New developments are currently under way here that could represent a technological revolution: a CO2-neutral passenger aircraft with hydrogen drive! Airbus recently announced a concrete and very promising project, which is expected to make its first flight in 2035. One thing is quite clear: air freight will continue to be of immense importance within international supply chains and will remain the first choice whenever goods must be transported quickly and reliably. If this could be accomplished without net CO2 emissions, it would be pretty much be the perfect mode of transportation.

A picture of the first commercial transport flight using a Wright Model B

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