Canadian Aviatrix #27 – Betsy Flaherty (1881-1968)

Born Elizabeth McAleer on 10 June 1881 in Grey, Ontario, to James Brown McAleer (a farmer) and Mary Jane Wilson.

 

1891 census

Grey ON

James

45

Mary

40

Nancy

14

Robert

12

Elizabeth

9

Albert

7

Walter

5

Charles

2

 

Betsy’s early life is unclear, but by 1917, she’s Mrs Flaherty, living in Victoria, BC, and working as a buyer for a department store. There are tons of newspaper clippings about her traveling all over the country on buying trips, but no mention of her husband!


There’s a marriage between a Elizabeth McAleer and Thomas Samuel Flaherty, but it wasn’t until 1919, which doesn’t fit her already being Mrs Flaherty by 1917. There’s also a 1910 census with Thomas S and Elizabeth Flaherty, married for four years and living in Seattle – she’s a saleslady for a department store. Thomas is separated in the 1920 census and living in a lodging house. He filed for divorce from Elizabeth for desertion and it was granted in July 1922. In 1926, he entered the Los Angeles veterans home and said he was a widower. In 1935, Thomas died.

Maybe Thomas had a first wife who he was separated from. If she died around 1919, that could explain the delay in him officially marrying Elizabeth. Maybe there was no first wife, but being a “widower” was less embarrassing than waiting for a decade to marry his “wife” only to have her leave him after less than year. Or maybe this couple are totally unconnected to Betsy and she just found it easier to live independently as a “married” woman!


Anyway, back to Betsy’s non-married life. By 1917, she was a buyer for ladies ready-to-wear and millinery at Gordon’s in Victoria, BC. She regularly travelled across North America on buying trips for the firm – New York, Chicago, Montreal, Toronto and “other Eastern fashion centres”. By 1924, she had moved to Vancouver and was a department manager at Spencer’s.

In 1930, Betsy joined the Vancouver Aero Club and started taking flying lessons – soloing in July 1931 and constantly listed as an active flyers.

On 19 December 1931, Betsy passed her flying test and received PPL #942, making her the 27th female pilot in Canada. She was 49 years old.

Canadian Aviatrix #27 – Betsy Flaherty (1881-1968) 

Photo: City of Vancouver Archives, Elizabeth Flaherty fonds, CVA 627

In 1932, Betsy became the first woman to join the Aero Club’s board of directors. She was also the only woman pilot in the BC Air Tour – starting with a “thrilling show” at the Sea Island airport on Dominion Day, then flying from Vancouver to Vernon, via Penticton.

In 1933, she came second in the McKinnon Trophy landing competition – averaging nineteen yards, when the first prize in the previous year was twenty-eight! Apparently, the airport was very busy the next day, with plenty of men practicing their landings “in hopes of renewing their manly vanity” the next time. However, in 1934, Betsy took first place! She also presented the trophies to winners of the model aircraft championship – held in the model aircraft department of the department store where she worked. And she was still regularly flying across the country on buying trips.

In 1936, the Flying Seven were formed. Betsy’s involvement in the group will be part of a separate article. (In the photo below, she's third from the left.)

The Flying Seven

Photo: Canada Aviation and Space Museum – CAVM-22374

In 1939, Betsy bought the first ticket for the first flight of Canada’s first transcontinental air service – flying from Vancouver to Montreal with Trans-Canada Air Lines. The flight was a big deal – tons of publicity and special events, including a costume party meant to recreate the atmosphere of the arrival of the first passenger train in 1887. Spencer’s took out large advertisements promoting the fact that Betsy would be using the trip to buy exclusive outfits for the store, especially to compliment a forthcoming Royal visit.

In 1940, Betsy joined United Airlines 100,000 Mile Club – receiving a special gold card to commemorate the record. Even though private flying was on hold during the war, the Aero Club continued as a social club and Betsy was still a director. By 1941, she said she had 200,000 miles as a passenger and 200 as a solo pilot. She claimed to be the oldest woman pilot in the world, although she would only say she was “40 plus”.

On a Brazilian immigration form in 1953, she says she’s widowed. This fits with the possible marriage to Thomas, as he died in 1935. 

In 1964, Betsy flew across Canada to mark TransCanada Airlines’ 25th anniversary and was given an inscribed silver bowl. “’Where are we going on the 50th TCA birthday?’ she quipped.” In 1967, she was a guest of Air Canada at their Expo pavilion in Montreal and one of “yesteryear’s flying greats” at the Abbotsford International Air Show.

Betsy died in Vancouver in 1968, aged 87.

The First 100 Canadian Women Pilots