Ocean Liner Catapult Mail Service


Though civilians built the first airplanes and private, courageous individuals became pioneer pilots who offered modifications and improvements, it was the military that pushed the envelope forward in early aviation. Among the ideas developed by commercial enterprise from the military advances was something that came to be called "catapult mail". It did not last long as the ever evolving technology of aviation soon passed it by. Nevertheless, it is an interesting story of man's bringing together the knowledge learned from sailing the sea and flying in the air for the benefit of man's needs.

It began with the inventions of the Wright, Farman, Short, and Caudron brothers, Glenn Curtiss and many others working individually but still sharing within a community of aviation enthusiasts. The military was slow to get on board the new technology but when they did, things really began to move forward.

Airplanes, ships and water first came together in 1910.

The first manned and controlled (though unpowered) seaplane flight was established by French aircraft designer, builder and pilot Gabriel Voisin in June 1905, on the river Seine (Paris); it was a towed flight, at 15 to 20 m altitude (50 to 66 ft), and 600 meters (2000 ft) long. The aircraft was a biplane configuration with an aft tail and a front elevator, supported at rest by 2 planing floats (catamaran).

On March 28, 1910 a Frenchman by the name of Henri Fabre made the first powered takeoff from water at La Mëde harbor, near Marseilles. Fabre called his seaplane a Hydravion and named it Le Canard (duck). It looked extremely fragile, and when Fabre made this flight it was the first time he had ever piloted an aircraft. The actual flight covered about a mile and a half at just a few feet above the water. Fabre was unable to land on its surface. Fabre flew a canard machine in which the main planes were fitted to the rear of the body frame and had the engine mounted in what would be considered the center section. The pilot straddled the upper main body member, and sat facing the tangle of control surfaces. The floats were made of thin veneer and were formed into a hollow construction that was curved fore and aft like wings. They not only provided the lift from the water but also assisted in supporting the aircraft in the air. Fabre could take off from the water with these frail floats, but he had to land on a sandy beach or a meadow.

Henri Fabre in Marseilles, March 28, 1910

In that same year, American Eugene Ely, an employee of Glenn Curtiss, made the first flight from a U.S. Navy ship, the U.S.S. Birmingham, fying off a platform built on the bow of the cruiser at Hampton Roads, Va.


A painting of Ely's take off

Ely went the other way in 1911 on a different ship of the U.S. Navy and on the other side of the United States

Eugene Ely landing aboard the U.S.S. Pennsylvania in San Francisco Bay, January 18, 1911

Painting of Ely's landing by Stan Stokes, lithographs available at AviatorArt.com

The first U. S. float-plane flight was made by Glenn H. Curtiss aboard a Curtiss hydro-airplane at San Diego on January 26, 1911.

Glenn Curtiss' "hydroplane" being hoisted aboard U.S.S. Pennsylvana in San Diego in 1911

In February 1911, Curtiss had introduced the Triad seaplane, which had both wheels and floats. It was the world's first successful amphibian and became the prototype of later, larger craft. The Triad A-1 first flew on July 1, 1911, and became the first Navy airplane. In November 1912, it performed the first successful catapult launch of a seaplane from an anchored barge. The Triad was sold to the British, Russian, German and Japanese navies in 1912, and Japanese naval aviation was founded with the purchase of three Curtiss Triads. Glenn Curtiss had many firsts:


Produced first aircraft equipped with wheels and then ailerons

Made first official public flight


Established the first flying school

Was first person licensed as a U.S. aircraft manufacturer

Won First Place in InternationalAir Race at Rheims, France


Involved on Eugene Ely's historic take off


First licensed U. S. pilot

Trained first two U.S. Navy pilots

Sold the U.S. Navy its first aircraft

Curtiss introduced the Triad, shown above, when he took the first flight on January 26, 1911, from North Island, flying at an altitude of about 800 feet. That day, with Navy observers present, he took off from and landed on the beaches of Coronado and waters of San Diego Bay.

The Navy took notice and ordered Curtiss’ A-1, a virtually identical derivative of the Triad and the U.S Navy’s first aircraft. Delivered to the Navy that summer, it made its first flight with the Navy’s first pilot, Lt. Theodore Ellyson, at the controls on July 1, 1911. Thus the Triad was the first amphibious aircraft, the first plane to be launched by catapult, the first U.S. Navy aircraft to use an airborne radio, and the winner of many speed and endurance records.

1912 the Curtiss A-3 seaplane made the first successful launch from a catapult, and next month the Curtiss C-1 became the first flying boat to be catapult-launched; both experiments took place at the Washington Navy yard.

Due to the success of the aircraft, Curtiss was awarded the 1912 Collier Trophy, and also earned the title of “The Father of Naval Aviation.”

On 1 December 1911, Lt. Arthur M. Longmore used a Short 27 to become the first person in the United Kingdom to take off from land and make a successful water landing when he landed in the River Medway off Sheerness.

Frenchmen Gabriel and Charles Voisin, purchased several of the Fabre floats and fitted them to their Canard Voisin airplane. In October 1910, the Canard Voisin became the first seaplane to fly over the river Seine, and in March 1912, the first seaplane to be used in military exercises from a seaplane carrier, ''La Foudre'' ('the lightning'). ''

Le Foudre, 1914

The history of French naval aviation began then, in March of 1912, when the Canard Voisin became the first naval seaplane to fly operationally from the seaplane carrier La Foudre.

A Canard Voisin with the French fleet in June, 1912

Closer look at the Canard Voisin of 1912

Looking closer at the picture and you will note the pilot faces to the right as is made more clear by this drawing

On January 10, 1912, British Lieutenant Commander Charles R. Sampson of the British RNAS launched the first aircraft from a British warship, flying off a flight deck installed over the forward gun on HMS Africa in a Shorts S27 while the ship was at anchor off Chatham. He then made a safe descent alongside the Africa for pick up, using flotation bags lashed to the wheels.

HMS Africa with Short 27 aboard flight deck

Shorts S.27

On May 4, 1912 HMS Hibernia was fitted with a temporary runway over the forecastle (removed from the HMS Africa). and the first seaplane flight from a British ship was flown by Commander Sampson in his modified Shorts 38 "hydro-aeroplane" to be the first pilot to take off from a ship underway at sea.

Shorts S.38 being hoisted aboard HMS Hibernia in May, 1912

Commander Sampson's Shorts S.38 in position on the deck of HMS Hibernia, May4, 1912

In a posting on the Internet, Jack Newman writes about his father's part in that action:

Commander Charles R. Sampson of the RNAS takes off from HMS Hibernia at a signal from the captain, the pilot, Lt Commander Sampson, climbed up into the cockpit of the biplane and a mechanic swung the propeller to start the engine. All except one restraining rope to the toggle were unlashed as the pilot ran the engine up to full power. Then the pilot dropped his left hand and the boys pulled hard on the remaining rope to release the toggle. Dad said that they did this so well that we ended up in a heap on the bridge under the feet of the senior officers, much to their amusement. The little aircraft accelerated down the ramp and rose into the air before reaching the end of it. The pilot flew on at low level between the waiting ships where he was cheered heartedly by their ship's companies as the aircraft flew by. He then went on to land at an airfield near Weymouth. Lieutenant Commander Sampson was immediately promoted and after being congratulated had dinner with his majesty that evening at the palace.

Lieutenant Commander Sampson take off from HMS Hibernia May 4, 1912

The first British flight from a ship under way was made by a Lieutenant R. Gregory on May 9, 1912, aboard another Short 27 biplane from the deck of H.M.S. Hibernia as she was steaming at ten knots in Weymouth Bay.

November, 1912, Commander Oliver Schwann became the first British aviator to take off from water in a thirty-five horsepower Avro biplane. He had purchased the airplane himself and with help from friends fitted floats to it.

By the summer of 1913, eleven pilots were trained for its seaplane force. In late 1913, a ten meter long launching platform was installed on the Foudre. The plan was to launch a Caudron G.3 scout-seaplane. The G.3 launched successfully on May 8 1914. Before this, planes were lifted and lowered into the water for lift off and landing by a crane

Caudron G3

Cuadron G3 being loaded onto Foudre, 1914

In Germany in the year 1913, Prince Heinrich of Prussia convinced Admiral von Tirpitz to have the obsolete battleship SMS Pommern fitted with an experimental flying-off platform on her fore 11-inch gun turret. Initial trials undertaken in the sheltered Baltic using modified Etrich (Rumpler) Taube monoplanes were completely unsuccessful.

Rumpler Taube


Sseveral experimental biplanes based on British Avro and Sopwith designs were evaluated with greater success. In one instance, a float/wheel equipped Avro 503 launched from Pommern flew a several hour simulated bombing mission to Danzig and successfully navigated its way back to land alongside the battleship on its floats. This design was eventually put into series production by the Hannover and Albatros concerns in both floatplane and wheeled variants, becoming the first true naval aircraft in German service.

Avro 513, 1913

World War I started in 1914 and provided a means for even further development in aviation by the military.

The British ship, HMS Campania, was the largest of a number of merchant ships converted to act as seaplane carriers during the WW I. She was originally a record breaking Cunard liner, launching in 1893 and holding for a brief time the Blue Riband, but by 1914 her commercial life was over, and she was in the hands of the breakers. They had removed her deck fittings, but had not begun to work on the structure of the ship. On November 27, 1914 she was purchased by the Admiralty.

Campania, when she was the fastest ocean liner

Over the next five months she was converted to carry ten seaplanes. She was given a 120ft long take-off platform forward of the fore funnel, and equipped with hangers and workshops to support the aircraft.

HMS Campania with the forward flight deck

The first successful takeoff from her platform was made on August 6, 1915 by Flight Lieutenant W. L. Welsh using a Sopwith Schneider mounted on a wheeled trolley. The aircraft used 130 feet (39.6 m) of the flight deck while the ship was steaming into the wind at 17 knots (31 km/h; 20 mph). The Sopwith aircraft was the lightest and highest-powered aircraft in service with the Royal Naval Air Service and the close call in a favorable wind demonstrated that heavier aircraft could not be launched from the flight deck.

A Sopwith Scneider as used on the HMS Campania August 6, 1915

However, the platform was felt to be too short, and from November 1915-April 1916 she underwent a major refit.
This refit saw her forward funnel replaced by two funnels side-by-side. The platform was extended to 200ft, starting between the new split funnel.


Front view of re fit HMS Hibernia............Painting of HMS Hibernia during aviation trials by J.S. Smith

She then returned to the Grand Fleet, operating the Short 184.

Short 184

On August 2,1915, Flight Sub Lieutenant B. A. Smart took off in a Sopwith Pup from a very short deck above the forward guns of HMS Yarmouth.

Sub Lt. Smart's Sopwith Pup ready for take off on HMS Yarmouth in August 1915

On November 5, 1915. Lieutenant Commander Henry C. Mustin made the first catapult launching from a ship when his AB-2 Flying Boat was launched from the U.S.S. North Carolina.

AB-2 Flying Boat lauched from U.S.S. North Carolina in 1915

Squadron Commander E. H. Dunning made the first landing of an aircraft on a moving ship using a Sopwith Pup to land on HMS Furious on August 2, 1917.

Commander Dunning's landing August 2, 1917 with the crew ready to help slow him down so as to not go into the sea

On August 1, 1918, Sub-Flight Lieutenant Stuart D. Culley took off in a Sopwith Camel from a lighter being towed by the destroyer HMS Redoubt. The lighter was worked up to about thirty-six knots before Culley released the Camel. It practically jumped into the air, finding its self airborne with scarcely any run over the deck. Once in the air, Culley turned away and eventually landed safely at a shore base.

(The following account is from the book Squadrons of the Sea by Arch Whitehouse)

On August 11, Lieutenant Culley again jumped into the cockpit of the Camel on the lighter being towed by HMS Redoubt. Redoubt worked up to speed. Commander Tyrwhitt, who was aboard the light cruiser Curacoa and in command of the Harwich Force that included the HMS Redoubt, had taken the whole Harwich force of four light cruisers and thirteen destroyers out to sea to carry out an offensive sweep in the southeastern sector of the North Sea. Redoubt again hauled the lighter and Camel fighter. Other destroyers towed lighters on which reconnaissance flying boats had been embarked, and cruisers of the force were burdened with C.M.B.S (coastal motor boats) that were to attack German minesweepers operating off the Dutch coast. During the action the sea state would not allow the flying boats to take off.

Admiralty had monitored a signal which indicated that a Zeppelin was cruising toward the Force. Thus alerted, every man in the force searched the sky but Culley was the first to spot a great silver cigar cruising at about ten thousand feet. It was German Zeppelin L.53, commanded by Kapitanleutnant Proell. It had flown out of Nordholz in northwest Germany early that morning to investigate the Tyrwhitt flotilla. Culley, aided by Commander Sampson and the lighter crew moved to the lighter and got the Sopwith Camel ready to go.

A new factor of naval warfare was about to be introduced.

Painting of Lt. Culley launching from the lighter by Keith Ferris. Contact AviatorArt.com for lithographs

When the speed of the lighter had reached thirty knots, Culley checked his engine and gave Samson the conventional "thumbs-up" signal. At 8:41 the Camel leaped into the air. Members of the lighter crew declared that the plane had run less than five feet on the lighter deck. Culley climbed straight over the stacks of Redoubt, saw the whole flotilla spread out before him and realized that he was about to be the leading actor in an historic drama.

Once airborne Culley saw that the silver raider was heading directly toward him. He figured, as near as he could, that she was a few hundred feet above his present level and approaching at a relative speed of one hundred fifty knots. He considered Samson's admonition to attack only from above.

"You must dive on her" his chief had ordered. "You must avoid any position behind or below the tail. Dive on her from above and then race past, just along her beam, to avoid any flames. If you fail in this method, dive on her from behind the port quarter. You will perhaps come under heavy fire so don't fire all your ammunition in the first attack. They are not likely to use the gun mounted on the top of the main frame, and you'll be able to get in closer by going in from above".

From Culley's position and judging the speed at which the Zeppelin approached, it was obvious that an attack from above and behind was out of the question; he had no choice but to attack head-on and from below. In a matter of seconds the great bulk of the Zeppelin loomed ahead, Culley could see the forward control car and the outboard engine gondolas, their propellers flailing like broadswords. For a short while he was spellbound by the gigantic spectacle, but as his eyes searched for some crew activity, his hand instinctively drew back on the stick, the nose of the tiny biplane came up and almost stalled.

Culley said later: "I can hardly remember doing all that, and I only came to when I realized I was attacking that great thing. One gun operated beautifully and fired its complete drum without slip-up, the other jammed after popping off about half a dozen rounds. By then I sensed I was about to stall out so I leveled off and raced along under the massive belly of the craft.

This computer generated picture has been altered to reflect the story

I saw something either fall or jump from a slit in the framework and disappear below."

(This object was the only survivor from L.53, and his parachute descent from about nineteen thousand feet must have been a record for those days. The man was spotted later and picked up by a German destroyer.)

The instant Culley's guns stopped firing, and as the Camel faltered in her stall, she nosed down some two thousand feet before he could ease her out. During this time he lost sight of his target, but when he leveled off again and stared up he saw to his consternation that L.53 was cruising along as though nothing had happened. He turned to make an adjustment to his throttle to regain the lost altitude when a glint above caught his eye.

Apoligies to artist George Evans as I have modified his painting to reflect the story

At three widely separated points, gushes of yellow flame cascaded from the gas bag and within a minute practically all of the airship, except the tail section, was enveloped. The giant conflagration burned itself out in a few seconds, leaving a blackened skeleton floundering in the sky. A flag fluttered pathetically from a rudder post as L.53 started her final dive. Culley saw the airship writhe and break her back and finally hit the water. The clock on his instrument panel showed it was 9:41 A.M. Exactly one hour before he had become airborne from the bobbing lighter. L.53 was the last zeppelin shot down by the allies in WWI.

Culley was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, although many men who were closely involved felt that he should have been honored with Great Britain's highest military decoration, the Victoria Cross. One wonders now how many men in either service realized at the time the full significance of that first successful air interception by a ship borne fighter aircraft.

Lt. Culley's actual Sopwith Camel at the British Imperial War Museum

Routine operation of catapults aboard ships in the U.S. Navy commenced with the successful launching on May 24, 1922 of a VE-7 piloted by Lieutenant Andrew C. McFall, with Lieutenant D. C. Ramsey as passenger, from U.S.S.Maryland (BB 46) off Yorktown, Va. A compressed air catapult was used.

Lieutenants McFall and Ramsey Launching from the U.S.S. Maryland May 24, 1922

As catapults were installed on other battleships and then on cruisers, the Navy acquired the capability of operating aircraft from existing capital ships. Techniques were thus developed for supporting conventional surface forces, particularly in spotting for ships guns, and experimentation was conducted with aerial tactics that would later be further developed by the carrier aviation. Perhaps more important, the capabilities and limitations of aircraft were demonstrated to officers and men throughout the Navy.

September,17, 1922--The first carrier takeoff in the U.S. Navy was made by Lieutenant Virgil C. Griffin in a Vought VE-7SF from the Langley, at anchor in the York River.

Lt. Griffin lifting off the U.S.S. Langley September 17, 1922

October 26, 1922--Lieutenant Commander Godfrey deCourcelles Chevalier, flying an Aeromarine, made the first landing aboard the carrier Langley while underway off Cape Henry.

Lt. Cmdr Chevalier taking off in Aeromarine from the Langley, October 26, 1922

The improvements in aviation technology by the military began to filter back into civilian industry. One of the industries interested in using this new technology was trans-ocean passenger carrying luxury liner companies and their countries of origin..

After the war during the late 1920's, there was intense competition to provide the fastest mail service between Europe and North America. America, Britain, France and Germany were the main contenders. These four countries competed for the Blue Riband - an unofficial honor awarded to the passenger liner in regular service that crossed the Atlantic with the highest average speed. Traditionally, the Blue Riband was awarded to the ship with the fastest average speed over the westbound journey as the Gulf Stream made this more difficult compared to eastbound.

Britain had won the Blue Riband in 1909 when the RMS Mauretania had crossed at an average speed of 26,06 knots and this was a remarkable record. The ships of all four countries were making the voyage in about 4½ days and the challenge for the steamship companies was to find an alternative way to show the public and the postal authorities that they could deliver mail faster than the others.

Over-water flying the North Atlantic Ocean in that era was rife with hazard and uncertainty for the vagaries of weather - ice, fog, snow and rain - had brought tragic ends to many hope-filled pioneers eager to prove the value of cross-ocean flying. Despite the many improvements from the recent war, instrument or "blind flying" was still in a primitive state of development and radio homing devices for aerial navigation were at best short-ranged and unreliable

It was the Americans who first began to experiment with an idea of flying mail from a ship as it neared the coast at the end of its voyage and the ship chosen was the USS Leviathan. The Leviathan had been named originally as the SS Vaterland and she was the second of three large liners built by Germany's Blohm & Voss for the Hamburg Amerika Line's trans-Atlantic passenger service. She was launched in Germany on April 1913 and sailed the North Atlantic briefly in 1914. At the time, the Vaterland was the largest passenger ship in the world - she was over 54,000 gross tons with a length of 289.6m and beam of 30.6m, and she could sail at a top speed of 26 knots. In comparison, the ill fated RMS Titanic was some 46,000 gross tons with a length of 268m and beam of 28m and she could sail at 23 knots.

She sailed as the Vaterland for less than a year before her career was halted by the start of World War I. With a safe return to Germany rendered virtually impossible by British dominance of the seas, she was laid up at her Hoboken, New Jersey terminal where she remained out of service until April 1917. When the United States entered the war, she was seized and renamed Leviathan and was used as a troopship. After the war she was kept by the United States as part of the war reparation payable by Germany, and by June 1923 she had been completely renovated to suit American tastes and post-war standards.

The SS Leviathan was the 'queen' of the United States' trans-Atlantic merchant fleet, and despite having to sail as a 'dry ship' under Prohibition, she was the most popular ship on the Atlantic run in 1927. Even so, the ship was losing money and proposals were made to fly mail and even passengers from the Leviathan when it was about 800kms (486 miles) out of New York. This would cut two days off the trans-Atlantic trip and the mail delivery time.

A special deck about 30m long and 10m wide was built diagonally across the bow of the ship and extended over the sea. A well known US Navy pilot volunteered to make the first experimental flight. He was Clarence D. Chamberlin, the second man to cross the Atlantic in an airplane and with a passenger, 15 days after Lindbergh made his historic solo flight. For the Leiathan project, Chamberlin and some friends had assembled a small open cockpit Fokker biplane for the attempt off the Leviathan. The aircraft had enough fuel for a two hour flight and could carry about 100kg (220 lbs) of cargo.

The Leviathan was loaded with its aircraft and, when the ship was about 120kms (74 miles) from New York Harbour, Chamberlin took off under his own power from the special deck on July 31, 1927. He carried about 900 commemorative letters with him and landed at Curtiss Field on Long Island after just under a 160km (100 mile) flight. Chamberlin carried out the first commercial ship-to-shore carriage of mail and, looking to the future, he said that the use of a catapult to launch a larger aircraft would be a better technique.

Leviathan air mail, note to whom it is sent

Another Example of Air Mailfrom U.S.S. Leviathan, 1927

In July 1928, a seaplane catapult was installed on the French Ile De France at the ship's stern for trials. Two test flights carrying mail were completed in 1928 using a Liore et Olivier 128 seaplane piloted by French Navy Lieutenant L. Demougeot. The Loire et Olivier H-128 - catapult-capable mailplane had a Gnome et Rhône 9Ab engine (9 built) and later with the Renault 12Ja engine (3 built).

Launch of Lt. Demougeot's LEO 128 from the Ile De France in July, 1928

The first official catapult mail was launched on August 13, 1928. Two CAMS 37 flying boats took turns catapulting off the Ile De France when the ship was within 200 miles of its port destination, which cut the mail delivery time by one day. This practice proved too costly, however, and in October 1930 the catapult was removed and the service discontinued.


Air Mail ship to shore from Ile De France, August 1928

The German airliner company, Lufthansa, strived to find a way to break the deadlock seemingly held by the awesome expanse of the Atlantic. This obstacle was overcome by a suggestion not by aviation pioneers but by the innovative management of the Norddeutsche Lloyd ship line.

In 1927, the Bremen-based ship line had carried a Junkers F-13 floatplane aboard the liner Lutzow to provide pleasure flights for passengers at en route ports of call.

The ocean liner Lutzow

Junkers 13 on floats

The seaplane was water launched and crane retrieved and, while the service proved a popular attraction to passengers, the technical troubles involved in maintaining the aircraft aboard the liner proved more troublesome than it was worth. An outgrowth of the concept was to prompt Ernst Heinkel's Flugzeug-Werke to accelerate their development of a lightweight catapult capable of launching seaplanes from ships at sea.

Norddeutsche Lloyd explored the idea of fitting their new liners under construction, the Bremen and Europa with Heinkel's catapult as a way of garnering worldwide attention in a world that was still somewhat anti-German as a result of World War One. They wanted a gimmick that would demonstrate the technological lead Germany professed to have and what better way could be found than offering the world's fastest air mail service between New York and Berlin?

Joining forces with Lufthansa, both companies speedily set about to conquer the technical problems of operating, launching and retrieving large seaplanes from their new super-liners. The task was an imposing one calling for much ingenuity and improvisation, for the somewhat delicate seaplanes had to withstand the rigors of North Atlantic storms, severe changes in temperature, howling winds and monstrous seas while strapped to their catapult carriages. And, the project had to be completed in record time, for the proud new Bremen, flagship of Germany's post-war aspirations on the North Atlantic, hoped to capture the vaunted "Blue Riband" for speed from the Cunard Line's ever-popular Mauretania on its maiden voyage.

The concept itself was simple enough. While still several hundred miles away from its destination, the Bremen would load its seagoing "Air Mail" aboard the seaplane and launch it while underway. The seaplane, by virtue of its speed, would fly off and deliver the mail the better part of a day ahead of the fastest liner afloat. In this way, the mail would arrive in record-breaking time and Norddeutsche Lloyd could claim a service unmatched by anyone. When the Bremen reached port, the seaplane would be re-mounted on its catapult and the procedure repeated as the liner drew within 5/600 miles of Bremerhaven on the homeward run.

In this picture of the Bremen you can see the catapult between the stacks

The result was the installation of the Heinkel K2 catapult aboard the Bremen, mounted on the sun deck between the twin funnels; compressed air propelled the dolly-mounted aircraft along an 89-ft runway to achieve a maximum velocity of 105 mph. From the 660-hp BMW-powered Heinkel He 9, the company developed the He 12, registered D-1717, for shipboard use with a 450-hp Pratt & Whitney Hornet A radial endowing the type with a top speed of 134 mph. The craft could trace its design concept back to the World War One aircraft built by Hansa and Brandenburgische Flugzeug-Werke and this was no coincidence since Heinkel was designing aircraft for that company. The wing was all-wood with two spars and covered in wood and fabric. The fuselage was a welded steel tube affair with metal covering on the forward portion, fabric on the aft. Two cockpits were placed in tandem and the tail was braced by struts to the fuselage. The floats were also built out of wood and were fairly blunt in design.

The He 12 as it appears today in the Deutsches Museum in Germany

Responsibility for the planes was given to Lufthansa and on 16 July 1929, airline personnel headed by Captain Jobst von Strudnitz were aboard Bremen when it left Bremerhaven on the maiden voyage. On 22 July, 248 miles out from New York, von Strudnitz was catapulted into the air in the He 12 which carried 660 lbs of mail.

He 12 being placed on Bremen catapult rail

He 12 ready for launch from Bremen in 1931

He 12 leaving catapult on Bremen

The Heinkel landed 2.5 hours later in New York Harbor where it was met by the Mayor Jimmy Walker and other officials who christened the plane New York. The next day it met the Bremen.

He 12 waiting for Bremen in New York harbor

During the return voyage the aircraft was launched near Cherbourg on 1 August, while still in the English Channel, and it reached Bremerhaven more than 24 hours before its parent vessel after a 600-mile flight. The 18,000-letter express mail cargo was immediately flown on to Berlin in a waiting Lufthansa aircraft. Eight further flights were made during the year.

Catapult Mail from Bremen

The service was expanded to include the Europa in 1930 with a Heinkel He 58 and, for a brief period, a third ship, the Columbus.

The Europa

Europa Catapult Mail

Heinkel 58 on Bremen

The Columbus never had a catapult installed instead seaplanes pulled up next to the ship which off loaded mail to it before its departure.

In 1932, Junkers Ju 46 seaplanes replaced the He 12s on both the Bremen and the Europa.


Junkers 46 launching from Europa

Junker 46 launching from Europa

Europa's Junker 46

Bremen Junker 46 launch

Bremen Junkers 46 in Lufthansa German port

In December, 1933 an order for six Vought V-85Gs was placed with Chance Vought to replace the Junkers.

Chance Vought V-85-G "Kurier"

Westbound mail mostly flew into New York although there were some flights into Boston. Eastbound flights initially went to Cologne, Cherbourg, Amsterdam, and Bremerhaven. However, after July 21, 1930, flights all went into Southampton.
The techniques employed provided a savings of 36 hours in Transatlantic mail. The service continued until Zeppelin Hindenburg service began in 1936. Sometime after that the V-85 Gs were transferred to the German Navy.



Allaz, Camille, History Of Air Cargo And Airmail From 18th Century
Baker, Stephen Patrick, The History Of French Naval Aviation
Baldwin, Roger A., Experimental Air Mail And The S. S. Leviathan, Paper before the 2nd Annual Postal History Symposium, Bellefort, PA, October, 2007

Barnes, Christopher Henry; James, Derek; Shorts Aircraft Since 1900

Gaga, Lord, Collecting Airmail
U.S. Navy publications

Whitehouse, Arch, Squadrons of the Sea

Return to V-Corsairs Photos >