Rockets, pigeons and helicopters

by Jenny Karlsson, PR & Communications Officer 

You are probably aware that planes are a common mode of transport for the Post Office, but did you know that rockets, helicopters and pigeons have also been used to transport mail?

Rocket mail

Rocket mail is the delivery of mail by rocket or missile. The rocket would land by deploying an internal parachute upon arrival. It has been attempted by various organisations in many different countries, with varying levels of success. Due to its cost and failures it has never become seen as a feasible way of transporting mail.

German Gerhard Zucker experimented in the 1930s with powder rockets similar to fireworks. After moving to the United Kingdom, Zucker attempted to convince the General Post Office that postal delivery by rocket was viable, and Zucker’s first attempt in Britain took place 6 June 1934 on the Sussex Downs. In July the same year he made two further attempts on Scarp, an island in the Outer Hebrides, but both of his rockets exploded. His final attempt took place on the Isle of Wight, but the rocket went off course and embedded itself in the Pennington Marshes, Hampshire.

Sketch diagram of rocket, 1934

Sketch diagram of rocket, 1934


Trials to use helicopters to deliver mail first took place from 7-12 May 1934. They were organised by John S Davis, an Aerophilatelist, and carried out in conjunction with a philatelic festival.

Experiments took place between 1948 and 1950 but did not reach a satisfactory level of regularity (especially at night when most flights would need to occur) and were deemed not to be cost effective.

Helicopter mail trials in Norfolk, 1949

Helicopter mail trials in Norfolk, 1949

After this, commercial flights were occasionally used to transport mail.

Pigeon post

Clear and correct circulation details save time: an internal GPO poster promoting clear and correct detailing on telegrams. Circa 1950.

Clear and correct circulation details save time: an internal GPO poster promoting clear and correct detailing on telegrams. Circa 1950.

Throughout history, pigeons have also been used as a means of getting messages between parties. Pigeon post offered a fast and reliable service and became a vital means of communication during the First World War; by the end of the war there were 22,000 Pigeons in service.

BPMA Open Day

The BPMA holds a large number of records relating to all of these subjects, such as posters, artwork, reports, press cuttings, maps, papers and photographs. You have a unique opportunity to see these at our Archive Open Day on 12 September on the theme ‘Take Flight!’ The Archive Open Day is a drop-in event, offering behind-the-scenes tours, and is part of the Archive Awareness Campaign 2009.

‘Take Flight!’ – The British Postal Museum & Archive Open Day
Saturday 12 September 10.00am – 5.00pm
The British Postal Museum & Archive, Freeling House, Phoenix Place, London WC1X 0DL
Phone: 020 7239 2570

2 responses to “Rockets, pigeons and helicopters

  1. Wilfred Ashley McIsaac

    Good day, my name is Wilfred Ashley McIsaac and I live in Ontario Canada. I just wanted to let you know that beginning on October 31st, 2011, I launched the first of 4 high powered rockets carrying official Canadian rocket mail onboard. These four rocket mail flights were the first in my countries history to launch rocket mail using official Canadian rocket mail postage stamps that were later recovered safely. What may interest your museum is that the stamps attached to my envelopes were actually Gerhard Zucker 1936 ‘First Canadian Rocket Flight’ stamps which had actually remained grounded for 75 years since there inception. The story has been well documented in the philatelic community including Stamp Magazine, The Canadian Philatelist, and Canadian Stamp News just to name a few. Here is a link to one of the articles.

    Wilfred Ashley McIsaac

  2. Wilfred Ashley McIsaac

    Gerhard Zucker’s Canadian Rocket Flight Stamps take flight After 75 Years On The Ground

    A high-powered rocket mail program that began back in October of 2011 from an airfield in eastern Ontario is preparing its fifth and final rocket launch for the late spring. Wilfred Ashley McIsaac, the rocketeer behind the flights, has already launched and successfully recovered the entire collection of Gerhard Zucker 1936 ‘First Canadian Rocket-Flight’ postage stamps in his four previous flights dating back to 2011.
    A variety of launch vehicles and payloads have also been flown in the program including; the ARCAS scale rocket. the Astrobee D scale rocket, and McIsaac’s modified versions the Astrobee D III, and the Astrobee D (IV) series of rockets. The latter being the 2 ½ stage Astrobee D IV (D) now preparing to fly in late March.
    During the early 1930s a German engineer and businessman named Gerhard Zucker became involved in a series of ill-fated rocketmail launches across Europe including England before the Gestapo, under Adolf Hitler’s orders, placed him under arrest and jailed Zucker indefinitely.
    At the 1936 Third International Philatelic Exhibition in New York City, Zucker (who remained in custody in Germany) relied on a friend, Karl H. Hennig, Sr., to display his stamps, covers, and cachets in booth 77 at the Grand Central Palace on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan. The ‘Rocket-Flight’ postage flown years later in Wilfred Ashley McIsaac’s program was among the merchandise at the exhibit.
    An interpreter working in the booth at the time later confirmed a launching rack as well as one of Zucker’s rockets were also on public display. The same person admitted Hennig had even attempted to purchase a permit to launch the rocket but simply ran out of time. In the end however the German refused to promote the collection through print or radio out of fear fear of Nazi reprisals and kept a low profile during his stay in the United States. Zucker’s dreams of launching rocket mail on North American soil were never realized while the Canadian Rocket-Flight stamps disappeared into obscurity for three quarters of a century.
    No known rocket flights in Canada had ever been successfully flown and recovered using official Canadian rocket mail stamps on board until October 31st, 2011 when McIsaac launched the 1936 Gerhard Zucker ‘First Canadian Rocket-Flight’ postage stamps 75 years after they were created for the New York exhibit. The story has since garnered interest from around the international philatelic community with articles in Stamp Magazine, Canadian Stamp News, and The Canadian Aerophilatelist to name just a few.
    The fifth and final launch of Wilfred Ashley McIsaac’s rocket mail program will take place some time in the spring of 2014 at the Gananoque Airport in eastern Ontario. “The rocketport” as McIsaac calls it, has been home to his four previous rocket mail flights.

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