Around the World on an Envelope

Posted on Sat, December 17, 2016
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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 Mail Envelope with Stamps from 1949

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.

Three men and a woman in front of a Pan Am airplane

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.

Jimmy Doolittle Signs the 1949 Around the World Envelope while Lanphier watches

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.

  • Thomas Lanphier boards airplane

    December 2, 1949 – New York City – Colonel Thomas Lanphier (center) poses with Edward Heil, Post Office official (left), James H. "Jimmy" Doolittle" (right), and the air mail envelope before boarding a Pan American World Airways flight.  NASM-9A13804.  Reprint courtesy Air Force Association.

  • Three men in front of an airplane

    December 2, 1949 – Gander, Newfoundland – F.M. Sylvester, Jr. (right) signs the air mail envelope. James G. “Jimmy” Henriksen (left) served as the Pan Am pilot for the transatlantic portion of Tom Lanphier’s (center) flight around the world. Lanphier noted that Henrikson and the Gander tower practiced a ground controlled approach (GCA) that was still new in postwar commercial flight.  NASM-9A13805.  Reprint courtesy Air Force Association.

  • Lanphier and envelope in London

    December 3, 1949 – London, England – Colonel Thomas G. Lanphier, Jr. (center) presents his envelope to be signed by L. A. Gibbs (left, Pan American Airways).  NASM-9A13806.  Reprint courtesy Air Force Association.

  • Lanphier presents his passport in Belgium

    December 3, 1949 – Brussels, Belgium – Colonel Thomas G. Lanphier, Jr. (second from left) presents his passport to Belgian authorities. NASM-9A13807.  Reprint courtesy Air Force Association.

  • Lanphier with two Syrian Air Force Officers

    December 3, 1949 – Damascus, Syria – Colonel Thomas Lanphier (left) was forbidden from photographing anyone in native costume, but two Syrian Air Force officers climbed atop the field’s administration building to be photographed.  Although Lanphier also stopped in Basra, Iraq, on December 3, he was not allowed to take any photographs.  NASM-9A13808.  Reprint courtesy Air Force Association.

  • Lanphier with two men in Karachi

    December 4, 1949 – Karachi, India (now Pakistan) – Colonel Thomas G. Lanphier, Jr. (right) poses in front of airport sign at Karachi, India. The gatekeeper to the airport would not allow a photograph until he was allowed to be in it.  NASM-9A13809, Reprint courtesy Air Force Association.

  • Lanphier and two local officials, Delhi

    December 4, 1949 – Delhi, India - Colonel Thomas G. Lanphier, Jr. (right) poses seated at table at Delhi, India, with two local officials in uniform. He arrived at the airport at the same time as the sultan of Muscat, experiencing a 21-gun salute.  NASM-9A13810, Reprint courtesty of Air Force Association.

  • Lanphier and two local officials in Bangkok

    December 5, 1949 – Bangkok, Thailand - A Siamese Air Force Officer proudly presents Colonel Thomas G. Lanphier, Jr. (right) with an emblem of his service. Lanphier noted that the Bangkok airport terminal was not yet complete, but was second only to Brussels for modernity and facilities.  NASM-9A13811, Reprint courtesy Air Force Association

  • Thomas Lanphier in front of Chinese C-46

    December 5, 1949 – Hong Kong - Colonel Thomas G. Lanphier, Jr. (second from right) poses with a Pan American World Airways pilot (center). Arriving in the middle of the Chinese Civil War, Lanphier reported cynically that the red square painted on the Curtiss C-46 Commando could be altered at a moment’s notice to support either the Communists or the Nationalists.  NASM-9A13912, Reprint courtesty Air Force Association.

  • Lanphier gets his shoes shined in Tokyo

    December 6, 1949 – Tokyo, Japan – Colonel Thomas G. Lanphier, Jr. (right) has his shoes shined under a sign at the entrance to Doolittle Field (Hibiya Park). While in Japan, Lanphier met briefly with the widow of Admiral Yamamoto, noting that it was a courtesy, not an apology.  NASM-9A13913, Reprint courtesy Air Force Association.

  • Lanphier and a gooney bird at Midway

    December 5, 1969 (note that Lanphier has crossed the International Date Line) – Midway Island - Colonel Thomas G. Lanphier, Jr. (right) squats to look at a gooney bird (Laysan Albatross).  NASM-9A13814, Reprint courtesy Air Force Association.

  • Lanphier and Ed Johnson in Honolulu

    December 6, 1949 – Honolulu, Hawaii - Air Force Association (AFA) official Ed Johnson (right) welcomes Colonel Thomas G. Lanphier, Jr. (left, wearing lei).  NASM-9A13815, Reprint courtesy Air Force Association.

  • Lanphier returns to New York

    December 7, 1949 – New York City – Robert Johnson (lower left), President of the Air Force Association, and Cyrus Rowlett "C. R." Smith (upper left), CEO of American Airlines, welcome Colonel Thomas G. Lanphier, Jr. (center) at the conclusion of his flight. Edward Egan (right), former holder of the record for a commercial around the world passenger flight, congratulates Lanphier.  NASM-9A13816, Reprint courtesy Air Force Association.

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.

Learn more about what happened to the air mail envelope after it was donated to the Smithsonian!

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