“Girl to Fly Across Nation” was how the Oakland Tribune reported the plan of Lillian Gatlin of San Francisco to make an aerial trip from coast-to-coast via air mail. It was her idea to do this in honor of mothers whose sons were aviators and killed during the First World War.
Gatlin was consigned by air mail in San Francisco with her destination New York. She made the mail flight as a “special delivery package” with a parcel-post tag pinned to her flight outfit.
She departed the West Coast Oct. 5, 1922, in one of the Air Mail Services de Havilland mail planes equipped with a 400-hp Liberty motor. By the time of her arrival in New York Oct. 8, millions of Americans had their attention focused on the wonderful work being performed by the Mail Service and on her plan to honor fallen airmen.
Because of her flight, Gatlin received the distinction of being the first woman to cross the United States by air.
At the time of Gatlin’s flight in 1922, women in aviation were such a novelty that even when a woman boarded an airplane it made news.
In fact, aviation itself was a novelty. By 1922 there were only about 120 airfields in the United States and about 130 commercial aviation businesses, of which only 17 had been in business for three years or more.
Aviation was a very new enterprise and women were not a part of it. However women found that they could attract attention to personal causes through air travel. Hollywood ingénues could get publicity by taking an airplane flight or even getting their picture taken with a flying machine.
Gatlin, president of the National Association of Gold Star Mothers, hoped that by flying across the United States she would create interest in having a memorial day set aside for dead fliers. At the time the only aerial passenger service was local, but the Post Office was providing coast-to-coast mail service.
Under the sponsorship of Paul Henderson, Assistant Postmaster General, she was able to make the transcontinental flight as a special delivery package.
The flight was made in 11 stages and followed the route of the regular Air Mail Service across the nation. When the mail plane departed the Pacific Coast Oct. 5, Gatlin was escorted from the San Francisco flying field by five army planes and five civilian planes.
During the trip she made stops at Reno, Salt Lake City, Rock Springs, Wyo., Cheyenne, North Platte, Omaha, Iowa City, Chicago, and Cleveland. At each stop Gatlin made speeches on her memorial project and was received by mayors and other officials who pledged support for her plan.
Gatlin arrived at the Air Mail Service Station at Curtiss Field, Mineola, Long Island at 5:45 p.m. on Oct. 8. The fight from San Francisco was completed in the flying time of 27 hours and 11 minutes. It was estimated that Gatlin had flown 2,680 miles on her trip.
The last leg of the adventure began in Cleveland with pilot Elmer Leonhardt at the controls. They ran into rainstorms and fog before arriving at Mineola. The pilot lowered his flight path to go low over the Hudson River and then to New York Harbor, where he circled the Statue of Liberty.
When asked by reporters at Curtiss Field to comment on her feelings about the trip, she replied, “It was a good deal of rest. Flying is the ideal method of traveling, no invitations to buy products advertised on sign boards extending from coast to coast, nothing to disturb the easy sailing through the atmosphere.”
FLIERS NOT FORGOTTEN
In keeping with her promotion of a memorial day for fallen aviators, Gatlin carried with her items from several dead fliers. These included baby shoes given to her by one mother, Lincoln Beachey’s cuff buttons, and Harold Coffey’s goggles, which she wore in flight.
At each of the stops she told the crowds that she was not superstitious, but that she wished to “preserve the memory of these men and many like them who died as martyrs to aviation whether in civil pursuits or in the cause of their country.”
During December 1922, Gatlin stood before a flier’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery and laid a wreath. Behind her were 24 Army and Navy officers. In the background were about 500 onlookers. Overhead came a flight of five Army planes in formation led by World War One fighter ace, Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker.
Gatlin had just asked President Warren Harding to designate the second Sunday in September as a national aerial day, when tribute would be paid to the Gold Star Mothers of aviation and their sons. Her plan had the approval of Major General Patrick, Chief of the Army Air Service and Rear Admiral Moffett, Chief of the Naval Air Service
Even though she was able to get this tribute to fallen fliers organized at Arlington, she was unable to get a national day of recognition approved. However, in 1926, Nov. 11 became Armistice Day, a national holiday to remember all who were lost in the First World War.