When conjuring images of pilots flying during the 1920s and 1930s, the names that most easily leap to mind are Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh. Earhart may be the most widely known aviatrix today, but in the early years of aviation, there were many women pushing the boundaries of aeronautics. Elinor Smith was one of these pioneers.
Elinor Smith was born on August 17, 1911, and lived a long and fascinating life. Over the course of her 98 years, she set multiple flying records and was voted Best Female Pilot in the country by her peers. One of the most famous aviators of her day, Smith was a test pilot, the first female Executive Pilot (at 18), the youngest pilot ever to earn a US Commerce Department transport license, an aviation commentator for NBC, a writer and editor, and the first woman pictured on a Wheaties cereal box (1934).
Elinor made her first solo flight at 15. According to Aviatrix, Smith’s autobiography, she was the youngest government-licensed pilot at age 16, and it was Orville Wright who signed her FAI pilot’s license.*
On October 21, 1928, in response to a challenge by another pilot, the 17-year-old “flying flapper” guided her plane beneath the four bridges spanning New York City’s East River. Charles Lindbergh gave her words of encouragement just before taking off.
Still at age 17, she broke records for women’s solo endurance flights twice in the same year. She set the first record in early 1929 at 13 hours, 11 minutes, beating Bobbi Trout’s newly established record of twelve hours. These Fox Movietone News outtakes capture the aftermath of the feat. The teenaged flier undertook the ordeal in an open plane in 0ºF weather. It is not surprising that she seems groggy and out of sorts in this clip. Not only had she been flying for more than 13 hours, she was also so cold and stiff she needed assistance to exit the plane.
Before this endeavor, no one was aware that Smith had never performed a night landing. Her initial plan was to stay up until morning and land in daylight, but the extreme cold forced her down. Once she shot her flare gun and the runway lights came on, she was terrified to attempt the descent, especially as the plane was still holding far more fuel than she had originally anticipated. Then a military aircraft came into view and landed ahead of her, giving Smith all the information she needed to get her plane safely on the ground. Later, her brother Joe told Elinor that the military pilot who had guided her down was Jimmy Doolittle, their idol since they were children. As Smith recalls in her autobiography, “…not only had I been rescued from a disastrous finish for the Bird and me, but I’d been saved from this ignominy by one of my heroes.”
Bobbi Trout regained the record in a 17-hour flight in February. In April, Elinor won it back with a flying time of 26 hours, 21 minutes. In October of 1929, Smith and Trout teamed up for an endurance flight. In this clip, shot before their journey, Trout is asked if there is any question that “the feminine sex” can outdo “the male sex.” “Not if we have anything to do with it,” Bobbi retorts. In May of the following year, Smith attempted to claim the loop-the-loop record from Laura Ingalls.
In 1930, at 19, Elinor Smith was voted by other licensed aviators as the Best Female Pilot in the country. Her counterpart, the winner for Best Male Pilot, was Jimmy Doolittle.
Smith attempted the world altitude record in March of 1931. This flight resulted in a forced landing that left her completely unharmed. She explains what happened in these Movietone newsreel outtakes. On April 9, she made a second attempt, in which she reached approximately 32,000 feet. This flight set the record, but was ultimately declared unofficial as her barograph malfunctioned, only recording an altitude of 28,000 feet.
Smith, Amelia Earhart, Bobbi Trout, and other aviatrixes were constantly in the center of a debate about whether women could match men in piloting skills. Unsurprisingly, Elinor did not believe that gender influenced ability. In this 1932 interview about Earhart’s transatlantic flight, Smith claims the flight proves there is no difference. “A storm doesn’t care if you’re man or woman, if you can fly through it.”
In 1933 Elinor married Patrick Sullivan and retired from flying after she bore the first of their four children. More than 20 years later, following her husband’s death in 1956, Elinor came out of retirement. As a member of the Air Force Association, she began flying the T-33 jet trainer, and brought paratroopers up for maneuvers in Air Force C-119s.
She was the oldest person to successfully land NASA’s Space Shuttle simulator, which she did in 2000 with an all-female crew. She was 89 in 2001, when she made her last flight in an experimental C33 Raytheon AGATE.
Smith’s candidness in these interviews is utterly charming. Her lightning-quick technical descriptions of her flight experiences illustrate her talent and the extent of her knowledge about the machines she controlled. Elinor Smith may no longer be a household name like Amelia Earhart or “Lucky Lindy,” but her skills, daring, and advocacy for female pilots have left an indelible mark on the history of aviation.
Elinor Smith Sullivan died on March 19, 2010, at the age of 98.
*Smith, Elinor. Aviatrix. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1981.