Let me be your wings

Passion lives on in aviation collectors in Lower Mainland.

Mark Stewart with Henry Tenby / The Runner
Mark Stewart with Henry Tenby / The Runner

By Samantha Thompson
[executive editor]

When Hamish Telford was a teenager, he would go to the airport with his friends to watch planes, and go around to the different airline counters and take whatever they’d give them—including timetables, baggage labels and stickers. It instilled within him a true passion for aviation, something that was reignited about 15 years ago when he began collecting aviation postcards.

“We would hoard [the airline giveaways] and put [them] in our bags,” he says. “I went to an airliner show in Seattle [15 years ago] and got back into it again, and around about the same time . . . we had the advent of eBay, which made collecting anything much easier.”

Telford, a political science professor at the University of the Fraser Valley, now owns a collection of about 5,000 cards (one of the largest in North America), although he says that, “By the standards of my fellow collectors, [mine] is a fairly modest collection.” His postcards are largely from the 1940s to 1960s, a time period he refers to as the “golden era of flying.”

Vancouver Aviation Show

Telford recently had a table at the Vancouver Airline and Aviation Collectibles Show, at the Richmond Rod and Gun Club on Oct. 18. The show saw over 300 attendees, all of whom were able to peruse the wares of almost 50 tables that had been booked primarily by individual collectors like Telford. The show was organized by Henry Tenby, a fellow aviation enthusiast who has been hosting the event for several years.

“This kind of show, the following has to build up,” he says. “It’s something that builds on itself.”

Tenby’s origin story in aviation is similar to Telford’s in that he, too, found the passion for aviation when he was quite young. When he was a toddler, his grandmothers would take him to the airport to pass the time.

“I just became fascinated with commercial aircraft, more so than other types of aviation,” he says. “And as a young kid I’d build airplane models.”

This early interest grew into a hobby, and as a young adult he began photographing aircraft in coloured slides. He’s been taking slides since 1982, and also tries to collect old images from people who took photos in the ‘50s and ‘60s. He writes about airlines and airline history, and has published a book called Air to Air: Ultimate Airline Photography.

The network of aviation enthusiasts is quite large, and Telford notes that shows similar to Tenby’s happen throughout North America, Europe and now Asia. One of the biggest is Airliners International, an annual show that typically occurs in an American city. For Telford, one of the benefits of renting tables at these shows is that you essentially get early admission to the event — you can peruse others’ products before the crowds come rushing in.

“It’s a social activity, as well as a collecting activity,” he says.

Although the collectors at these shows are looking for everything from diecast models of planes, to photos, to books, Telford’s main focus is postcards.

Golden Era of Postcards

“I’m interested in the postcards of the actual airplanes,” he says, noting that there are postcards of the destinations the airline flew to, as well as of airplanes and the interiors of aircraft. “It was very novel, and most people had never been in an airplane, so the postcard would show . . . passengers in flight. Those who had never been in an airplane could get a peek inside.”

Choosing a favourite postcard from his collection is difficult, but he does have an affinity for a series of sepia postcards put out by Air Canada in the 1930s. There are at least 30 cards in the set, and Telford so far has about 20. And like any collector, there’s also postcards that he wishes he could find.

“There’s an old real photo postcard of Canadian Pacific Airlines up at the airport in the Queen Charlottes,” he says. “I’d love to get that, I’ve never actually physically seen the card, [but] I know it exists . . . that would be a good one to get.”

Telford keeps all his postcards stored in special plastic sleeves, noting that it becomes expensive for people who choose to keep buying albums for their cards. The price range for aviation postcards vary largely, going for anywhere from 25-cents to $200, although Telford has seen cards sell for more than that. Personally, the most he’s ever spent was $125 for a single postcard.

The Good Old Days

Both Tenby and Telford lament the golden age of flying, when the concept was new and exciting. Tenby compares it to today’s technology wave.

“It was the thing that everybody was talking about, it was the newest thing . . . so the airlines were keen to promote. The medium was not yet a mass mode of transport like it is today, like getting on a bus, so for that reason the airlines really needed to go the extra step and the medium of promotion back in that era was giveaways.”

Both Telford and Tenby note that airlines aren’t really producing the physical promotional items as much as they used to, because the nature of flying itself has changed.

“It’s a bygone era,” says Telford. “It used to be a very novel thing to do, [and] it was a very expensive thing to do. People used to dress up: men would put on their best suits and ties and ladies would put on their best dresses. [But] now people are like, ‘Oh my god, I’ve got to go on a flight with 800 people,’ so you put your sweats on, so you’re really comfortable.”
“It’s lost it’s kind of appeal.”

However, aviation as a hobby has many passionate people, including Telford and Tenby. Although people take on the hobby for different reasons, it’s logical to think of the nostalgia that surrounds collecting memorabilia from the past as being a significant attractor.

“It’s a form of social history — you’re curating social history,” says Telford. “For me, it’s [about] documenting the early phases of airline travel.”

“[Flying] is one of the few things today where everybody can save just a little bit of money and do something,” says Telford. “For a minimal investment one can go to the four corners of the world, and one hundred years ago that was something that people only dreamed about it. It’s that step before going off into outer space, and entering intergalactic travel.”

“I think for that reason, it’s something special that people are passionate about.”