Women of Aviation Worldwide Week is set to take place March 2 -8, 2020, with the Alberta Aviation Museum’s celebration event taking place on March 7th. Click here for more details.
In preparation for this week, John Chalmers profiles a recent update to one of Alberta’s famous female aviators, Katherine Stinson.
A famous American pilot who holds a special place in Alberta aviation history has been installed as a member of the National Aviation Hall of Fame (NAHF) in the United States. Katherine Stinson, who flew 259 specially stamped letters for the first airmail flight in western Canada, on July 9, 1918, from Calgary to Edmonton, was honoured at the annual enshrinement ceremonies for NAHF held in Denver, Colorado on September 28, 2019.
Katherine’s first flight in Edmonton was in 1916 for demonstration flights at the Edmonton Exhibition. Two years later, in 1918, while performing demonstration flights at the Calgary Industrial Exhibition, she had the opportunity to fly mail to Edmonton. Flying non-stop from Calgary, she carried 259 specially-stamped letters in her one-of-a kind Curtiss Special biplane. The unique aircraft was built for her by the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Corporation. Katherine established several record-setting flights with that aircraft.
An exact copy of the aircraft was built by volunteer craftsmen at the Alberta Aviation Museum in Edmonton and made its debut during ceremonies on July 9, 2006, following a re-enactment of the 1918 airmail flight. On that date, a Cessna 172 aircraft flew from Calgary with 259 specially stamped letters to Edmonton in a vintage mailbag. The pilot was Audrey Kahovec, who was then a flying instructor with the Edmonton Flying Club, which was established in 1927 as Canada’s first flying club.
A second re-enactment was done on the 100th anniversary, July 9, 2018. For that flight, 259 letters were carried in a Bombardier Q400 turboprop aircraft in the flight sponsored by the airline, and again the pilot was a woman.
When Katherine Stinson arrived at Edmonton in the historic mail flight of 1918, the Edmonton Journal reported on July 10, “She is such a slender bit of a girl, one can hardly realize that her hands have the strength to handle a biplane. But is seems it is not so much the hands that count, as the head. ‘Flying is perfectly safe as long as you keep your head,’ says Miss Stinson, so in that respect, at least, flying resembles any other occupation.”
In 1959 she returned to Edmonton again, this time to serve as parade marshal for the opening of the Exhibition, in the year of the 50th anniversary of powered flight in Canada, flown by J.AD. McCurdy in the Silver Dart at Baddeck, Nova Scotia.
Because no plans exist for the Curtiss Special, the volunteers who built the replica had to create their own drawings based on photographs and with reference to other Curtiss aircraft of similar construction, such as the Curtiss JN-4, or “Jenny,” as it is known. Fifteen workers invested about 20,000 hours of volunteer time over four years.
“Restoring and displaying historic aircraft retains the history of aviation in this part of our world for the people of today and for future generations,” says Lindsay Deeprose, who served as volunteer restoration manager at the museum for 14 years. Now living in Canmore, Alberta, when Lindsay was contacted with the news that Stinson was inducted as a member of the National Aviation Hall of Fame in the U.S., his first response was, “It’s about time!”
When Katherine Stinson was enshrined as a member of the National Aviation Hall of Fame, her medal was presented by retired USAF colonel and former NASA astronaut, Eileen Collins, a member of the Hall herself, who was the first woman pilot and commander of the Space Shuttle. Receiving the medal and speaking on behalf of Katherine was Jan McKenzie, national U.S. president of The Ninety-Nines, an international organization of women pilots. Jan paid tribute to Katherine Stinson in her acceptance, and the medal for Katherine will be placed in the Texas Air Museum at Stinson Field in San Antonio, Texas.
Author Note: John Chalmers has served as a board member for the Alberta Aviation Museum and was chairman of the committee which organized the 2006 re-enactment of Katherine Stinson’s 1918 air mail flight re-enactment. John has recently retired as Historian for Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame after 10 years in that position.
Be sure to come to our Women of Aviation Worldwide Week Celebration on March 7th from 10:00 am – 4:00 pm. See our replica of the Curtiss Special in our revitalized displays. Katherine will also be profiled in our family programming as we host our popular Katherine Stinson’s Great Escape.