Around the World on an Envelope – The 1949 Celebration of the 46th Anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ Flight
December 17 marks the date of the first flight of Orville and Wilbur Wright in 1903. As part of the 46th anniversary festivities in 1949, the Air Force Association (AFA) arranged for Colonel Thomas Lanphier to fly around the world on American commercial airlines, demonstrating the efficiency of American airlines and emphasizing the rapid growth of aviation technology in the years since the first flight at Kitty Hawk.
Lanphier was chairman of the AFA’s Air Age Development Committee and a World War II ace, credited at the time with shooting down Japanese Admiral Yamamoto, the commander-in-chief of the Combined Fleet and architect of the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. With him, he carried a large air mail envelope addressed by the president of the AFA in Washington, DC, to the president of the Kill Devil Hills Memorial Association, Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The unique envelope was designed with spaces to record the time and date of Lanphier’s arrival in each country along with an air mail stamp.
Air Force Association Wright Brothers 46th Anniversary Air Mail Envelope, carried by Colonel Thomas G. Lanphier, Jr. on the record-setting AFA Around the World Flight, December 2-7, 1949, made using commercial airlines as a round trip from Washington, D.C., in 4 days, 23 hours, 47 minutes. The envelope was first sent from the president of the AFA in Washington, D.C., to the president of the Kill Devil Hills Memorial Association, Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Following the world flight, the envelope was presented at a luncheon in Kitty Hawk on December 17, 1949, to the Curator, National Air Museum, and flown the same day back to Washington, D.C., for delivery to the Smithsonian Institution. The envelope carries international air mail stamps cancelled at each of its 21 stops, including a first day cancellation of four US Air Mail 6-cent Wright Brothers commemorative stamps. A group of 6 US Air Mail stamps affixed at top has been oversigned by James H. "Jimmy" Doolittle attesting to Lanphier’s round trip departure and arrival times from New York, NY.
Within the envelope were several documents, including a scroll from the AFA to the Kill Devil Hills Association and a first issue Wright brothers stamp. Also enclosed was a message from President Harry S. Truman:
The task which faces us today is no less challenging than the task which faced the Wright Brothers on that historic December day. It is for us to use that instrument they gave us as a force for peace; to make the peoples of the world spiritual neighbors as well as physical neighbors.
This is a responsibility which free men the world over owe each other. We Americans and many of our neighbors across the seas stand ready to do our part—to make the world’s airways paths of peace—to use our planes for travel, for pleasure, for commerce and for all the peaceful pursuits that make up our daily lives.
December 2, 1949 – Washington, DC – Colonel Thomas G. Lanphier boards an American Airlines plane to New York City as part of his around the world flight. (left to right) Robert Burgess, Deputy Assistant Postmaster General; S. L. Beers, associate curator, National Air Museum, Smithsonian Institution; Jo Brown, American Airlines flight attendant; and Lanphier. NASM-9A13802, Reprint courtesy Air Force Association.
Lanphier began his flight on December 2, 1949, at Washington National Airport on an American Airlines plane, but his trip officially began in New York City. There, Jimmy Doolittle certified Lanphier’s time of departure and Edward Heil, district superintendent of U.S. Air Mails, provided the first stamp.
Colonel Thomas G. Lanphier, Jr. (left) looks on as Major General James H. "Jimmy" Doolittle cancels stamps on the envelope at the start of the trip from New York, NY, December 2, 1949. NASM-9A13803, Reprint courtesy Air Force Association.
After departing from New York, Lanphier made stops in Gander, Newfoundland, Canada; London, England; Brussels, Belgium; Damascus, Syria; Basra, Iraq; Karachi, India; Delhi, India; Bangkok, Thailand; Hong Kong; Okinawa; Tokyo, Japan; Midway Island; Honolulu, Hawaii; San Francisco, California; and Chicago, Illinois, before finally returning to New York City.
Lanphier’s flight around the world took four days, 23 hours, and 50 minutes to complete. The air mail envelope’s travels continued. On December 17, the envelope and its contents were presented to Miles L. Clark, the president of the Kill Devil Hills Memorial Association, on the occasion of the 46th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ flight. Congressman Herbert Bonner read President Truman’s message contained within before a fly over by Air Force and Navy planes. The air mail envelope itself was then given to the Paul Garber of the National Air Museum, the precursor to The National Air and Space Museum, to become part of the Smithsonian Institution’s collections in Washington, DC.