The RCAF marks the year of the Cyclone, 60 years of NORAD command, 100 years for 401 Tactical Fighter Squadron, and a century of maritime aviation. Plus much more!
On July 9, 2018, history was repeated for the second time when Western Canada’s first air mail flight was re-enacted with a WestJet Bombardier Q400 aircraft.
The original flight, which took place on July 9, 1918, was flown by American pioneer aviatrix, Katherine Stinson, when she flew a mailbag containing 259 specially-stamped letters from Calgary to Edmonton. While demonstrating flights at six Alberta cities in the summer of 1918, Stinson had the opportunity to make the historic delivery.
Following the CPR rail line between the two cities in the days before aerial maps, she landed on the racetrack infield at the Edmonton Exhibition grounds, where she was welcomed by a cheering crowd. She had previously flown into Edmonton two years earlier.
On July 9, 2006, in the first re-enactment of her flight, likewise organized by the Canadian Aerophilatelic Society (CAS), a vintage mailbag was used to fly 259 letters to Edmonton in a Cessna 172. Upon arrival of the mail, the exact replica of Stinson’s one-of-a-kind Curtiss Special biplane was rolled out to meet a large crowd at the Alberta Aviation Museum. The aircraft took museum volunteers several years and 25,000 hours to build.
At least four notable situations were part of the 2018 re-enactment flight. First, 259 “covers” or letters, specially stamped for the occasion, were carried in the same mailbag used in 2006. Second, added to the bag was an original letter in its original envelope that was carried on Katherine Stinson’s flight of 1918!
The letter was acquired by CAS project organizer, Gordon Mallett. He obtained the letter from a man in Texas, whose grandfather, Henry Waterhouse, had mailed it to his wife, Arabella, who was visiting a relative in Edmonton.
Third, just as a woman had made the historic flight of 1918, the centennial celebration was piloted by women. Two WestJet captains, Athenia Jansen and Janna Breker Kettner, flew the Q400, carrying the mailbag in the cockpit.
Upon landing in Edmonton, the mail was backstamped, then delivered to a Canada Post outlet for distribution. All passengers on the full flight were given a cover of the mail to be posted.
And fourth, the mailbag carried a personal letter from Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi to Edmonton mayor, Don Iveson. In 1918, acting mayor Frank Freeze in Calgary had mailed a letter to his counterpart, Harry Evans, in the capital city.
I had the privilege of handing Mayor Nenshi’s letter to Mayor Iveson at his office. His Worship had kindly arranged to meet during a break in a city council meeting that afternoon. Presenting the letter provided a fine conclusion to recognizing the historic flight, both for its air mail delivery, and as the first flight between two major centres in Western Canada.
In late 1918, Katherine Stinson went overseas, hoping to fly in the First World War. She wasn’t allowed to do that. So instead, she drove an ambulance for the Red Cross, for which she was a strong supporter and fund raiser. Sadly, in November 1918 she contracted influenza, which developed into tuberculosis. Upon return to the United States, she spent six years in a sanitarium and never flew again. She died in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she and her husband, Miguel Otero, are buried.
A pioneer pilot and heroine, Katherine Stinson still holds a special chapter in the story of Canadian aviation.
John Chalmers is a historian with Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame.