ON THIS DAY: April 21, 1927, “Miss Pittsburgh” makes first U.S. Airmail flight to Cleveland

WEST MIFFLIN, Pa. — Visitors to Pittsburgh International Airport often look up in wonder at a lovingly-restored vintage plane that hangs in the Landside Building in front of the TSA checkpoint. The Waco 9 biplane, named “Miss Pittsburgh,” flew the first airmail from Pittsburgh to Cleveland on April 21, 1927.

The signing of the Air Mail Act in 1925, championed by Congressman M. Clyde Kelly of Pennsylvania, allowed the post office to contract with private carriers, and essentially started the commercial airline industry.

Automobile dealer and aviation enthusiast Clifford Ball had several meetings with Congressman Kelly, who lobbied him to bring aviation to Pittsburgh. With a business partner, Ball purchased what would later be named Bettis Aviation Field, a grass airport near McKeesport named after a World War I flying ace who was later killed in a crash near Bellefonte.

Built with spruce wings and a fuselage of cloth stretched over metal tubing, Miss Pittsburgh could carry up to 800 pounds of cargo. The open-cockpit plane would typically fly at an altitude of 1,000 to 5,000 feet. The plane had no brakes or radio.

Ball bought the plane for airmail use, along with two others. Powered by a Curtiss OX-5 engine and with a top speed of 100 mph, a Waco 9 biplane could take days off the travel time of a letter.

Miss Pittsburgh began its first airmail flight from Cleveland around noon. Miss Pittsburgh was joined by Miss Youngstown and Miss McKeesport to inaugurate the company’s airmail contract.

After celebrations in Cleveland and Youngstown, the planes made their return flight to Pittsburgh in a rainstorm. A crowd of over 5,000, including Congressman Kelly, cheered their arrival with the first inbound letters. Miss Youngstown landed first, followed by Miss Pittsburgh carrying 150 pounds of mail. Miss McKeesport arrived after a brief delay, and the planes were officially christened with champagne for good luck before being reloaded and sent back, escorted by a squadron of planes from the United States army reserve field in Aspinwall.

Like most aviation companies of the era, Ball’s Skyline Transportation Company eventually expanded into passenger service. Routes became more profitable carrying passengers than mail; and that, combined with industrywide abuses of the airmail subsidies and their subsequent reforms, led to the end of most dedicated airmail flights.

Sidelined by revisions and changes to how airmail contracts were calculated, Miss Pittsburgh found its way to Florida and began a second career being used to tow advertising banners. At some point thereafter, Miss Pittsburgh was dismantled and then abandoned in Rhinebeck, New York.

A group of aviation enthusiasts in Pittsburgh called the OX5 Aviation Pioneers, co-founded by Ball, located Miss Pittsburgh in 1993. They had the plane refurbished and restored with the help of students and instructors at the Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics. Miss Pittsburgh was then donated to the airport, where it was unveiled in the Landside Building on April 28, 1995.

Ball later became the first superintendent of Greater Pittsburgh Airport. In his later years, he was often recognized as Pittsburgh’s “Grand Old Man of Aviation.” A street in the Clinton Commerce Park, on the west side of the airport, is named in his honor.

Skyline Transportation Company wound its way through various mergers (Cliff Ball Mail Line, Pennsylvania Airlines, Pennsylvania Central Airline (PCA), Capital Airlines) and eventually became part of United Airlines.