1911: A Trailblazing Plane-to-Ship Delivery Takes Place on the Hudson River

June 28, 1911

The world’s first documented charter plane flight came about as the result of some mischief. Washington Atlee Burpee, the founder and head of a large seed-and-planting company, was in New York aboard the British ocean liner RMS Olympic. This ship was set to travel on the Hudson River and ultimately across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe. Burpee, who was described by the California-based Weekly Colusa Sun as “the millionaire seed man of Philadelphia,” decided to use this voyage to test a new delivery service recently initiated by the John Wanamaker Department Store at Broadway and Ninth Street in New York City.

This store had recently been outfitted with wireless technology atop its roof to allow those people getting ready to sail across the Atlantic to telegraph orders. The store’s employees would then arrange to have those requested goods delivered to the pier where the order had been placed. Burpee telegraphed a request for the immediate delivery of various small items. These items reportedly included a toothbrush, a pair of socks, and a replacement pair of eyeglasses. Burpee did not place that order, however, until the Olympic was already sailing on the Hudson.

The employees at Wanamaker’s rose to this logistical challenge and promptly made arrangements to transport the last-minute order via a plane piloted by British aviator Thomas Sopwith (pictured above). Sopwith caught up with the Olympic just as she was making her way through the Narrows, a tidal strait that is the principal channel whereby the Hudson empties into the Atlantic.

The Weekly Colusa Sun reported, “There was a wild shout when [the Olympic’s] passengers saw the aeroplane circling 600 feet [182.9 meters] above them, and coming lower and lower toward the ship as she moved on.” When the plane was about 250 feet (76.2 meters) above the Olympic, the package from Wanamaker’s was dropped onto the deck of the ship. Burpee was subsequently given the goods that he had ordered. “A Wonderful Feat,” proclaimed the headline for the Weekly Colusa Sun’s article recounting that unique plane-to-ship delivery.  

Sopwith, for his part, was decidedly nonchalant when asked if he found that flight above the Olympic to be especially thrilling. “No, just business, that’s all,” he replied. “Got an order, filled it and tried to deliver the goods.”

Photo Credit: Public Domain

Additional information on 1911 aviation milestones, including Thomas Sopwith’s trailblazing delivery flight to the RMS Olympic, is available at aviation timeline 1911 (freeola.com)

For more information on Sopwith, please check out Thomas Sopwith – Wikipedia

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