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Stamps Take Flight


Air and Space Stamp Gallery Index

Air Stamps

View images by clicking on items in bold below or on Scott Catalogue numbers in left-hand column.

Pilots and Aviation Pioneers

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U.S. stamps have long celebrated America’s leading role in aviation history with stamps commemorating both pilots and pioneering designers. The two most common subjects for stamps of this type are the Wright Brothers, whose first flight in December 1903 began the era of heavier-than-air aviation, and Charles Lindbergh, whose first solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927 inspired a generation. Other U.S. stamps have highlighted a variety of record-breaking pilots as well as pioneers in aviation design, military aviation, and exploration.

Wright BrothersOrville and Wilbur Wright of Dayton, Ohio, ushered in the era of controlled, manned, powered flight by a heavier-than-air machine on December 17, 1903. The brothers flew their experimental gliders and airplanes at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, because of its steady wind pattern and wide-open spaces. On December 17, with Orville at the controls, the Wright Flyer flew successfully for 12 seconds, traveling 120 feet—and changing the world. To date, the Wright brothers and their first flight have been the subjects of seven U.S. postage stamps.

Charles LindberghIn 1927, an unknown American aviator named Charles Lindbergh burst onto the world scene by flying his plane, The Spirit of St. Louis, alone across the Atlantic. In so doing, Lindbergh won a major prize long offered by hotelier Raymond Orteig to the first pilot to fly nonstop either from New York to Paris, or Paris to New York.

The dangerous solo crossing was even more remarkable because Lindbergh went against the accepted wisdom of the day by choosing a single-engine plane instead of a multiple engine design, in order to save weight.

Within months of his flight, Lindbergh was honored with a U.S. airmail stamp; he and his flight have since been the subject of two other U.S. postage stamps as well.

Other Pilots and Aviation PioneersThough many U.S. postage stamps have honored the Wright Brothers and Charles Lindbergh, there are also a wealth of U.S. stamps celebrating other designers, pilots, and explorers. Among the figures on these other stamps are Amelia Earhart, the well-known pilot who disappeared during a round-the-world flight in July 1937; World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker; and Antarctic explorer Richard Byrd. To see them and many other aviation pioneers, look through the stamps at left.

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Until 1947, there was no separate United States Air Force. The Army, the Navy, and the Marine Corps took an early interest in aviation, with the Army establishing an Aeronautical Division within its Signal Corps in 1907, the Navy assigning its first officer to aviation in 1910, and the first Marine pilots reporting in 1912. During World War II, as modern military aviation came of age, the army’s aviation units were formed into the greatly expanded Army Air Forces. The Navy and Marines continued their own aviation efforts, with aircraft carriers playing an especially important role.

Most of U.S. military aviation postage stamps deal with subjects from before 1947, so the great majority are associated with Army aviation units. A number of other U.S. stamps tell the story of Air Force and naval aviation, however, from the famous jets of the Air Force Thunderbirds and such classic naval aircraft as the Grumman F4F Wildcat and the Vought F4U Corsair.

Air ForceBecause the United States Air Force was formally established in 1947, long after the start of U.S. military aviation, there have been two different “50th anniversary” Air Force stamps, issued 40 years apart. In 1957, a postage stamp was issued to mark the 50th anniversary of the Air Force, dating back to the establishment of the Aeronautical Division of the Army Signal Corps. Forty years later, in 1997, a new 50th anniversary stamp was issued, this one commemorating the founding of the separate United States Air Force in 1947.

ArmyDuring the Civil War, the Union Army had a Balloon Corps from 1861 to 1863, using gas-filled balloons primarily for reconnaissance and observation; a smaller number of balloons were created and used by the Confederate Army.

Since then, aviation has been the responsibility of a series of different Army units. The first home of U.S. Army aviation was in the Aeronautical Division of the Signal Corps, established in 1907 and replaced in mid-1914 by the Aviation Section. In the latter months of World War I, this in turn was replaced by the Army Air Service. The Army Air Service lasted until 1926, when it was renamed the Army Air Corps. With the approach of World War II, the corps was replaced by the greatly expanded Army Air Forces. It was not until July 1947 that a separate United States Air Force was established as a separate branch of the U.S. armed services.

Navy and Marine CorpsThe United States has an active tradition of naval aviation dating back to 1910, and both Navy and Marine pilots have a long heritage in combat. Naval aviation was the subject of a U.S. postage stamp in 1961, and individual Navy and Marine aircraft have been honored with their own stamps in recent years. The vital role of aircraft carriers during World War II was celebrated in 1992 by a stamp illustrating the 1942 Battle of the Coral Sea, a crucial early battle in the fight for the Pacific.

  Aviation Imagined
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The very idea of flight has inspired a number of U.S. stamps. Some are graphic designs that play with the shapes of runways, planes, and jet engines, without illustrating a specific plane. Others, more fanciful, suggest the attraction of flight in childhood games, from a boy “flying” an airplane made of wooden construction toys, to a famous comic-strip dog who pretends to be a World War I flying ace, maneuvering a “biplane” (in reality, his doghouse) in imaginary combat with Germany’s Red Baron.


Lighter than Air: Balloons and Dirigibles

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U.S. stamps have honored several kinds of lighter-than-air craft. Balloon stamp subjects include today’s colorful civilian hot-air balloons as well as famous balloons of the American past, both military and civilian.

BalloonsOther U.S. stamps have honored historic American balloons. The balloon Jupiter carried the first official U.S. airmail during its flight on August 17, 1859. The Union Army balloon Intrepid was one of several balloons used during the Civil War as observation posts. In 1935, the U.S. Army’s Explorer II balloon set an altitude record that was unbroken for more than 20 years, reaching a height of 72,395 feet (over 13 1/2 miles) above the surface of the Earth.

DirigiblesDuring its heyday, the Graf Zeppelin was the most famous airship, or dirigible, in the world. Its name honored the pioneering German airship designer, Graf (or Count) Ferdinand von Zeppelin. Among its many feats was a flight around the world in 12 days in 1929, just a year after it was put into service. The Graf Zeppelin was the only airship ever to fly more than a million miles. Over time, it carried 18,000 passengers and many thousands of pieces of mail before being retired from service in 1937 after the Hindenburg disaster.

Three of the Graf Zeppelin stamps, known as “Zepps” to collectors, were meant for use on airmail sent via the Graf Zeppelin’s first Pan-American flight in 1930. The fourth was issued in 1933 and was meant for use on mail carried by the Graf Zeppelin to the “Century of Progress” Chicago World’s Fair. The design shows the airship between the Federal Building in Chicago, at left, and its home hanger in Friedrichshafen, Germany, at right.

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The vast majority of the aircraft on U.S. stamps are heavier-than-air varieties—airplanes and helicopters.

Three general types of planes are shown on U.S. stamps: biplanes, monoplanes, and jets. In the early days of aviation, airplanes were built with numerous wings. The Wright Brothers’ Flyer and many of the planes that followed were biplanes, with two sets of wings— one above the fuselage and the other below it. As aircraft materials and engineering developed, the monoplane design, with a single set of wings, became more common. The first practical jet aircraft were developed toward the end of World War II.

BiplanesYears ago, the biplanes on U.S. stamps represented the up-to-date aircraft of the day. On the first U.S. stamp to show an airplane, a 1913 Parcel Post stamp, the biplane was a modern innovation. The caption, reading “Aeroplane Carrying the Mail,” actually predated the regular airmail by six years. The first airmail stamps of 1918, followed by other stamps in the 1920s, showed the biplanes as the most modern aircraft then available.

No biplanes appeared on any U.S. stamps in the 1930s or for most of the 1940s. By the time they reappeared in 1949 (on a Wright Brothers stamp), biplanes had become a nostalgic image, harking back to the earlier age of flight. They have appeared on numerous stamps honoring aviation pioneers and milestones of aviation ever since.

MonoplanesUsually just called “airplanes” today, monoplanes are different from biplanes because they have only one set of wings. A number of the U.S. stamps show monoplanes in the air above a well-known location, such as the Statue of Liberty or Diamond Head in Hawaii. Others illustrate the vast range of aviation, from airmail to Arctic exploration, and from combat to commercial aviation.

JetsFirst developed for practical use in the last days of World War II, jet airplanes did not come into their own in the United States until some years later. Since then, jets have become increasingly important for both air travel and for military aviation because of their great advantages over the old propeller-driven designs. Jets were the image of modernity in 1958 when the Post Office issued a new sky-blue airmail stamp of a generic jet’s silhouette, reissued in “fire red” in 1960, and they are featured in a number of stamps issued in the 1990s and early 21st century.

HelicoptersOnly two U.S. postage stamps had been issued with helicopter designs. The Igor Sikorsky stamp of 1988 honors the immigrant aeronautical engineer who designed the first successful modern helicopter—the Vought-Sikorsky 300 or VS-300, also shown on the stamp. In 1999, another stamp illustrated the vital role of helicopters for American forces in the Vietnam War.


Space Stamps

View images by clicking on items in bold below or on Scott Catalogue numbers in left-hand column.

Space travel and astronomy have inspired many U.S. postage stamps, beginning with two stamps in 1948—one honoring an early U.S. rocket launch, the other Mount Palomar Observatory. But it was not until the dawn of the space age in the late 1950s and early 1960s that space stamps really took off, celebrating American progress with stamps commemorating early satellites, rocketry, Project Mercury, Project Gemini, Apollo missions to the Moon, and numerous planetary probes.

Today’s space stamps include contemporary images of the space shuttle, the International Space Station, and photographs taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, as well as commemorative images of classic space achievements. The single most popular historic subject remains the Apollo 11 Moon landing.


Exploration & Achievements

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RocketryThe basic science behind modern space travel is rocket science—the use of incredibly powerful propellants in large quantities to launch manned spacecraft or unmanned satellites or planetary explorers into Earth orbit or beyond. Rocket science dates back to the German rockets of World War II, but was pursued vigorously by both the U.S. and the Soviet Union after the war, eventually making space travel possible. There have been three U.S. postage stamps related to rocket science, including two honoring early scientists in this field, Robert H. Goddard and Theodore von Kármán. The rocket-powered Bell X-1, included in the Air Stamps section above, was the first plane to break the sound barrier.

Unmanned ExplorersJust as manned space missions have explored Earth orbit and the Moon, numerous unmanned explorers have explored the solar system, including seven of the other eight planets and a large number of moons, including our own. A variety of U.S. postage stamps have honored these missions; one stamp also depicts Pluto, the farthest planet and the only one not yet explored by an unmanned craft.

Space ShuttleUnlike previous manned U.S. spacecraft, the space shuttles were intended to be brought back to Earth and reused many times. The reusable shuttles were intended for tasks such as launching and servicing satellites, performing near-zero-gravity scientific experiments, and transporting crew members and major components to the International Space Station. Although it has performed all those tasks, the shuttle program has also experienced two major disasters, with the loss of the shuttle Challenger in January 1986 and the shuttle Columbia in February 2003.

Space StationsThe U.S. established its first orbiting space station in May 1973 with the launch of Skylab. During the following year, three different crews of three astronauts each visited Skylab for missions of between 28 and 84 days. Skylab remained in orbit until July 1979, when it reentered the Earth’s atmosphere, disintegrating over Australia and the Indian Ocean. There are two U.S. postage stamps depicting Skylab.

Beginning in 1971, the Soviet Union successfully launched and operated a series of seven space stations. The final station, Mir, was launched in 1986; it remained in active use until 1999 and was scrapped through de-orbiting in 2001. A rare U.S. postage stamp image of the Mir space station may be found in the 1992 stamp shown here.

The 16-nation International Space Station, depicted in two U.S. holographic stamps, has been under construction in Earth orbit since 1998. It has been continuously occupied since November 2000 by American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts, as well as shorter-term visitors from other nations. In addition to the United States and Russia, nations involved in this U.S.-led project include Canada, Japan, Brazil, and 11 member nations of the European Space Agency.

Earth from SpaceAstronauts have often commented on a stunning sight never seen by human beings before the 1960s: the planet Earth as it appears from space. This image has been the subject of two U.S. postage stamps, including one of the first U.S. holographic stamps.




The study of space through both Earth-based and Earth-orbiting telescopes has been the subject of a large number of U.S. space stamps. Some illustrate the great observatories of Earth, all located on high mountains to minimize atmospheric distortion. Others show the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope. And still more offer images captured by astronomers, of distant stars and galaxies.

Hubble Space TelescopeThe best-known satellite on U.S. postage stamps is the Hubble Space Telescope, launched from the space shuttle Discovery in April 1990. Named for the 20th-century American astronomer Edwin Hubble, this large satellite is a joint project of NASA and the European Space Agency. A large optical telescope, it uses principles similar to those used in large telescopes on Earth. It is able to acquire far more detail than Earth-based telescope, however, because of its location in orbit outside of Earth’s atmosphere. U.S. postage stamps have shown the Hubble itself as well as dramatic images captured by the satellite in orbit.

Space Imagined

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In recent years, science fiction and scientific speculation have inspired a wealth of U.S. postage stamps. Some of the stamps show beloved icons of the popular imagination such as the Star Trek starship Enterprise; others hark back to pulp fiction illustrations of the 1930s. Still more represent today’s imaginings about future space vehicles and future mail transportation.

To celebrate the millenium, the Postal Service sponsored a children’s stamp design contest, “Stampin’ the Future.” All four of the Stampin’ the Future stamps, issued in 2000, are on imaginative space themes, and can be seen among the stamps here.



Among the more enduring daily benefits of the space age are the Earth-orbiting artificial satellites used for communications, collection of weather and climate information, and more. The first satellite to appear on a U.S. postage stamp was Echo 1, launched in August 1960. Echo 1, a large metallized balloon, inflated to 100 feet in diameter and passively reflected radio signals. Perhaps the most popular satellite stamp subject is the Hubble Space Telescope (above), a joint project of NASA and the European Space Agency launched in 1990.


Missions: Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo

Vital steps in the U.S. race to the Moon, the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo projects formed a series of missions that quickly built up U.S. spaceflight technology. Project Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard was the first American to go into space, on a suborbital flight. Fellow Mercury astronaut John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. Project Gemini, named for the twins of Greek mythology, used two-man astronaut crews. Its achievements included the first U.S. spacewalks.

Project Apollo began in tragedy with the loss of three astronauts in a launchpad fire in January 1967. After resuming in October 1968, the manned Apollo missions soon led to the first lunar landing. On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first human beings in history to walk on the surface of the Moon. This event has been commemorated by six U.S. postage stamps to date. The first one, issued in 1969, was printed from a master die taken to the Moon by the Apollo 11 astronauts.

International MissionsSeveral joint U.S.-Soviet or U.S.-Russian projects, as well as the 16-nation International Space Station, have been represented in U.S. stamps. In some cases, American and Russian designers have collaborated on the stamps as well. The Apollo-Soyuz stamps of 1975 commemorate that year’s joint exercise, in which an Apollo spacecraft was experimentally docked with a Soviet Soyuz capsule while in Earth orbit. U.S. stamp designer Robert McCall created the first of the two stamps, in which the docking is complete; Soviet designer Anatoly M. Aksamit produced the second stamp, showing the capsules still slightly apart.

An even more unusual project was a block of four stamps produced in 1992, the year that the Soviet Union was formally dissolved. In these stamps, milestones of the Soviet and U.S. space programs of the past are combined in each design. These stamps were jointly designed by Robert McCall and Russian designer Vladimir Beilin.

The unmanned Hubble Space Telescope (above) is a joint project of NASA and the European Space Agency.
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