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Amelia Earhart

Stunts made her famous but Amelia Earhart knew
the future was in selling seats, not feats

This article, written by Alfred Holden, Sunday Ideas Editor, appeared in the Toronto Star Jul 15, 2007. (Photo: Sylvia Heininger Holden)

The flight left Boston at 3 o’clock my grandmother always said.  The Burlington Daily News reported it arriving in town on time, at 5:15. A website,, where someone has posted scans of old airline timetables, supports the accuracy of both, all these years later.

One senses it would have been a memorable experience, no matter what.  The ten-passenger Stinson Tri-motor pictured was a wood, metal and fabric contraption that could barely fly 100 miles per hour.  The Central Vermont/Boston - Maine pilot (there was no co-pilot) sometimes navigated by following railroad tracks through the valleys, below the mountain-tops.  And as a captain later recounted, "necessary equipment was gum for the mouth and cotton for the ears." (Early airliners weren’t pressurized and chewing eased painful ups and downs; the roar of the piston engines was ear-splitting.)

Someone, probably from the airline, wrote my grandmother Erna’s married initials (for Alfred Harris) and surname on what does not appear to be a ticket or boarding pass.  The other name is the autograph of Amelia Earhart, signed in pencil by the world’s then-and-now most famous "aviatrix" (her era’s racy term for woman flier). 

Both were passengers on that flight from Boston to Burlington, Vt., on May 22, 1934 (a scheduled trip that went on to Montreal).  Earhart was news wherever she went - which explains the newspaper report of the plane’s arrival time - though that day my grandmother may have been more the pioneer.  "I had been in Boston to my class reunion," she now tells me from beyond, via an old cassette-tape of the story "We had only about eight passengers on the plane at that time, you know." When the public still viewed flying as a dangerous stunt, Erna Heininger was returning from a routine business trip (she was a dentist, class of 1918, Tufts University), by air.
Earhart, of course, earned her fame flying stunts — the spectacular, long-distance flights that eventually saw her disappear with her navigator, in their Lockheed plane over the Pacific Ocean.  (Seventy years ago this week on July 18, 1937, the U.S.  Navy officially halted what the Toronto Star, in its reports, called "The greatest sea hunt in history")

The celebrity-Earhart was pumped up for her stunts by, among other promoters, her publisher husband George P.  Putnam, who revelled in, and made money from, her accomplishments.  But there was another Amelia Earhart — in retrospect more subtly visionary, and to whom the future of flying looked different.  When other fliers were still barnstorming, Earhart had the idea that traveling by air might become nothing special at all but merely, and gloriously, routine.  She put her money where her mouth was, as one of the founders of Central Vermont/Boston-Maine Airways.  That old timetable on the Web lists "Amelia Earhart, vice-president." And in drumming up business among a sceptical, generally fearful public, she proved to be an ace.

In Adventures of a Yellowbird a pilot’s lively chronicle of Central Vermont/Boston-Maine Airways, which soon grew into Northeast Airlines and later was folded into today’s Delta, Robert Mudge recalled how savvy marketing gave the little airline lift.  "They prepared lists of people from each city who were likely prospects for air service or were in influential positions.  Each person on the list was contacted by mail and invited to come to the airport on a specified date to meet Miss Amelia Earhart."

Interestingly, the hundreds of free rides with Earhart serving as hostess (not pilot) in a Stinson plane like the one you see here were offered primarily to the wives of movers and shakers.  This seems in the spirit of Earhart’s news-making feminism.  ("You’re saying that women are or should be the equal of men in aviation?," the Star’s crusty Gordon Sinclair asked her, in a 1932 interview in Toronto — where, by the way, Earhart worked during World War I as a nurse’s aid at Spadina Military Hospital, 1 Spadina Cres.  "No, not in aviation:’ Earhart replied.  "In everything.")

But the airline, which had railroad connections, knew it was still men who traveled on business.  Men cited (perhaps dishonestly) not fearful; wife-disapproval in their reluctance to fly.  So in strategic "rounds of teas and talks," as pilot Mudge remembered, women were invited to meet Earhart, "conqueror of oceans, calmly talking with them:’ who floated the idea of flying husbands, flying everybody.

"I urge every mother particularly to go with their children on their first ride in the air," she told the banquet in Burlington on "Amelia Earhart Day," May 23, where she was speaker and honoured guest. 

This autographed card, good for a free ride that day was one lure — it was part of the very invitation Mudge describes being sent out in cities the fledgling airline served. 

For another kind of momentum, the airline got local clubs like the Lions and Zonta (the international women’s organization Earhart was involved in) to be co-sponsors of her visit and to host festivities. 

My grandmother recalled people talked, and talked, about their first flight.  James E.  Burke, the elderly (born in 1848) mayor of Burlington, had vowed never to fly.  Charmed by Earhart, he changed his mind.  "The time," Erna Heininger quoted him announcing, in the imperfect English the folksy mayor was known for, "has came."

A picture we have shows Earhart being welcomed at the airport by officialdom including my grandfather (Alfred Heininger was one of Burlington’s early airport commissioners, and an eager investor in another firm, the Vermont Air Transport Co., which built experimental aircraft).  Earhart is receiving a key to the city presented by a boy named Jack Shearer who became as famous as Amelia, locally, as a high-flying Chevrolet dealer.
For years after my grandmother died, my parents received annual reports in the mail from a company called Atlas Corp., about which we knew little.  In time, the same Internet that serves up old airline timetables solved the mystery: Atlas had been the holding company for Northeast, Amelia’s line, and grandma owned stock.

It had long since morphed into something else, and wasn’t worth much money.  Airlines are more exciting and useful than profitable. 

But they were a great idea (recent eco-concerns notwithstanding).  "I have the feeling that there is just about one more good flight in me," Earhart said, sometime before her last, fateful departure.  Too bad she didn’t take the safer route — selling seats, not feats. 

Yet that is part of her legacy.  Earhart was lost, but her airline’s Stinsons flew and flew, for Central Vermont/Boston-Maine.  They made their rounds in New England weather — essentially Canadian weather, brutal—without a passenger fatality, right through the turbulent early years of air travel.

Safe flying is not stunt; it's routine today but in the 1930’s it was like going to the moon.