Elinor Smith

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Elinor Smith (born August 17, 1911) is a pioneering American aviatrix,[1] once known as "The Flying Flapper of Freeport".[2] She was the first woman test pilot for both Fairchild and Bellanca (now AviaBellanca).[3]

Smith was born in New York City and grew up in Freeport, Long Island, New York.[3][4] Her birth name was Elinor Regina Patricia Ward, but her actor father changed his name; he became Tom Smith, and she became Elinor Smith.[5][6] Her mother had been a professional singer, but had retired from performing when she got married. Her father was a comedian, singer and dancer. He toured extensively (including to Great Britain and France) in the role of the Scarecrow in a stage production of The Wizard of Oz and was a star of the Orpheum Circuit. He wrote his own material for his vaudeville act, and in the 1920s would go on to write comedy bits for Broadway shows as well.[7]

In 1918, at the age of six, along with her brother Joe, she took her first plane ride in a Farman pusher that took off from a potato patch near Hicksville on her native Long Island. She immediately fell in love with flying, and took numerous rides that summer with the same French pilot, Louis Gaubert.[1][8] At the age of 10, she began receiving flying lessons from Clyde Pangborn.[9] She received further lessons from Freddie Lund, who piloted her father around the country on the vaudeville circuit and was teaching him to fly as well, and from Bert Acosta.[10] Her father bought a Waco 9 and hired "Red" Devereaux as a pilot and as a flight instructor for the two of them.[11] Through all of this period, though, on her father's orders to her instructors, she was never given the opportunity to take off or land, because he was concerned for her safety.[12] This prohibition was finally lifted by her mother when while her father was out of town,[13] and after ten days of intense instruction by Russ Holderman, she soloed for the first time at age 15.[14] She began taking her father's Waco 9 up to higher altitudes than anyone had ever taken such a plane. (She would later write in her memoir, "I had no business fooling around up there without oxygen—and I knew it.") Word got around, and it was arranged for her to get a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) license and an FAI-certified barograph.[1][15] Orville Wright finalized her FAI license,[1] and three months after she first soloed, she set an official light plane altitude record of 11,889 feet (3,624 m) in the Waco 9.[1][16] In September 1927, at 16, she became the youngest U.S.-government-licensed pilot on record.[1]

Up to this point, she and her family had deliberately kept publicity to a minimum, in order to allow her to hone her flying skills without the distraction of public attention.[17] This would soon change. In mid-October 1928, on a dare, she flew under all four of New York City's East River bridges; according to the Cradle of Aviation Museum, she is the only person ever to do so.[1][3][18] By her own account at the time, she first reconnoitered the route from above the bridges; nonetheless, she had to dodge several ships.[5][19] Although she did not know it in advance, newsreel crews were there to film her at each bridge: the Curtiss Field regulars had been betting heavily on whether or not she could really do it, and those who were betting on her side had alerted the media so that there would be clear evidence on film that it was, indeed, her at the controls of the plane.[20] By her own account, the only sanction she received for the unauthorized stunt was a 10-day "grounding" by the city of New York, with Mayor James J. Walker interceding on her behalf to prevent any actual suspension of her license by the United States Department of Commerce.[21] Tom D. Crouch writes that she had her license suspended for 15 days. In any case, the stunt and her devil-may-care attitude made her a celebrity and helped to win her the "Flying Flapper" nickname.[22]

Numerous other feats followed close on. Until late 1927, there was no established women's flying endurance record; Smith decided to establish one, but was beaten to it. On December 20, Viola Gentry flew for eight hours, six minutes. As far as Smith was concerned, all that did was to establish a tangible target, one that Red Devereaux said Smith could break "standing on [her] head."[23] However, before Smith could finish her preparations, on January 2, 1928, Evelyn "Bobbi" Trout, flying in California, upped the record to 12 hours. Under FAI rules, endurance records had to be broken by a full hour.[24]

In late January 1929, it became clear that Gentry was ready to have another go at the record.[25] In the depths of a rough New York winter, Smith judged that Roosevelt Field was in no state for a heavily loaded takeoff. With some difficulty, she obtained permission to use the military's nearby Mitchel Field.[26] On January 30, flying an open cockpit Bruner Winkle biplane on a day when the temperature was 0 °F (−18 °C), Smith set a women's solo endurance record of 13-1/2 hours.[1] Her plan was to fly through the night and land in daylight: unbeknownst to those around her, although she had often landed at dusk she had never done a true night landing before. However, the effect of the cold and on both her body and that of her aircraft forced her down. By her own account, she managed to land with a heavy remaining load of fuel only due to the good fortune of being able to follow in Jimmy Doolittle, who had seen her fire her Véry pistol. No one on the ground had seen the flare, so the runway lights had not been turned on. Upon landing she promised herself "never again to display this blend of incompetence and arrogance."[27]

The next day, Gentry crashed on takeoff while attempting to better Smith's achievement; Gentry was unharmed, but her plane was damaged.[4] Bobbi Trout took back the endurance record with a 17-hour flight on February 10–11,[28] but three months later, in April 1929, Smith smashed that record, soloing 26-1/2 hours in a Bellanca CH monoplane. That flight also made her the first woman ever to pilot such a large and powerful aircraft.[1]

The following month she set a woman's world speed record of 190.8 miles per hour (307.1 km/h) in a Curtiss military aircraft. In June 1929 the parachute-maker Irving Chute Co., hired her to tour the United States, flying a Bellanca Pacemaker on a 6,000-mile (9,700 km) tour of the United States, making the 18-year-old Smith the first female Executive Pilot. On this tour, at the air races in Cleveland, Ohio, she was the pilot for an unprecedented seven-man parachute drop.[1]

Also in 1929, flying out of Metropolitan Airport (now Van Nuys Airport) in Los Angeles, she and Bobbi Trout (who functioned as co-pilot) set the first official women's record for endurance with mid-air refueling. They were aloft 42-1/2 hours in a Sunbeam biplane powered by a 300-horsepower J-6 Wright engine. Smith did the contact flying while Trout handled the fueling hoses.[1][29][30] Their refueling craft, a Curtiss Pigeon with a Liberty L-12 engine, was piloted by Paul Whittier with Pete Reinhardt handling the hose.[31] Smith and Trout were hoping for a record of at least 100 hours, and shooting for 164 hours (a week),[32] but this was not to be. The two craft were not terribly well suited to the task at hand. The Pigeon was chosen for its large cargo capacity to carry fuel, but it was an outdated aircraft with a temperamental engine for which spare parts were not easily obtained. In refueling position, the Pigeon's pilot could not see the Sunbeam at all, so there was no way to signal about any engine problems that would mean sudden loss of altitude. The Sunbeam was not a notably stable aircraft: in Smith's words, "it had to be flown every single minute with the concentration of a test flight." Furthermore, the two craft were terribly mismatched in terms of velocity: whenever they were refueling, the Pigeon had to fly near its top speed while the Sunbeam slowed down to just above its stalling speed.[33]

The first attempt at the record nearly ended in disaster around the 12-hour mark. During refueling near Catalina Island, sudden turbulence wrested the hose from Trout's hands, covering her in airplane fuel, while at the other end of the hose Reinhardt was left bleeding from cuts. Both planes made it successfully back to Metropolitan Airport, and no one was seriously hurt.[34] A series of additional attempts lasted between 10 and 18 hours; the weak link each time was keeping the Pigeon's engine running. Finally, in late November 1929, with the rainy season approaching, enough of the right factors fell into place to allow them to set a meaningful record, albeit a more modest one than they had originally intended. For completely unexplained reasons, the Sunbeam flew better than usual; the Pigeon's Liberty engine made it through 36 hours, although when it did fail it was dramatic, and forced the refueling craft into an emergency landing with its hose trailing. Smith and Trout flew the Sunbeam nearly dry, stretching their flight out to exactly 42-1/2 hours.[35]

In March 1930 she added almost 1 mile (1.6 km) to the world altitude record, flying to a height of 27,419 feet (8,357 m). In May 1930, still before her 19th birthday, she became the youngest pilot ever granted a Transport License by the U.S. Department of Commerce. In October 1930 a poll of licensed pilots selected her as the "Best Woman Pilot in America".[1]

In March 1931, flying out of Roosevelt Field on Long Island, she attempted to set the world altitude record, again flying a 6-seater Bellanca. Her altitude of 32,576 feet (9,929 m) gave her back the women's record, and demonstrated the over-the-weather capability of the Bellanca, but fell just short of the overall world record.[1] The flight nearly ended in calamity. Somewhere over 30,000 feet (9,100 m) she lost consciousness, the fuel line froze, and the engine stalled out. The plane went into a glide. Smith regained consciousness at about 27,000 feet (8,200 m), and managed to guide the plane in with an only intermittently useful engine.[36]

The Great Depression scrubbed her hopes of a non-stop solo trans-Atlantic flight in a Lockheed Vega, though she continued for several years to be a prominent stunt flyer, performing numerous fund-raisers for the homeless and needy.[1] She met and married New York State legislator and attorney Patrick H. Sullivan,[1][6] nephew of Tammany leader Timothy "Big Tim" Sullivan.[6] After their 1933 marriage, she retired from flying and spent over 20 years as a suburban housewife, bearing and raising four children.[1]

Patrick Sullivan died in 1956, and Elinor Smith returned to the air. Her membership in the Air Force Association allowed her to pilot the T-33 Shooting Star Jet Trainer and to take up C-119s for paratroop maneuvers. In March 2000 at the Ames Research Center, Moffett Federal Airfield, California, as the pilot with an all-woman crew, she took on NASA's Space Shuttle vertical motion simulator, and became the oldest pilot to succeed in a simulated shuttle landing. In April 2001, at the age of 89, she flew an experimental C33 Raytheon AGATE, Beech Bonanza at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia.[1]


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 1.14 1.15 1.16 Phyllis R. Moses, The Amazing Aviatrix Elinor Smith, Woman Pilot, March 30, 2008. Accessed online 15 December 2008.
  2. Donald M. Goldstein and Katherine V. Dillon, Amelia: A Life of the Aviation Legend, Potomac Books (1999), ISBN 157488199X. p. 99.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Elinor Smith, Cradle of Aviation Museum. Accessed online 15 December 2008.
  4. 4.0 4.1 "Girl Flier Crashes at Roosevelt Field; Miss Gentry Smashes Plane in Ditch Where Fonck Craft Fell Three Years Ago. Was Taking Off with Load Preparing for Duration Attempt-- Elinor Smith Rests After Setting Record for Women", The New York Times, February 1, 1929. p. 2.
  5. 5.0 5.1 "Says She Flew Under East River Bridges; Elinor Smith, 17, Reports Feat at Curtiss Field--Tells of Dodging Ships", The New York Times, October 22, 1928. p. 3.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Miss Elinor Smith Wed Quietly in July; Aviatrix Became Wife of P.H. Sullivan, Nephew of Late Tammany Leader", The New York Times, November 10, 1933, p. 8.
  7. Smith 1981, p. 22–23, 37, 39, 54
  8. Smith 1981, p. 32
  9. Smith 1981, p. 41
  10. Smith 1981, p. 43–44
  11. Smith 1981, p. 47 et. seq.
  12. Smith 1981, p. 43
  13. Smith 1981, p. 49
  14. Smith 1981, p. 49–51
  15. Smith 1981, p. 60
  16. Smith 1981, p. 59–60
  17. Smith 1981, p. 58
  18. Phyllis R. Moses (op. cit.) says she was the first person to do so. The October 22, 1928 New York Times report describes her only as the first woman to do so, but does not name any man who might have done this previously. The page about her on the web site of the Cradle of Aviation Museum says she is the only person ever to do this. In her own memoir (Smith 1981, p. 3–19) she accounts herself the only person ever to do this in a land plane, but indicates that it was reasonably routine for [seaplane]]s to go under the bridges.
  19. Smith 1981, p. 3–19
  20. Smith 1981, p. 16
  21. Smith 1981, p. 19
  22. Tom D. Crouch, Wings: A History of Aviation from Kites to the Space Age, W.W. Norton, ISBN 0393057674, p. 282.
  23. Smith 1981, p. 78
  24. Smith 1981, p. 79
  25. "Girl Flier, 17, Sets Woman's Duration Mark; Remains in the Air 13 Hours 17 Minutes", The New York Times, January 31, 1929. p. 1.
  26. Smith 1981, p. 80
  27. Smith 1981, p. 80–86; the "incompetence and arrogance" quotation is on p. 84.
  28. "Miss Trout Sets Mark With 17-Hour Flight; Recaptures Record Miss Smith Took From Her", The New York Times, February 12, 1929. p. 1.
  29. Douglas Martin, "Evelyn Trout, Record-Setting Flier, Dies at 97" (obituary), The New York Times, February 2, 2003, p. 1.42.
  30. Smith 1981, p. 180 et. seq.; p. 194 for this being the first establishment of such a record.
  31. Smith 1981, p. 181
  32. Smith 1981, p. 190, 194
  33. Smith 1981, p. 180 et. seq.. The "concentration of a test flight" quotation is on p. 182.
  34. Smith 1981, p. 183
  35. Smith 1981, p. 192–194
  36. "Miss Smith in Faint Sets Altitude Mark; Girl Flier Loses Consciousness When More Than 30,000 Feet Up, a Record for Women. Her Motor Fails at Peak; Fuel Line Frozen, Plane Drops Mile Before She Recovers to Make Difficult Landing. The New York Times, March 11, 1930. p. 1.


  • Smith, Elinor (1981), Aviatrix, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, ISBN 0151103720.