By Phyllis R. Moses
Mr. and Mrs. Tom Smith could not have guessed in a million years that the baby girl born to them on August 17, 1911 would become the ambitious and record-breaking girl-pilot she turned out to be. Their freckled-faced daughter Elinor fell madly in love with airplanes when she took her first ride at the age of six.
It was a glorious afternoon in 1918, shortly after W.W. I., when she and her brother Joe took a plane ride in a potato patch near Hicksville, Long Island. The peculiar looking airplane was from France, a Farman Pusher, made of canvas, wood and varnish. There they were, two little towhead kids strapped together in the cockpit, utterly enchanted as breathtaking scenes scrolled beneath the wings.
One ride led to another. Not surprisingly, the Smith children were Monsieur Gaubert’s best customers that unforgettable summer. During one of these high-flying adventures, he placed Elinor’s small hands on the controls. Because of her natural touch, he predicted she would fly with the great ones some day.
Elinor Smith does everything with a flourish. She soloed at 15; three months later she set an altitude record of 11,889 feet in a Waco 9. In September 1927, at the age of 16, she became the youngest licensed pilot on record. Another significant distinction came her way in her 16th year when Orville Wright finalized her Federation Aeronautic Internationale license.In 1928 Elinor broke into the headlines in a spectacular way by flying under New York’s four East River bridges. This unrivaled incident came about as a dare, but she prepared for it as though it were going to be an Olympic event. After studying the weather, the tides, and even the construction of the bridges, she scheduled this daring exhibition for mid-October.
One bright and clear Sunday, Elinor awakened to near-perfect conditions, with little or no wind. Consequently, early in the morning, she and her friends pushed the Waco 9 out of the hangar. She hopped in the cockpit and did a final run-up of the OX5 engine. Just then, someone jumped up on the wing-step and gently shook her shoulder. Startled, she looked up into the handsome face of the world’s Number One hero, Charles Lindbergh. He grinned as he said, “Good luck, kid, keep your nose down in the turns.” This message was so heartening that she and the Waco soared aloft like a couple of dry leaves in a high wind.It was a risky venture, but Elinor made history that day. Her career took off from there, and her celebrity preceded her from then on.
Other records that Elinor set were a solo endurance record at 13-1/2 hours in an open cockpit Bruner-Winkle bi-plane, executed in zero degree weather, January 1929; in April 1929 she re-set the same record at 26-1/2 hours in a Bellanca CH monoplane. When she landed the big six-passenger Bellanca at Curtiss Field, the press corps was stunned, for here she was at age 17 flying a craft heavier in horsepower and weight than had ever been flown by a female. That feat certainly hit the headlines and drew a crowd.In May 1929, she set a woman’s world speed record of 190.8 mph in a Curtiss military aircraft. In June 1929, the Irving Chute Co., hired Elinor to fly a Bellanca Pacemaker on a 6,000-mile tour of the United States. At the Cleveland air races, she unveiled the first mass parachute drop (seven men) done up to that time. Thus, Elinor became the first female Executive Pilot. She was 18 years old at the time.
In 1929 she partnered the first women’s refueling record of 42-1/2 hours with Bobbi Trout as her co-pilot. Because of Elinor’s extensive experience in aerobatics, she was chosen to do the more difficult and intricate contact flying, with Bobbi Trout handling the fueling hoses. In March 1930, she set a world’s altitude record of 27,419 feet, breaking the existing record by almost a mile. In May 1930 at the age of 18, she became the youngest pilot, male or female, ever granted a Transport License by the U.S. Department of Commerce.Of all the awards conferred on Elinor, her most prized one came in October 1930 when her peers, the licensed pilots across the country, selected her as “Best Woman Pilot in America,” with Jimmy Doolittle selected as “Best Male Pilot in America.”
In March 1931 she re-set the Womens’Altitude Record at 32,576 feet at Roosevelt Field, but due to a barograph failure she was unable to claim a world’s record. However, it justified the claim of G.M. Bellanca, the airplane’s designer, that his was the only six- passenger aircraft to reach anything approaching an over-the-weather altitude.
By now, Elinor had reached her goal to be recognized by Lady Mary Heath and Amelia Earhart. Reminiscing today about those with whom she worked and played, she laughingly says, “But now I’m the last leaf on the tree.” In 1931, a wealthy sponsor purchased a Lockheed Vega for Elinor to use on a non-stop flight to Rome. Unfortunately, due to the depression, this flight had to be cancelled. But her career stayed in high gear as she stunted for the movies, air shows, and fund-raisers for the homeless and needy as the depression deepened. In the midst of her budding aviation career, she met Patrick Sullivan, noted New York state legislator and attorney. He eventually won Elinor’s heart; they married in 1933. She then settled down to the job of being a suburban housewife and raising their four children.
Following her husband’s death in 1956, she re-entered aviation by the way of the military, through membership in the Air Force Association. This gave her the opportunity to fly the T-33 Jet Trainer, as well as the C-119s on military paratroop maneuvers.Fast-forward to March of 2000, when Elinor was invited to fly NASA’s Challenger vertical motion simulator at the Ames Research Center, Moffet Field, California. She was awarded a certificate that states: “This certifies that Elinor Smith successfully landed the Space Shuttle by Simulation in the Vertical Motion Simulator, the world’s largest Motion Simulator.” Elinor is the oldest pilot to achieve this honor. Her response: “It’s a spectacular ride. Everything about it is thrilling, but perhaps the most gratifying is that the entire support crew was made up of females. My instructor, the operator and the assistant were all women.”
At the age of 90, challenges and opportunities are still offered to Elinor. In April 2001 she was invited to fly an experimental aircraft, the C33 Raytheon AGATE, Beech Bonanza from NASA’s base at Langley AFB, Virginia, thus coming full circle in a career and life in aviation, which started in a Hicksville, Long Island potato field, went on to simulated space travel, then culminated in the most sophisticated general aviation aircraft developed to date.Elinor now lives in Santa Cruz, California, where she stays busy as a speaker and consultant to local and national museums. Her book, Aviatrix, (Harcourt Brace) was published in 1981. In the preface, she wrote:”I had been brought up to think that anyone could do anything he or she put his or her mind to, so I was shocked to learn that the world had stereotypes it didn’t want tampered with. In an age when girls were supposed to be seen and not heard, look beautiful, and occasionally faint, I didn’t seem to fit in anywhere.”
But 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.”