A marketing stunt saved by a standard KLM airliner…
It all started with a contract Albert Plesman, KLM’s ambitious managing director, had negotiated with the Dutch PTT as soon as the first scheduled service to the Dutch East Indies was started on October 1, 1931. The contract stated that KLM would annually carry at least 500 kg mail to the colony on the other side of the world.
The airline would do this at a flat rate of 42.50 Dutch Guilders per kg and would undertake all reasonable efforts to cut delivery time to 2 weeks (compared to at least six weeks for sea-mail).
The reverse side of the coin was that the Dutch PTT had to undertake all necessary marketing activities to generate this annual quantity. This turned out not to be too easy (airmail, at 36 cents a letter was six times as expensive as ‘normal’ mail), so a special committee (Snelpost Indië / Express Mail Indies) was installed. This committee decided that fast, dedicated mail carriers were the way to go and announced a competition to determine which airplane would perform the shortest roundtrip, from Amsterdam to Java and back, to deliver the 1933 Christmas Mail. Two Dutch firms, Fokker and Pander entered the competition. Fokker, as a long established builder of airliners entered its newly designed F.XX.
The other contender, Pander, was a well-known Dutch firm that wanted to enter the airplane market (They were best know for producing excellent furniture!)
Pander took up the challenge with their newly designed S4 Postjager (Mail Rusher), a tri-engined airplane purely designed to carry mail. It left Amsterdam on December 9, 1933, bound for Java but never got past Taranto, Italy, where it stranded with a severe engine failure.
Humiliatingly, the mail it carried was taken by car to Brindisi (Italy) and flown from there to Cairo by Imperial Airways in one of their seaplanes.
Next to leave for Java, on December 18, 1933, was Fokker’s brand-new F.XX,, It was confidently announced that the plane would be re-routed via Cairo to pick up the Postjager’s mail. But when the crew ran up its engines before departure, the center engine came to a rattling halt with a fractured crankshaft. The highly publicized mail-rush to Java was in jeopardy of becoming a tremendous fiasco.
But KLM’s Albert Plesman never batted an eyelid; he ordered the crew to grab the older (and 50 km/hr. slower) Fokker FXVIII PH-AIP named Pelikaan (“Pelican”) and be off.
And that is exactly what they did. After the 187 kg mail had been hurriedly transferred, Captain Iwan Smirnoff, co-pilot Piet Soer, flight mechanic Sjef Grosfeld and radioman Cor van Beukering left Amsterdam Schiphol Airport for what would become one of the most famous KLM flights ever.
They thrashed out some kind of flight plan during the first leg of their flight from Amsterdam to Marseilles (France). From there they continued without stopping via Athens, Cairo, Bagdad, Karachi, Bangkok and Singapore to Batavia (Jakarta) and touched down at Tjililitan airfield on December 22, 1933. The flight of nearly 15.000 km (9.923 miles) had been done in 100 hours and 44 minutes, unheard of at that time.
After a few days rest the crew left Batavia on December 27, 1933 and followed the same route back to Amsterdam where they arrived 100 hours and 33 minutes later on December 30, 1933, having shaved-off 10 minutes of their record outbound flight-time. Over 20.000 cheering spectators welcomed them at Amsterdam Schiphol airport. And the name “Pelikaan” instantly became a household word in the Netherlands.