A hundred years ago last month, pioneering aviatrix Katherine Stinson became the first woman to fly for the U. S. Post Office airmail service, which began with a route between New York and Washington in May 1918. In those days the Post Office operated its own airplanes because there were few commercial airlines.
Authors Janet and Michael Bednarek describe the incident in their 2003 book Dreams of Flight as follows: “On September 26, 1918 Stinson, along with an escort pilot and plane flew the mail route between Washington, D. C. and New York City. The next day she and an escort flew back to Washington. Her flight failed to permanently break the gender barrier barring women from flying the mail. For reasons never explained Katherine Stinson resigned immediately after her one and only airmail flight.”
The matter is remembered differently by Benjamin Lipsner, who was the Washington-based manager of the service. While he was busy planning new routes, the aviatrix arrived in his office one day and announced, “I am Katherine Stinson and I would like to fly the mail.” Dozens of male pilots had already applied to Lipsner through normal channels. He kept their applications on file and intended to select the best among them as the service expanded to other cities. Although Lipsner knew Stinson was a famous stunt pilot he realized that flying over a fair ground was unlike carrying the mail aloft in all kinds of heavy weather. Thus, he turned her down gently.
Soon after she left, however, the Postmaster General’s office phoned Lipsner and ordered him to accept Stinson as a pilot. Several days later she returned to Lipsner and explained that she could not fly any of the fleet’s planes because they were equipped with then-modern control instruments. She could only fly airplanes furnished with instruments used in the outdated aircraft of the Wright [Brothers] Company. She asked Lipsner to reconfigure one of the planes especially for her.
After Lipsner explained that such a modification was out of the question a silent Stinson departed. But within an hour the Postmaster General’s office phoned again to tell Lipsner that he must accommodate Stinson, despite the added expense.
Eventually Stinson got a modified plane to fly on the first leg of the Washington-New York run, which terminated at Philadelphia, not New York. Despite doubling the cost, Lipsner assigned another pilot and plane to escort the lady in order to ensure that she did not get lost. The next day she returned to Washington where her male escort gallantly allowed her to land first. As Lipsner recalls, the city’s newspapers erroneously reported the episode with headlines such as “Katherine Stinson Beats Veteran Airmail Pilot to Washington.”
Unlike the Dreams of Flight authors who are at a loss to explain why Stinson left the airmail service after only a single flight, in 1971 author Arch Whitehouse, who was also a pioneering aviator as well as a prolific author, wrote: “After all the top-level pressure, the expensive equipment changes, and the publicity she [Stinson] decided that cross-country airmail flying was not her idea of a paying profession and that she could make more money performing aerial stunts over county fair racetracks.”
There’s no record explaining what became of the airplane expensively, and uniquely, modified for Stinson’s solitary flight.
Arch Whitehouse, The Sky’s the Limit (New York: Macmillan Company, 1971)
Janet and Michael Bednarek, Dreams of Flight: General Aviation in the United States (College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 2003)
Benjamin Lipsner and Len Hilts, The Airmail: Jennies to Jets (Westchester, Ill.: Wilcox and Follet, 1951)
Phil Leigh has authored seven books on American history, which may be inspected at his Amazon Author Page where more biographical information is readily available.