Women in Transportation History: Lillian Gatlin, Aviation Pioneer

On October 8, 1922, Lillian Gatlin became the first woman to travel across the continental United States in a plane when she arrived at the U.S. air mail service station at Long Island’s Curtiss Field at 5:45 p.m. and three days after departing from San Francisco. Wearing a “special delivery” tag on her flying suit, Gatlin rode along in aircraft used to transport mail. This flight, as a matter of fact, traveled along an air mail route and took place under the auspices of Assistant U.S. Postmaster General Paul Henderson. 

Gatlin proposed the idea of such a flight in the first place to help promote the goals of the National Association of Aviation Gold Mothers, which she founded to highlight the lives and sacrifices of pilots who were killed while flying. “I want the gold star mothers to feel that the memory of their sons shall endure,” she proclaimed after arriving in Long Island. 

Gatlin conveyed that same message to various mayors and other public officials when stopping along the cross-country flight at the following places: Reno, Nevada; Salt Lake City, Utah; Rock Springs, Wyoming; Cheyenne, Wyoming; North Platte, Nebraska; Omaha, Nebraska; Iowa City, Iowa; Chicago, Illinois; and Cleveland, Ohio. To further emphasize her mission and message, Gatlin made the trip wearing the cuff links of one pilot who died in the line of duty and goggles of another pilot who perished under similar circumstances. The total time in the air for the 2,680-mile (4,313-kilometer)-long flight was 27 hours and 11 minutes. 

Along with promoting her special cause, Gatlin used her speech after completing the flight to praise the virtues of air travel. “Flying is the ideal method of traveling,” she said. “No cinders, no invitations to buy the products advertised on signboards extending from coast to coast, nothing to disturb the easy sailing through the atmosphere.” 

Photo Credit: Public Domain

For more information on Lillian Gatlin and her record-setting 1922 plane flight, please check out https://archives.library.illinois.edu/slc/lillian-gatlin/

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