Elinor Smith, the “Flying Flapper,” made her first solo flight at age 15, and at 16 became one of the youngest Americans to earn a pilot’s license. She later set records for endurance, altitude and speed.
By age 17, Smith was taking passengers on short hops. Still being a kid, however, she also took a dare from some boys at her high school and flew her biplane under all four bridges across New York City’s East River, then circled the Statue of Liberty twice.
The New York Times reported the day after her adventure that Smith said she’d rather get in trouble “than disappoint a number of persons who had expected her to carry out her plan.” The stunt, recorded by the media, made her an instant celebrity.
Smith joined a short list of pioneering women in aviation. By age 18, she was running her own sightseeing business. and In 1934 she became the first woman (and only female flier) to appear on a Wheaties cereal box.
Early pilots took great risks, and so did she. On planes provided by corporate sponsors, she began setting records. In setting one altitude record in 1930, Smith nearly died. The World-Telegram wrote: “The altimeters on the ship registered 30,000 and 32,000 yesterday when she was forced by motor trouble and waning gas supply to return to Roosevelt Field, where she narrowly averted an accident in making a dead-stick landing. At about 30,000 feet, as the motor sputtered, she lost consciousness. A mile lower she recovered.”
Smith, who died in 2010 at age 98, quit flying to raise four children, picking it up again after her husband (a former New York Assemblyman) died in 1956. She still had some thrills ahead. At age 89, she accepted NASA’s invitation to take part in a simulated landing of the space shuttle.
But she always remembered the thrill of that first solo flight as a 15-year-old whose instructor suddenly decided she was ready.
“Russ hadn’t told me I was going to solo that day,” she recalled. “At the last moment, he jumped out of the cockpit, waved one arm and said, ‘Go!’”
— Adapted from “Elinor Smith Sullivan, pioneer aviator, dies at 98,” Bill Bleyer, Newsday.