Elinor Smith, the “Flying Flapper of Freeport”, 1911-2010

As with so many pioneering men and women of the Golden Age, we tend to learn of their extraordinary deeds only when they go to their final rest.

Ms. Elinor Smith had a rather remarkable career, and it is with no small shame I concede that I had not heard of her until today. She started her flying instruction at the tender age of ten, and Elinor’s instructor—one Clyde Pangborn, an aviator of some renown himself—had to tie blocks to the rudder pedals so her feet could reach them.

Among Ms. Elinor Smith’s many interesting exploits:

  • At age 15, three months after her first solo flight, she set a light plane altitude record of 11,889 feet.
  • In September of 1927—at the age of 16—she became the youngest US government licensed private pilot then on record.  (Today you can take the written test at 15, but must be 17 to be a licensed private pilot.)
  • On a dare, she flew a Waco 9 biplane under all four of New York City’s East River bridges in mid-October 1928.  To her credit, Elinor did study the local weather conditions, tidal variations and even the designs of the bridges themsevles before making the attempt.  The city of New York gave her an unofficial grounding for ten days, while mayor James J. Walker intervened with federal authorities to prevent any actual, official suspension.
  • In 1929, set the women’s endurance record (flying solo for 26½ hours), women’s speed record (190.8 mph, or 165.8 knots) and the women’s endurance record with aerial refueling (with Bobbi Trout), flying 42½ hours.
  • Broke the world altitude record by a mile in 1930, flying to 27,419 feet.
  • In May of 1930—not yet 19 years old—Elinor became the youngest pilot to receive an Airline Transport License (ATP).  In October of the same year, she was voted “Best Woman Pilot in America” by her licensed peers; Jimmy Doolittle was the “Best Male Pilot in America” that year.
  • Retired from flying for 20 years to raise children, started flying again in 1956 after the death of her husband.  Was given the opportunity to fly the T-33 Shooting Star and C-119 Flying Boxcar via membership in the Air Force Association.
  • In 2000, became the oldest person (89yrs) to successfully land the Space Shuttle simulator—after botching her first attempt.  I think we can cut her some slack for that.  At 89 I’d consider myself lucky if I could still pilot my fork to my mouth.

Elinor Smith passed away on March 19th, 2010.  I’m making a note to reserve her book at the library.

…Now the airlines and the military are finally letting down the bars to admit qualified young women, so this is a good time to recall the difficulties most women fliers encountered during our early struggles for recognition and employment.

Why did we persist in a business that offered so few financial rewards and took lives at such a cruel rate? It’s a question that had as many answers as there were pilots. In my case it was the daily challenge and the sheer beauty of flight that drew me back again and again. It was such a wonderful age to fly through. I was privileged to know all of those gallant pilots, both men and women, and gifted designers. Their efforts should never be forgotten nor their triumphs overlooked. I will be forever grateful for the opportunity to have participated and played a small part in it. “To most people, the sky is the limit; to Elinor the sky is home.”

— Smith, Elinor.  “Preface.” Aviatrix.  New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981.

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