You've Got Mail... an Alabaman Aviatrix in Alberta

 You've Got Mail

On July 9, 1918, famed American aviatrix Katherine Stinson flew a mailbag containing 259 letters from Calgary to Edmonton in western Canada’s first air mail delivery. Eighty-eight years later, on July 9, 2006, that historic flight was re-enacted and a replica of the one-and-only “Curtiss Special” biplane used in the flight was rolled out at the Alberta Aviation Museum in Edmonton.

Miss Stinson was the fourth woman in the United States to earn a pilot’s license. While performing demonstration flights at the Calgary Industrial Exhibition, she had the opportunity to fly mail to Edmonton. The aircraft used by Katherine Stinson for the flight was unique, built for her in 1917 by the Curtiss Aeroplane Company of Buffalo, New York. Volunteer craftsmen at the Alberta Aviation Museum built an exact replica of that aircraft, now the first one a visitor sees upon entering the museum’s display floor.

The re-enactment flight with a modern Cessna 172 aircraft left Calgary for Edmonton with a bag of 259 specially stamped letters, or “covers”, in a vintage mailbag. The pilot was Audrey Kahovec, then a flying instructor with the Edmonton Flying Club, which was established in 1927 as Canada’s first flying club and the president was well-known First World War ace and famed bush pilot Wop May.

Upon arrival of the mail in Edmonton, the Curtiss Special replica was rolled out to make its public debut and officially joined the collection of over 30 aircraft at the Alberta Aviation Museum. It is located in a 1941 wartime hangar at the City Centre Airport. It is the last remaining double-wide, double-long hangar built in Canada for the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. The hangar itself is now a designated historic site.

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In 1918, Katherine Stinson, sitting in her Curtiss Special, receives the mail (259 letters) from Calgary postmaster George King, accompanied by the manager of the Calgary Industrial Exhibition, Ernest Richardson, at right. Archive photo.

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90 years later, Pilot Audrey Kahovec hands the vintage mailbag with 259 commemorative covers to Canada Post representative Teresa Williams. At centre is Mark Bamford, representing Edmonton Northlands, successor to the Edmonton Exhibition Association. .

Although the replica will not be flying, it is true in every detail to the Curtiss Special and even uses an original 1917 Curtiss V-8 OX engine and propeller. Built of wood with fabric covering, the beautiful biplane displays the same insignia as the original. The large red cross on the tail of the aircraft was placed there by Stinson as a show of her support in fund-raising efforts for the Red Cross in the First World War. She raised two million dollars for the organization with her flying exhibitions, big money in those days.

As no plans exist for the unique aircraft, volunteers who built the replica had to create their own drawings based on photographs and reference to other Curtiss aircraft of similar construction, such as the famed JN-4. 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, restoration manager at the museum, who has been a volunteer there since 1987.

The re-enactment flight and the roll-out of the Curtiss Special were projects of the Alberta Aviation Museum and the Canadian Aerophilatelic Society, Western Chapter. CAS members of the planning committee who coordinated the flight and produced the 259 commemorative covers were Denny May, son of Wop May, and Gordon Mallett, father of Capt. Charles Mallett of the Canadian Forces, a former Snowbird pilot.

The 1918 flight was not without incident. Shortly after take-off, problems necessitated a forced landing on a farm that now borders the north edge of the Calgary International Airport. After having the Curtiss Special serviced, Katherine Stinson took off again, returned to Calgary to keep her intended flight intact, then flew non-stop to Edmonton, arriving just after 8:00 p.m. to a cheering crowd.

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The Curtiss Special on the McDowell farm near Calgary, after making a forced landing on the first attempt to deliver the mail to Edmonton. Katherine Stinson is seated in the cockpit. The man with his back to the camera could be J.Q. Lane. The woman holding the upper wing might be Grace McDowell. Photo supplied by Alan Spiller.

As the aircraft passed overhead following the railway to Edmonton, telegraph operators tapped out messages to the next railway station so that the flight’s progress was reported as the yellow biplane made its way to the capital city.

The next day, the Edmonton Journal reported that, “Flying as true as an arrow the bird-like figure hove into sight from the south, and it was only a few minutes before the whirling of the propeller could be easily heard. Flying at a great height Miss Stinson gracefully circled the grounds, coming down by easy stages until in a favorable position to land against the wind.”

The Curtiss Special had previously set another record in the United States. It was the aircraft flown by Stinson in her famous 610-mile non-stop flight from San Diego to San Francisco on December 11, 1917 in nine hours and ten minutes.

To commemorate the flight of western Canada’s first air mail delivery, Canadian artist Jim Bruce created and donated to the Alberta Aviation Museum a splendid painting of the Curtiss Special in flight from Calgary to Edmonton. High-quality prints of the painting are available for purchase at the museum’s gift shop. In addition, Jim created a portrait of Katherine Stinson and donated it to the Museum.

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Well-known Canadian aviation artist, Jim Bruce, painted the Curtiss Special in flight on July 9, 1918 as Katherine Stinson followed the CPR railway tracks to Edmonton to deliver the first air mail in western Canada.

Although true to the original, right down to the Stinson decals and the vanity case in the instrument panel, the replica biplane has a secret. Hidden in the engine is an electric motor to spin the propeller. When the beautiful yellow biplane made its debut in Edmonton on July 9, 2006, the whirling propeller was accompanied by the sound of an actual 1917 Curtiss engine on the p.a. system.

“I was excited to be part of this historical event,” says pilot Audrey Kahovec, who flew the re-enactment flight. At 32, she has been flying for half her life, having first earned her glider’s license and then private pilot’s license as a teenager in the Royal Canadian Air Cadets. “It is an honour to retrace the airways of such a pioneering woman in aviation history,” says Audrey. Today she is first officer with Airsprint, flying the company’s Pilatus PC-12

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Gerry Blacklock works at fitting ignition leads on the Curtiss liquid cooled V-8 engine, an OX model which cranked out 100 horsepower.

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Left to right, Roy Miller, Jim Fearn and Lindsay Deeprose unpack rare original Curtiss OX engine parts to complete the valve assembly. A search on the internet discovered  the components.

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The basic control panel, with magneto switch, oil pressure gauge, tachometer – and a vanity compartment with a mirrored cover so Katherine Stinson could check her appearance before alighting from the aircraft when she made her exhibition flights.

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Construction stage, showing extensive use of wood in building the aircraft.

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Roll-out at last! On July 9, 2006, names of four volunteers who helped build the world’s only replica of the Curtiss Special were drawn from a hat for the privilege of pushing out the aircraft. Note the spinning propeller, operated by a 24-volt electric motor hidden in the engine block.


REMEMBERING HISTORY WITH STINSON MOMENTS

During the planning for the re-enactment flight and roll-out, a number of special moments occurred. One included getting the photos from Alan Spiller of Katherine Stinson and her unique biplane when it made a forced landing just north across the road from today’s Calgary International Airport, at the farm of Hugh and Grace McDowell, Alan’s great-grandparents. In 2008 the century-old farmhouse is still there.

Another special moment was hearing Tony Cashman’s recollections about meeting Katherine Stinson in 1959 when she last visited Edmonton. Tony interviewed her for his radio broadcast at that time. Well-known as a historian and writer of some two dozen books, Tony served as an RCAF navigator during the Second World War, completing a tour of duty on Halifax bombers. “If Calgary expands its property any more on the north side to include the place where Katherine made her forced landing, we can then claim that Katherine Stinson made the first landing at the Calgary International Airport!” says Tony.

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With re-enactment pilot Audrey Kahovec at the controls, the Curtiss Special replica is introduced to a large and appreciative crowd as it makes its official debut at the Alberta Aviation Museum. To see a one-minute movie of the roll-out of the Curtiss Special on July 9, 2006, check the internet at http://ca.youtube.com/watch?v=WEl6RNFNzco.

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Re-enactment pilot Audrey Kahovec tries out the vintage leather coat while historian Tony Cashman visits the project in the museum’s huge shop
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Still another special moment was meeting Darlie Oswald, who died at 96 in August 2008. She remembered as a little girl seeing Stinson fly over her family’s farm near Nisku on July 9, 1918 on the biplane’s approach to Edmonton with the air mail. Darlie attended the Curtiss Special roll-out and was introduced to the large crowd by Tony Cashman, who was the featured speaker at the event.

Yet another “Stinson moment” occurred on April 11, 2008. At the museum I met Ray Lane of Edmonton who came in with his wife, Lorna. I got chatting with them, and spent a little time showing them some of the aircraft and the restoration shop. I explained that our Curtiss Special is a replica of the original flown by Katherine Stinson. To that, Ray replied, “She flew the first air mail in western Canada from Calgary to Edmonton in 1918.”
    “That’s right,” I said, “and we re-enacted that flight in 2006 when we rolled out this replica.”
    “But she didn’t get very far,” said Ray, “before she had fuel problems and had to land and get her aircraft serviced.”
    “Right, again,” I said, “but how did you know?”
    “Because it was my father who was called out to fix her aircraft!” explained Ray.

His father, John Quincy Lane, known as “J.Q.” came to Alberta from Ontario in 1900, served in the army reserve before the First World War, later became a tinsmith, and likely got involved with aviation through his brother Ray, who was an aerial photographer in the First World War. During the Second World War, J.Q. served as a civilian airframe mechanics instructor with the RCAF in Calgary.

Ray was born six weeks after the famous flight, on August 21, 1918. He served with the Canadian Army in the Second World War, fighting at Normandy in July 1944 when he was a wireless operator with the 1st Hussars. After four years in the service he left as a corporal in 1946.

Then another “Stinson moment” occurred in October 2007 when I phoned Bill Kent, a friend in Langley BC, to offer him best wishes on the occasion of his 100th birthday. As we hadn’t spoken for some time, we caught up on each other’s recent activities. When I told Bill that I was involved with the roll-out of the replica Curtiss Special biplane at the Alberta Aviation Museum, to my great surprise, he said immediately, “Katherine Stinson? I saw her fly at Red Deer when I was 10 years old!”  Bill watched her fly at the Red Deer Agricultural Society fair on July 31, 1918 when he lived in Alberta.

1918 was a busy summer for Miss Stinson in Canada, as she appeared at many fairs and exhibitions in the prairie provinces with her unique aircraft. Wherever she flew, she was front-page news in local daily and weekly newspapers, along with stories about the First World War. In addition to appearing at six Alberta locations in the summer of 1918, that same year Katherine Stinson flew at Saskatoon, Moose Jaw, Regina, Brandon and Peterborough. Sadly, her flying days would soon be over. Eager to fly in the First World War, she was not allowed to do so, and instead drove an ambulance for the Red Cross in France. While there, in November 1918 she contracted influenza, which developed into tuberculosis. She spent six years recovering in a sanitarium in Santa Fe, New Mexico and never flew again as a pilot.

Katherine was born on February 14, 1891 in Alabama and died on July 8, 1977 at the age of 86, after a long career as an architect. She and her husband, Miguel Otero, whom she married in 1928, are buried in the National Cemetery at Santa Fe, New Mexico.

While both Katherine and her unique aircraft were American, they both hold a special place in the aviation history of Alberta and western Canada. Today the Curtiss Special can be seen at the Alberta Aviation Museum, in Edmonton

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Adventure was written all over her face in this portrait by aviation artist, Jim Bruce.

About the Author: John Chalmers is an Edmonton writer and historian, and served as chairman of a committee that planned the roll-out of the Curtiss Special and the re-enactment flight of western Canada’s first air mail flight. John is a member of the board of directors of the Alberta Aviation Museum Association, a member of the Ottawa chapter of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society and the national CAHS.

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