Bush Pilots and Barnstormers – Katherine Stinson

1920 Street, In The News

With the closing of the Municipal Airport, Fort Edmonton Park joins our colleagues in commemorating the history of early Edmonton aviation – in particular the individual stories of men and women who navigated that heavenly aether as Bush Pilots and Barnstormers! 

One of the first aviators Edmontonians encountered was, in fact, an aviatrix. Katherine Stinson visited Edmonton while many of its sons were in Europe during the Great War and women everywhere were being introduced to new roles outside the home.

Katherine Stinson – The Flying Schoolgirl

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Stinson in Calgary

Stinson was an American pilot, the fourth lady so licensed in the United States in 1912. She was trained at age 21 by Max Lillie, a famous pilot who was at first tentative to take on a female student. Many of Katherine’s siblings became pilots as well, including her sister Marjorie.

Stinson began her career “barnstorming” (stunt-flying) at exhibitions the next year, often billed as the ‘Flying Schoolgirl’, and would become the first woman to perform a loop and the first woman authorized to carry U.S. Mail. She visited Japan, China, and Canada during the Great War and often used her flying to raise money for the Red Cross – one of the only ways she was permitted, as a woman, to contribute to the war effort.

It was during this time she visited Edmonton a number of times, flying in the 1916, 1917, and 1918 exhibitions. As an added attraction to her barnstorming, she was appointed as an official mail carrier flying a sack of 1st class mail from Calgary to Edmonton. Edmonton historian Tony Cashman says of Stinson, “she is 5 feet 3, weighs 105 pounds and speaks with a southern accent, which reduces stern men to jelly.”

She retired from flying near the end of the war to travel to Europe and drive an ambulance for the Red Cross. It was here she contracted influenza and was unable to continue her aviation career upon her return.

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Pilot Katherine and Interpreter Elena. Can you see the resemblance?

At Fort Edmonton Park we remember the Exhibition primarily through its component Midway, but our lady interpreters on 1905 Street and 1920 Street would be happy to discuss Stinson in the larger context of women’s struggle for opportunities outside the ‘domestic sphere.’