When Air Mail Was Shot from Ships!

By Cook, John C. | Sea Classics, April 2002 | Go to article overview

When Air Mail Was Shot from Ships!


Cook, John C., Sea Classics


PART ONE Of TWO

Long before the era of routine transatlantic flights, Germany's fledgling LUFTHANSA airline pioneered speedy air mail service with the novel expedient of catapulting seaplanes from ocean liners

Germany's fledgling Deutsche Lufthansa airline had established a number of "firsts" by the mid1920s - the most notable being the world's first scheduled night-flying passenger service in 1926. Keenly observant of the strides being made in transatlantic flights and eager to gain a competitive edge over the British, French, and Americans, they began to explore ways to capture the lucrative air mail market both between Europe and the United States and Europe and South America.

Over-water flying 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. Instrument or "blind flying" was in a primitive state of development and radio homing devices for aerial navigation were at best shortranged and unreliable. Lufthansa strived to find a way to break the deadlock seemingly held by the awesome expanse of the Atlantic, and the manner in which this obstacle would be overcome was strangely suggested not by aviation pioneers but by the innovative management of the

Norddeutsche Lloyd shipline.

In 1927, the Bremenbased 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 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.

Still excited with the results of the seaplane based aboard the LUTZOW, Norddeutsche Lloyd began to explore the idea of fitting their new liners 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 superliners. 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 inertly 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. …

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