First Mail Flight Re-enacted

By John Chalmers

Historian, Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame

On Tuesday, July 9, 2018, western Canada’s first air mail flight of July 9, 1918, was re-enacted with a WestJet flight of a Bombardier Q400 aircraft. The original flight of 1918 was flown by American pioneer woman pilot, Katherine Stinson. While flying at six cities in Alberta in the summer of 1918, the opportunity arose to fly a mailbag from Calgary to Edmonton.

Following the CPR rail line between the two cities, Stinson flew a mailbag containing 259 specially stamped letters from Calgary to Edmonton. On July 9, 2006, in another event that had been likewise organized by the Canadian Aerophilatelic Society (CAS), Stinson’s historic flight had been previously re-enacted.

Then, as in 2018, 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 at the Alberta Aviation Museum. The aircraft took several years and 25,000 hours to build by volunteers at the Alberta Aviation Museum.

On July 9, 2018, 259 “covers” or letters, specially stamped for the occasion, were carried in the same mailbag used in 2006. Added to the bag was an original letter in its original envelope that was carried on Katherine Stinson’s flight of 1918!

That letter had been acquired by project organizer, Gordon Mallett, of the CAS. He obtained it from a grandson in Texas of the man who wrote it! The letter had been mailed by Henry Waterhouse to his wife, Arabella, who was visiting a relative in Edmonton.

Just as a woman made the historic flight of 1918, the centennial celebration had a woman pilot. In fact, two WestJet captains, Athenia Jansen and Janna Breker  Kettner, flew the Q400, with 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. 

As in 1918, the 100th anniversary flight carried a personal letter from the Calgary mayor to his counterpart in Edmonton.  Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi provided the letter for 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. The letter was hand-delivered to Mayor Iveson at his office during a break in a city council meeting on July 9. Its delivery provided a fine conclusion to recognizing the historic flight, both for its air mail delivery, and as the first non-stop flight between two major centres in western Canada. 

Thanks go to the Canadian Aerophilatelic Society. With full cooperation from WestJet, the Calgary International Airport and the offices of both mayors, the centennial flight and airmail delivery was a total success. Katherine Stinson has been honoured again and still holds a special place in Canadian aviation.