In Formation: Katherine Stinson delivers Edmonton’s first airmail

Editors note: Last week marked the 100th anniversary of the Katherine Stinson’s first airmail flight in Western Canada.  Historian Neil Taylor, wrote this piece about the young American aviatrix for our July/August edition of From the Hangar.

By 1918 the First World War had entered its fourth year. Millions had perished on the battlefield with no immediate end in sight. At home, the public, appalled by the slaughter and burdened with rationing, increased taxation and rising inflation, sought relief from the pressing problems of the day. For many, the escapades of a new breed of thrill seekers gave them the excitement they so desired. All they had to do was look up to marvel at the daring exploits of adventurers set on conquering the skies – the aviators.

These flyers taking to the air in their fragile contraptions of wood, wire and fabric captured the public’s attention, and this was also the case in Edmonton. Beginning in 1911 with Hugh Robinson’s flight of a Curtiss Model D Pusher at the Edmonton Spring Horse Show, aerial displays became a popular attraction at Edmonton’s annual exhibitions. But there was no one who garnered more attention locally than a diminutive, young American aviatrix named Katherine Stinson.

Born in Fort Payne, Alabama in 1891, Katherine initially wanted to pursue a musical career. Lessons were expensive, particularly since she wanted to study in Europe, so in an effort to raise funds, she took flying lessons in 1912 and became a stunt pilot. These daredevil pilots could earn as much as $1,000/week, a tremendous sum in those days.

Katherine founded the Stinson Aviation Co. and began to perform at state fairs in a modified Wright Model B aircraft. In September 1913, while performing at the Montana State Fair, she delivered mail from the state fairgrounds to the roof of the federal building in Helena, thus becoming America’s 1st woman airmail pilot.

Katherine’s aerial exhibitions grew ever more complex. She became the first woman to “loop-the-loop”, and the first pilot to perform night skywriting with magnesium flares attached to her aircraft. She also took her act internationally, performing across western Canada in 1916 (including a stop in Edmonton) before embarking upon a tour of Japan and China.

In 1917 Katherine Stinson returned to Calgary and Edmonton, but her performances were dogged by numerous mechanical and weather problems. She decided to return to Alberta in 1918, and in early July she arrived in Calgary to perform at the Calgary Industrial Exhibition. Only two weeks before her arrival, Capt. Brian Peck and Corporal C.W. Mathers had made Canada’s first airmail flight from Montreal to Toronto. Anxious to duplicate this feat, the Calgary postmaster, Mr. George King made arrangements with the Edmonton Exhibition manager, Mr. Bill Stark, to fly official airmail from Calgary to Edmonton aboard Katherine Stinson’s airplane. Katherine supported the plan and accepted 259 letters stamped “Aeroplane Mail Service, July 9, 1918, Calgary, Alberta” for delivery to Edmonton.

At 1:03 pm on July 9th, Ms. Stinson lifted off in her Curtiss Stinson Special and headed north, a page torn from a school book serving as her navigational map. Engine problems developed almost immediately, and seven miles into her flight, Katherine was forced to land at Hugh McDowell’s farm on the Edmonton Trail (very near the current site of Calgary International Airport). Her mechanics arrived and quickly identified the problem as a loose bolt in the carburetor that choked off her fuel supply. Working feverishly, her mechanics had her back in the air by 5:55 pm.

A strong crosswind made navigation difficult, and Katherine fought to follow the north-running CPR tracks. As the crowd at the Edmonton Exhibition anxiously awaited her arrival, her progress was closely monitored as reports filtered in from communities she passed on her way north.

Finally boring in from the south, Stinson circled the Edmonton Exhibition Grounds and landed in the grandstand infield precisely at 8:00 pm.

The Edmonton Bulletin gushed:

Bill Stark, Manager of the Edmonton Exhibition, and George Armstong, Edmonton Postmaster, on hand to receive the bag of letters flown by Katherine Stinson to Edmonton.

“Twice around in a wide circle the machine swung, the drone of the engine being heard high above the babel of voices and the varied noises of the midway. Then, when due west, with the sun behind and the landing place indicated by a huge arrow of white cloth laid out on the grass, the plane tipped its nose downward and swooped like a gigantic swallow to earth. The wheels skimmed the grass and the engine was cut off. Two or three long bumps and the machine stopped, right up against the east fence…. Miss Stinson, disguised in helmet and goggles and wearing an oilskin coat, was plentifully identified by her radiant and irrepressible smile as she stood up in the cockpit of the machine and gazed around, nodding to acquaintances here and there in the crowd which promptly closed in in the densest kind of a jam around her.”

Katherine Stinson had completed a feat no one else in western Canada had ever accomplished and in so doing had earned herself a special place in the hearts of Albertans. Her aviation career, however, ended far too quickly. When the United States entered the First World War, Katherine tried to enlist as a military pilot. She was turned down and instead served overseas as an ambulance driver. While stationed in France, she contracted influenza which developed into tuberculosis, and she was forced to give up flying.

Katherine Stinson did live a long life, passing away in 1977 at the age of 86. Today she is recognized as an aviation pioneer by the International Aerospace Hall of Fame, but for Edmontonians, she will always be remembered as the first pilot to deliver airmail to the city.