Remember on Wednesday, when I said that this week’s Women’s History Month post would have us taking to the skies? Well, I wasn’t kidding. I chose to profile the following trailblazer for two reasons: a) because her story fits the theme; and b) because I wanted to learn more about it myself. Here’s hoping you get something out of it as well. So make sure your seat backs and tray tables are in their full upright position and that your seat belt is correctly fastened, and all that good stuff.
Name: Louise Jenkins (née Mitchell)
Birth: 3 October 1890 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Death: January 1986 in Old Lyme, Connecticut
Accomplishment(s): Among the earliest licensed female pilots in Canada, and the first on the Island; first woman in the country to buy her own plane; first woman to pilot an aircraft from Montreal to Prince Edward Island.
I think it’s fair to say that a good many of us have dreamt of seating ourselves at the controls of an airplane at one time or another – I know I have; but it certainly isn’t everyone who can summon the wherewithal to put that dream into action. Now turn back the clock more than eighty years, and try to imagine having that same dream as a woman. And not only that, but having the courage to make it a reality. Such was precisely the case for pioneering aviatrix Louise Jenkins.
Born Elizabeth Louise MacLeod Mitchell in October 1890 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to parents Kier Mitchell and Margaret Magee, hers was a privileged upbringing in one of the city’s more affluent families. Where and when exactly she obtained her legendary spirit of adventure is anyone’s guess, but she had it in spades. Among other things, she skied the Swiss Alps, rode camels across Egypt and, amid the hostilities of the First World War, had herself sent overseas as a nurse and ambulance driver.
It was while in service that she met and was married to Lt. Col. John Stephen Jenkins, D.S.O., on October 30, 1918. A medical practitioner and surgeon, Jenkins likewise hailed from a prominent family here on the Island, one noted for its involvement in medicine, politics, and horse and cattle breeding. His father, Dr. Stephen Rice Jenkins (likewise a lieutenant-colonel), would play a prominent role in the Island’s contribution to relief efforts following the catastrophic Halifax Explosion in 1917. (See a previous post, Islanders and the Shattered City, for more.)
The couple returned to the Island after the war and took up residence at Upton Farm, located today on the outer edge of Greater Charlottetown, across from the West Royalty Industrial Park. It was here, in 1931, that the two of them, both aviation enthusiasts, spearheaded the province’s first airfield, carving out two turf runways that became Upton Airport in addition to the construction of a small hangar and administration building.
Driven by an insatiable lust for adventure, and inspired by the constant stream of pilots flying in and out of the airfield, Jenkins decided that she would learn to fly, and become a pilot in her own right. Her husband was already an accomplished pilot, and encouraged her interest. Throughout 1931 she received training in Quebec and Arizona, and in early 1932 was given her wings. She very quickly put them to use, and in late February of that year, she became the first woman to pilot an aircraft, non-stop, from Montreal to Charlottetown. And in record time, to boot.
It all come together rather quickly for Jenkins. Just a week before her momentous flight, while in Toronto she made history as the first woman in the country to purchase her very own airplane, a brand new de Haviland DH.80A Puss Moth three-seater. Produced between 1929 and 1933, the Puss Moth was a popular choice for aviation enthusiasts. Looking to use the aircraft to publicly promote the Island, Jenkins petitioned to have its registration altered from CF-A.G.V. to CF-P.E.I. Her request would ultimately be granted, but not before the case was taken to the Prime Minister’s Office itself.
On Thursday, 18 February, Jenkins, now in Montreal, took off at 12:45 PM from St. Hubert’s Flying Field, destined for Upton Airport in Charlottetown. Conditions were favourable, and good time was made at 135 miles per hour. About halfway into her flight, however, somewhere over the mountains of Maine, she ran afoul of inclement weather and heavy turbulence. Not willing to chance it, she opted to chart a return course to Montreal. No doubt disappointed, she was undaunted by the setback. Quickly regrouping, the next day she flew the Puss Moth down to New York in record time, and made the return trip to Montreal nearly as quickly.
Four days later, on February 23, Jenkins once again set her sights on the Island. Departing a second time from Montreal with navigator Gethin Edward as a passenger, she made the 540-mile journey without incident, and in a record time of four hours and eight minutes. Touching down at Upton Airfield at 3:08 PM, she then proceeded to fly into Charlottetown, executing a landing on ice in front of the John Ings House on Dundas Esplanade, then home to the Island division of the Navy League, before proceeding to the Canadian National Hotel on Kent Street, where she would later conduct a detailed interview with The Guardian.
Known thereafter as “The Daring Lady Flyer”, Jenkins took to the skies as much as she possibly could, and put her skill to use. Whether it was flying her husband’s patients to and from hospitals, delivering medical supplies and mail, transporting her children to boarding school and summer camps, or performing in numerous airshows, she cemented a reputation as an intrepid aviatrix of no small measure.
In later years, Jenkins began to frequent the town of Old Lyme, Connecticut, choosing to relocate there upon her husband’s passing in 1972. It was in Old Lyme where, in 1975, she was lauded by the 99s (the International Organization of Women Pilots), honoured with an “Amelia Earhart Award” and recognized for her record-breaking flight in 1932. She passed away in January 1986, aged 95.
The story of Louise Jenkins is one of flying in the face of societal norms (yes, pun intended). While she wasn’t the first woman to take flight, there’s no question that she stood at the forefront of female aviation in Canada. There were some who cast a disapproving eye over the notion of a wife and mother climbing into the cockpit of a plane, but Jenkins never let that keep her from fulfilling her lofty ambition. Hers was a ‘can-do, to-hell-with-you-I’m-doing-it-anyway’ attitude, and when all was said and done it netted her a life without regret.
And if that isn’t inspirational, well, I don’t know what is.
PEI History Guy
P.S. – The featured image for this post has been provided by the Public Archives and Records Office of Prince Edward Island (Acc3523/100). Pictured is Louise Jenkins and her Puss Moth at Upton Airfield, c.1932.