Many visitors to Pittsburgh International Airport don’t know there’s a significant piece of history hanging right above their heads.
The silver-and-blue “Miss Pittsburgh” airplane soaring above the security lines in the Landside Terminal isn’t just a decoration. It made history 92 years ago this month as the very first plane to carry mail from Pittsburgh.
The Waco 9 airplane – featuring spruce wings – with a top speed of about 100 mph, flew 127 miles to Cleveland on April 21, 1927. It could carry up to 800 pounds and flew at an altitude of 1,000 to 5,000 feet. She was owned by Cliff Ball, who later became the first superintendent of Greater Pittsburgh Airport.
The flight birthed the first regular airmail service in Pittsburgh, and eventually that service became an airline that went through several evolutions before becoming part of United Airlines. (The first passenger on the nascent airline? Legendary entertainer Will Rogers.)
As advancing technology made her obsolete, Miss Pittsburgh was eventually sent to Florida, where she was used for advertising. Some years later, she was dismantled and abandoned in Rhinebeck, N.Y.
Members of the OX5 Aviation Pioneers, an aviation enthusiasts group co-funded by Ball, tracked down Miss Pittsburgh in 1993 and arranged to have her refurbished and donated to the airport. She was unveiled in 1995.
The Airport honored Ball’s memory by naming a street after him in 2016 in Clinton Commerce Park in Findlay Township, which was attended by his daughter.
Ball’s legacy of service in aviation includes opening the Pittsburgh-McKeesport Airdrome, later re-named Bettis Field in honor of Cyrus Bettis, as well as assisting in the creation of the Kelly Air Mail Act, signed into law in 1925. Miss Pittsburgh was one of the first planes Ball purchased.
The route became successful enough for Ball to initiate passenger service, first between Pittsburgh and Cleveland, and later to Washington, D.C. Clifford Ball Airlines operated from Bettis Field, and through time and mergers, became part of United.
As the first superintendent of Greater Pittsburgh Airport, Ball oversaw its preparation and early years of operation. Ball’s lifetime career earned him the title of Pittsburgh’s “Grand Old Man of Aviation.”