This past month, one of the world’s pioneering women of flight, Elinor Regina Patricia Ward Smith, passed away at age 98.
Known as “The Flying Flapper,” Ms. Smith was the last of aviation’s early pioneers. While her name may not be well known beyond the circle of aviation aficionados today, it could be argued that her career was more accomplished than Amelia Earhart’s (except, of course, in the “high drama” department).
Elinor Smith had her share of interesting and noteworthy feats that were followed by a fascinated public during the early years of aviation, when she flew in the company of such personages as Charles Lindbergh and Jimmy Doolittle as well as other aviatrixes like Earhart, Evelyn ‘Bobbi’ Trout and Frances Lowe ‘Pancho’ Barnes.
Smith first flew in an aircraft in 1917 at the age of six and later recounted that she immediately caught the aviation “bug.” By age ten, she had learned to operate the control panel of a Curtiss Jenny aircraft – helped along by blocks attached to the rudder pedals to accommodate her short legs.
Having completed her first solo flight by age 15, Smith was licensed at 16 – the youngest U.S.-government licensed pilot on record – by none other than Orville Wright. The following year (1928) she came close to losing that license by performing an air stunt around the city of New York that involved flying over and under four bridges spanning the East River.
Smith was to recall later that this feat of flight was done basically on a dare. She piloted her Waco 10 biplane beneath the Williamsburg, Manhattan and Queensboro bridges – dodging several ships along the way. She completed her performance by flying sideways beneath the Brooklyn Bridge and capping things off by twice circling the Statue of Liberty.
Not surprisingly, all of a sudden Elinor Smith was big news in the media. The mayor of New York intervened on her behalf with the U.S. Commerce Department, who controlled pilot licensing in those days, so that the new celebrity was back in the air flying a mere 15 days after her daredevil stunt.
Smith would go on to mark numerous other feats of accomplishment in early aviation – charting records of flying higher, faster and longer than others had done previously. In 1930, she was voted the “best woman pilot in America” in a poll of licensed pilots … when she was not yet 20 years old!
Another interesting honor was being the first woman ever to appear on a Wheaties® cereal box (1934).
Since careers in the military were closed to women in those days, Smith instead landed positions as test pilot with the Fairchild and Bellanca organizations. She was married in 1933, and retired from aviation a few years later to concentrate on her marriage and raising four children. In later years, following the death of her husband in 1956, she would return to test-piloting jet aircraft.
As testament to the capabilities of this remarkable woman, as late as 2000 the nearly 90-year-old Smith flew NASA’s Space Shuttle flight simulator, becoming the oldest pilot to succeed in a simulated shuttle landing. And the following year, she was to pilot an experimental C33 Raytheon AGATE aircraft … proving that the skills she honed at the very beginning of the aviation era had not dimmed over the years.
Elinor Smith now joins that august company of aviation pioneers who have lived extraordinarily long lives, including Jimmy Doolittle (96) and Bobbi Trout (97). Wouldn’t it be nice to imagine that she is busily piloting people about the heavens now!