Philately, WhatsApp and Indian Airlines flight IC 539

I discussed in my last post how mobile communication platforms are bringing in a marked change in the way philatelic material is bought, sold and displayed. It was a random discussion on Temporary P.O.’s in the WhatsApp group for India Study Circle that ended in my stumbling upon an interesting cover from the Polish Settlement camp in Valivade, Kohlapur (Read more >>)

The article that follows is on another singularly interesting anecdote regarding a crash cover that was bought on a similar WhatsApp forum for buying Indian (predominantly) philatelic material.

On 31st January, the activity in the WhatsApp group was the usual; lots of stamps, special covers and the like being offered and some of them being bought and others fading away as listings that majority of the members didn’t find interesting or viable. Around 9:00 AM that day a listing was put forth, the picture of the listing is given below:


As you can see the listing was for a cover that was salvaged from the crash of an Indian Airlines flight IC 539 with an accompanying note saying that the flight was from Bangalore to Delhi via Hyderabad (the postmark on the letter is from Madras GPO, a possible reason why some people didn’t up their bids on the cover).  The listing started with a base price of INR 800/- and then finally closed at INR 6100/- at 9:00 PM on the same date (31st January 2016). The rest of the article is on the research I did regarding the fateful flight of IC 539 from the time of the posting of listing in the morning till its final closure ( I fortunately got the cover!)

The anecdote above illustrates a particular aspect of philately called “crash covers”. Wikipedia gives us a succinct definition of a crash cover  as reproduced below:

A crash cover is a philatelic term for a type of cover, (including the terms air accident cover, interrupted flight cover, wreck cover) meaning an envelope or package that has been recovered from a fixed-wing aircraft, airship or aeroplane crash, train wreck, shipwreck or other accident. Crash covers are a type of interrupted mail.

Example of a salvaged U.S. Air Mail Crash Cover
(CAM #24, Indianapolis, IN, Nov. 2, 1929)

Crashes of flights carrying airmail were a regular occurrence from the earliest days of mail transport by air. In many cases of aircraft crashes, train wreck and shipwrecks, it was possible to recover some or even all of the mail being carried, with perhaps some charring around the edges of some pieces if there had been a fire, or water damage from flying boat crashes or shipwrecks. In such cases, the authorities typically apply a postal marking (cachet), label, or mimeograph that gets affixed to the cover explaining the delay and damage to the recipient, and possibly enclose the letter in an “ambulance cover” or “body bag” if it was badly damaged and then send it to its intended destination.

Aviation related crash covers are a specialised collecting area of aerophilately and are much-prized items of postal history, because they are generally rare, but as tangible artifacts of often-tragic accidents they have a story to tell. The 367 covers salvaged from the Hindenburg disaster are especially desirable,[1][2] with prices ranging from US$10,000 and up; a cover at the Corinphila auction in May 2001 realized 85,000 Swiss francs (US$75,000).

The American Air Mail Society has a “Crash Cover Committee” specializing in the study of crash covers. There is also a Wreck & Crash Mail Society, whose members collect all types of crash & wreck covers.

Now back to the ill fated flight IC 539 of Indian Airlines that crashed on 17th Dec 1978. A closer look at the front of the cover will help us put the events that ensued in perspective:

Untitled picture

Though ill fated, this particular crash was a miraculous escape for the passengers and crew, though there were 4 unfortunate casualties in the accident.

Aviation safety Network records and provides the details of most air disasters (big or small). For this particular crash the details given are following:

The Indian Airlines aircraft lifted off from runway 09, but the leading edge devices did not deploy and as a result the aircraft became aerodynamically unstable. The takeoff was aborted and the aircraft was flared for a belly landing with undercarriage retracted. The aircraft belly-landed in nose up, left wing low attitude, on the centre line of the runway. It slid for 3080 feet, hit a boundary fence, crossed a drain and ploughed in rough terrain negotiating with small boulders and came to rest. Fire broke out on impact. The aircraft was completely destroyed by fire. Three persons cutting grass near the boundary fence of the airport were killed.

PROBABLE CAUSE: Non-availability of leading edge devices immediately after rotation during take-off.

Link >> Aviation safety Network

MANGLED MESS: The front portion of the Indian Airlines Boeing after it caught fire near the Begumpet airport on December 17, 1978.

 The front portion of the Indian Airlines Boeing after it caught fire near the Begumpet airport on December 17, 1978. Pic courtesy

With the technical details of the crash unearthed above, it was a survivors account of the air crash that was critical in solving together the riddle of the Madras GPO post mark on the letter (i.e. how come Madras GPO postmark was on a letter with a transit route of bangalore -hyderabad-delhi ?).

Dr. Lakshman Abeyagunawardene from SriLanka gave an account of his surviving the IC 539 crash in Sunday Times, 14 December 2008. In the rivetting article he writes that:

“There were no direct flights to New Delhi from Colombo in the ’70s. Passengers from Colombo had to take a flight to Madras (Chennai) and then proceed to New Delhi often via another major Indian city such as Hyderabad. I was one of the many Sri Lankans who boarded a plane at Katunayake for Madras on December 16, 1978”

This is validated by the postmark of 16th December on the cover. Dr. Abeyagunawardene goes on to narrate that:

“I remember creeping through a partly damaged barbed wire fence and running for dear life. But as I ran, I was tempted to look back. The entire plane was engulfed in flames”

The total casualties in the disaster were 1 passenger (0 crew) and 3 grass cutters who were unfortunately at the wrong place and at the wrong time when the plane did a crash landing with landing-gear retracted. The plane itself was a total loss and was burnt to a cinder.

Possibly the mailbag was with crew baggage and was taken during the emergency evacuation.

This is the first cover from this flight that I’ve seen, and it would be great if seasoned collectors and experts in crash and salvaged mail can share further specimens or details that I might have skipped or overlooked. Henri L. Nierinck is the author of one of the most authoritative catalogues on recovered mail from air crashes, its second edition covered the period from 1910 to 1988. I don’t know whether this particular crash cover has got a Nierinck Number or not (he has a numbering system as well). Any update on the same would be added here and duly acknowledged.

Till I find another salvaged cover this way, Sayonara!!


2 thoughts on “Philately, WhatsApp and Indian Airlines flight IC 539

  1. How interesting to read this! I’m happy to be a novice in a hobby that I had as a child! How fascinating is the world of Philately – so much history. Thanks for writing, A!

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