Balloon Airmail Day
annually on August 17th
The first official airmail flight approved by the United States Post Office Department—the first time an attempt to carry mail by balloon was sanctioned by the Post Office Department—took place on August 17, 1859. The anniversary is celebrated today as Balloon Airmail Day.
It was a hot summer day when 51-year-old John Wise, a famous aeronaut and balloon enthusiast who had gone on 232 balloon flights, readied himself in the town square of Lafayette, Indiana, alongside 20,000 spectators. Wise had been scheduled to leave in his balloon, Jupiter, at 3:30 pm on August 16, but unfavorable weather conditions forced him to change the flight to August 17 at 2:00 pm. Postmaster Thomas Wood handed Wise a mail bag with 123 letters and 23 circulars, which were to be delivered to New York City.
The wind was still at first, but then Jupiter began to drift southwest, not east. Although it reached a height of 14,000 feet, it landed just south of Crawfordsville, Indiana, after traveling just 30 miles. It was only in the air for five hours and seven minutes. The mail had to be put on a train to complete its trip to New York. Wise's attempted transcontinental flight was pilloried by the Lafayette Daily Courier as "trans-county-nental."
Wise continued flying balloons. He tried the flight again a month later, making it almost 800 miles this time, to Henderson, New York, but crash landed on account of a storm. He flew observation balloons for the Union Army during the Civil War. He lost his life at the age of 71 when he went down in a storm in Lake Michigan in 1879. It wasn't until February 1911 that the first airmail flight in an airplane took place when three letters were carried the short distance between Petaluma and Santa Rosa, California.
Wise's first airmail delivery attempt on Jupiter has continued to be honored. The Post Office Department issued a stamp in 1959 to honor the one-hundredth anniversary of the flight. Lafayette held a centennial celebration of the flight on August 17, 1959. Each year, we observe August 17 as Balloon Airmail Day.
How to Observe Balloon Airmail Day
- Visit Lafayette, Indiana, where Jupiter took flight. There you could stop at the Tippecanoe County Historical Association, which has in its collection items from Jupiter's flight and Lafayette's centennial celebration.
- Visit the Smithsonian National Postal Museum. A piece of mail from the first flight is kept there—the only piece of its kind.
- Go on a balloon ride. A good choice could be the "1859 Balloon Voyage" at Conner Prairie in Fishers, Indiana. They also host a Jupiter Flights Balloon Festival each year.
- Order a stamp or first day cover of the flight's centennial postage stamp.
- Read a book about the history of ballooning such as The Aeronauts: A History of Ballooning 1783-1903, Ballooning: A History, 1782-1900, or Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air.
- Read John Wise's book Through the Air, an autobiographical account of Wise's aeronautical travels.